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The untold story of the red chemise

March 11, 2024 at 9:03 am

Some protesters hold Palestinian flags in support of Gaza as thousands of people march with banners to protest inequalities against women during International Women’s Day in Brussels, Belgium on March 08, 2024. [Dursun Aydemir – Anadolu Agency]

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Inspire Inclusion”, which highlights the fact that women’s participation in society is essential if we are to progress and thrive. Yet today, all I feel as a woman is an overwhelming sense of sadness for my Palestinian sisters in Gaza.

Palestinian women are known for their motherhood, courage and endurance. I also know them for their amazing cookery skills, laughter and dancing. They are probably among the most spirited women I’ve ever met, and I am proud to count many of them as my friends.

They are universally respected — not least because of what we have witnessed on social media during the current genocide in Gaza — by virtually everyone, apart from the morally repugnant, uniformed monsters who are exposing their misogynism on TikTok at the expense of the women of Palestine. I refer, of course, to the soldiers of the so-called Israel Defence Forces (IDF), better known in Palestine as the occupation forces.

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One social media video in particular stands out. It demonstrates the bestiality in which depraved Israeli men wallow. Raking through a woman’s underwear draw, one of them pulls out a silky red chemise and starts to make lurid comments. I watched this and became fixated on the blood-red item of clothing in his murderous hands.

There’s a fair chance that the owner of the chemise is dead, driven out of her home without mercy at the point of a gun, just like her grandparents during the 1948 Nakba. If she hasn’t been shot by a sniper, or blown up in the never-ending bombardment, she is probably starving to death like so many thousands of others in the Gaza Strip. I hope and pray that I am wrong.

Almost certainly, though, the last thing on her mind will be her red satin chemise. However, that item of clothing will stay in my mind forever.

 It may even become as iconic as The Blue Dress which came to define, for me, the horrors of apartheid South Africa. I came across it a few years ago as I was inside the Constitutional Court in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. I saw an art installation there by Judith Mason called The Woman Who Kept Silent, known to one and all as The Blue Dress. It is an alternative record of women’s experiences of sexual and gender-based violence which are largely absent from the official record of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The artwork commemorates Phila Ndwandwe, a member of the African National Congress (ANC) who fought for freedom from the apartheid regime. She was murdered by security branch officers of the South African Police in the late 1980s. The harrowing details of her death emerged during the amnesty hearings of the commission.

Phila Ndwandwe [GREAT AFRICA/Facebook]

Phila Ndwandwe [GREAT AFRICA/Facebook]

Ndwandwe was a member of uMkonte weSizwe (Spear of the Nation, aka MK), the armed wing of the ANC. She was exiled to Swaziland after being arrested in South Africa. She disappeared in 1988. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigation into her disappearance uncovered evidence against seven security branch officers who were responsible for Ndwandwe’s abduction, detention and murder. Their testimonies led to her remains being found with remnants of a blue plastic shopping bag, most often cited as being fashioned into underwear, wrapped around her naked body. Ndwandwe was the woman who kept silent; who was silenced.

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Mason was so taken by her story that she gathered some blue plastic shopping bags together and cut and stitched them into a dress. On the hem, Mason wrote a letter to Phila Ndwandwe:

“Sister, a plastic bag may not be the whole armour of God, but you were wrestling with flesh and blood, and against powers, against the rulers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in sordid places. Your weapons were your silence and a piece of rubbish. Finding that bag and wearing it until you were disinterred is such a frugal, commonsensical, house-wifely thing to do, an ordinary act… At some level, you shamed your captors, and they did not compound their abuse of you by stripping you a second time. Yet they killed you. We only know your story because a sniggering man remembered how brave you were. Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets, and drift on the tide and cling to thorn bushes. This dress is made from some of them. Hambe kahle [Go well, Spear of the Nation].”

Every time I see someone with a blue plastic shopping bag, or see one flapping from a thorny anchor on a hedgerow, I think of Ndwandwe’s simple and possibly final act of resistance against those who violated her body. Rather than die and be found naked, she used the blue shopping bag to cover herself, and that is how she was found, years later. I won’t share with you the video of the smirking IDF perverts, but every time you see a silky red slip or chemise, please think of all of the women of Palestine who also resist against apartheid “flesh and blood, and against powers, against the rulers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in sordid places” with a silence, dignity and grace far, far removed from the ways of their cowardly, vulgar and deviant tormentors.

I hope and pray that the owner of the red chemise in Gaza is still alive, I really do, but, in any case, it already symbolises for me the many victims and survivors of Israeli violence against Palestinian women and girls. Israel and its craven allies in the West will no doubt do all in their power to make sure that Palestine’s own Phila Ndwandwe is kept silent so that her story will be airbrushed from the official records. Elements of the red chemise story were raised at a UN press conference, and a spokesman for the international organisation, clearly uncomfortable with the journalist’s questions, said that he expected Israel to investigate the incident. I think we all know what the outcome will be even before it begins.

So, on International Women’s Day, I pray for the well-being of my sister who owns the silky red chemise. One day, she will be remembered, and her story will be told. We must create our own records to tell the stories of the incredibly brave Palestinian women of Gaza, and highlight Israel’s brutality and violence against their bodies. I will not forgive and forget, and I ask the same of you. Let the record of their strength, courage and determination begin here, today.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.