Tshegofatso Senne

Image via Hacking systems of oppression and protecting our vital strengths: A feminist framework for self-defence by Anirban Ghosh (illustrator, designer).

Self-defence and body-awareness training found me. Due to my own experiences of sexual assault, it bothered me that the majority of self-defence classes in South Africa – mostly aimed at women – were reduced to sequences of (sometimes complicated) techniques, and did not address the psychology that affects how we react in moments of imminent danger. I had to change the narrative.

Christy Alves Nascimento is a 2-time World Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion and black belt Vlademir Alves. She is based in Durban, South Africa and facilitates self-defence workshops for women and adolescent girls in schools and organisations across South Africa. She was the project lead on ‘Body Hacking and Digital Self-defence’.  

The objective of the project was to produce and publish a written resource that articulates, comprehensively, a feminist approach to self-defence in the global South, addresses the gaps identified in current digital safety and physical training, and imagines what a ‘body hacking and digital self-defence' training curriculum could look like that dismantles the conceptual and practical dichotomy of online and offline gender-based violence that we see practiced in training today.

She was able to complete the paper, titled ‘Hacking systems of oppression and protecting our vital strengths: A feminist framework for self-defence’. The paper was published in November in calibration with the start of 16 Days of Activism 2020. Drawing from feminist activist frameworks and publications being produced by feminists in the global South, the paper articulates concepts around self-defence that are feminist and emerging from the continent especially. This was achieved through conversations with a number of physical self-defence and digital safety trainers and practitioners from South Africa, Lebanon, Jordan, Chile, Kiribati, India and Uganda, who are critically engaging with their work through feminist politics. 

The work done within this project was deeply collective, emphasising the voices of Jessica Horn, East African feminist activist and writer on care and trauma, Hope and Rudo Chigudu, feminist organisational development experts and Mexican feminist Maria Bernal. They also highlighted the importance of techniques like somatic therapy, originally conceptualised by Brazilian social justice activist Roberto Freire as an ‘anarchist therapy’, and alternative feminist conceptualisations of self-defence in relation technology, such as Lab de Interconectividades’ (Mexico) practice and exploration of ‘hackfeminism’.

At first, we set out to write a paper that dismantles the dichotomy of physical and digital self-defence as an entry point into developing a more holistic response to GBV as a continuum between online and offline spaces. Through the research process, I quickly realised that actually, we need to go beyond thinking online/offline and really expand our understanding of how GBV is a continuum that exists between what I’ve referred to as contested territories, which include the physical body, our interpersonal spaces, collective spaces, infrastructure, as well as space ‘within’ ourselves. Violence occurs in these spaces against our capacity as physical bodies, digital bodies, spiritual bodies, ‘state’ bodies/members of populations, and infinite other capacities. A feminist approach to self-defence must therefore not only try and blur the lines between physical and digital spaces but dismantle dichotomies in all forms.

Christy hosted two workshops, one online and one physically in Durban, South Africa. She was uncertain about how the physical workshop would take place because it involved a lot of body movement and engaging with others in the midst of a pandemic. The workshop was programmed into 4 hours of training. She found that although the most of the participants (with the exception of one person) identified as feminist, the feminisms in the room were so different that they had to discuss what it means to them to speak about a ‘feminist approach’ to self-defence. When it came to the online workshop she said one thing that came up in the research was how anonymity and the ability to freely express our identities fluidly were vital strengths that enable us to protect ourselves from harm. She invited everyone to join her “Cruising Pavilion” Big Blue Button meeting platform using a pseudonym and interestingly enough the people who joined did not reveal themselves on video or voice with the exception of four people. The majority of the participants preferred not to and remained anonymous but engaging in the workshop through the chat and the whiteboard. She reflected on the work:

Anonymity really is a feminist shield that makes us feel safe and show up in spaces, which we otherwise may not have engaged in if we knew we had to show our faces or speak publicly

The paper explicitly sought to challenge the patriarchal, often misogynist normative training frameworks of self-defence and digital safety training that portrays women as victims of their circumstances and negates women and non-binary people as persons with the capacity to make informed decisions regarding their lives. Christy states that these normative conceptualisations of self-defence oftentimes assume women and non-binary persons to be weak and irrational and even blame women for the violence they experience. She believes that a feminist framework for self-defence insists that we have the agency and capacity to make informed decisions around setting our boundaries and tapping into the resources we have available to us to limit the violence we are exposed to. It affirms that women and non-binary persons need to be the decision-makers of their own lives.

A second key aspect of the framework was the need and capacity to set boundaries in how we engage with people in our immediate communities (online and offline and in other dimensions). She says this framework assumes our right not only to be in public spaces and have access to resources but to have ownership of them, create them and shape them. When we set boundaries, we are laying claim to the spaces and dimensions of our being that we identify as ours.

A vital project that could feel heavy at times still contained so much joy and fun for all those involved. The participants felt safe, nurtured and felt like they could let go and be vulnerable in the space. Many of the individuals had missed engaging in physical contact, others having experienced online and physical violence were able to share how they felt, and many more simply felt held by engaging in the conversations around their experiences, sharing intimacy, needing a soft space where they could not only learn but also unlearn how they felt about the topics of discussion. 

This work has felt groundbreaking for Christy, who knows that this development of a feminist framework is great for further exploration. She would love to see this work expand to create a website or digital archive, offering information, resources and offer opportunities for engagement via discussions and events. She felt that this work was a space and a moment of collective activism and also of healing and replenishment, offering a strong network and support system to trainers who felt isolated in their work and rejected from mainstream circles of experts, keeping the desire to develop this work further into something tangible. 

Activism has to be the healing we need in and of itself.