There’s a famous scene in the Godfather movie when Vito Corleone is playing with his grandson in a tomato garden.
He chases the young boy and falls to the ground suffering from a fatal heart attack. As he falls, he pulls down a billowy white laundry sheet from the nearby clothesline and his murderous, dark soul is laid to rest.
Monica Mayer’s Clothesline Project
I’ve always loved this poetic ending. It speaks to what Mexico-based artist Mónica Mayer is doing in Washington to build a discussion around a traditionally feminine symbol, the clothesline. Her exhibit El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project is featured at the National Museum of Women in the Arts until January 5th, 2018.
Online and in person, visitors of the exhibit can see how Mayer uses a “tool to engage the community and facilitate a dialogue around women’s experience with violence.” She addresses topics that include sexual harassment, domestic violence, and sex trafficking. Like all true artists, Mayer speaks to the timeliness of a topic pinching our global social conscience. She asks women from all walks of life to document what they most dislike about their community, and then pins the responses they write on a pink card to a clothesline.
This prompted me to ask what clotheslines from around the world would say if they could talk to us. I remember running under them in my grandmother’s yard as a young girl. So, perhaps this explains why I started snapping photos of them when I traveled.
Two photos in my collection are particularly relevant, in light of Mayer’s discussion. The first is a snapshot from Lantau Island. Lantau is a thirty minute boat ride from Hong Kong’s central business district.
I visited Lantau last Spring to see the famous Big Buddha site. That’s when I saw this clothesline as my group walked through the small fishing village (see below) before boarding the bus for our ride up the mountain to see the Buddha.
It surprised me to see these undergarments steps from the village marketplace. They seemed to accentuate the humble life of Lantau’s residents. What I didn’t realize was the discovery yet to come. Heavy rain pelted our windshield, so the roads were slick. Our driver was forced to stop a few times for the visibility to improve.
That’s when I noticed a long barbed fence surrounding a very large and remote building. When asked about it, the driver explained Lantau housed five Chinese prisons and this one was for women. Most of the prison were built during the Chinese revolution in the 1960s.
I soon discovered China has the second largest number of imprisoned women in the world (next to America). According to one Daily News report, the number of incarcerated women in China has “swelled” by 46% in the last few years.
An increased number of working women in China and an anti-corruption crackdown by the government are two of the reasons explaining why more women are being convicted of fraud and drug trafficking. However, it seems hard to believe that women are only now getting caught. I wonder if their speaking up about abuses and asserting their rights might provide another explanation for this soaring incarceration rate.
What is clear are the abuses taking place in these prisons. Inmates are encouraged to fight each other and are subjected to tiger chair torture; this involves buckling women hands and legs to a chair all day). Organizations like Human Rights Watch have condemned this torture that reminds me of television shows like Orange is the New Black.
Violence against women in any circumstance is wrong but it’s hard to assess the extent of this violence in China’s female prison population. With over 107,000 female inmates (6.5% of the prison population in 2015), the worry is real. That said, this number pales in comparison to the U.S., which housed 215,000 women in 2015 (18% of the prison population).
One of the equally difficult places to assess violence against women is found in this second photo. It’s a picture of a clothesline in the neighborhood of Florence, Italy. It provides a different view of what it means for women to be imprisoned.
There is a quiet culture of abuse that has dominated Italian culture throughout its history, not to mention the traditional acceptance of a man’s control over his wife’s body. Until recently, husbands killing their wives for infidelity were given leniency under a concept of “honor.” Women didn’t report abuse and men exercised dominant powers.
But last year during an episode of “Celebrity Big Brother,” a policeman and former boxer named Clemente Russo was publically shamed and fired from the Italian show. The media used Russo’s comments to explain the rising incidence of violence against women. They called it a national emergency, saying one in every seven women in Italy has suffered abuse at the hands of a partner or spouse. Experiences range from being pushed, grabbed or forcibly dragged, to being slapped, kicked or sexually assaulted.
The movement to call out domestic violence and abuse seems to building far beyond the borders of Italy and spilling out into the world. In the U.S., shaming perpetrators of sexual abuse has overtaken news airwaves and women are coming out like never before in political, business and entertainment industries.
In October, The New York Times published a list of 34 men that reads like a spinning clothesline gathering speed. All this has happened since Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual misconduct. The ripple effect may keep artist Monica Mayer’s pink slips going for a long time.
Tearing down the global sex trafficking industry is perhaps the most difficult clothesline. It is one of the largest commercial industries, generating a staggering $36 billion.
Organizers hoping to unchaining these women and children are banding together with the help of the United Nations and community groups around the world. Media campaigns like 2019 Unchain are working to create collective the support of people across non-government organizations and businesses.
Whether or not women are able to face their perpetrators of violence or they suffer under the veil of silence, we can provide a new chain of hope. Everyday people can talk about the issues, share their time, and donate to local and national organizations fighting abuse. More men and women must speak up, together, for change. Men can use their positions of power for good and harness this watershed moment for change.
More than twenty-five years ago, the words from British band Tears for Fears song, Woman in Chains still ring true. We need to set her free.