The UCL Centre for Gender and Global Health


Silence and Stillness—A Virus, Voices, and Violence.

Silence and Stillness—A Virus, Voices, and Violence.

Can you hear my voice? Or, are you merely a spectator of my suffering?

No bodies filled my view. No one was there.

I bowed. Not to praise or worship but to conceal my shame, to lower my presence in the empty world. 

This is trauma’s palpable paradox. 

I want to write in the first-person perspective. I rarely reflect in such a connected style and especially when conveying an aspect of a theoretical discourse that I specialise in through my academic analysis. I realise early on that I have become more of a writer of other people’s stories, of othered stories, than any of my own. Whilst I will not give any such autobiographical in this piece of writing, nevertheless I would like to own the words, to tighten the rope between where the words are now in the world and where in the world I wish the words would touch. The lost words, this slippage, the voice that has drifted and distanced from any sense of existence; these are the words I write to find.

As a researcher on gender-based violence and mental trauma, I am situated in the periphery. I view yet I do not see, and I receive yet I do not hear the essence within each of the words that are gifted through the narratives of a suffered storyteller.

In Elif Shafak’s most recent novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, she illustrates the landscape where silent, sullen burials entomb the bodies of societies’ outcasts; cast out from the core of the city of Istanbul because of their image, identity or immorality. I marvel at the way that Elif brings life to such silenced voices, so that their graveyard, displaced in death as in life, depicts the self of the Other in a way that is authentic and persistent. 

When I start to dissect a story, to code and analyse an interview, transcribed neatly into segments and statements that appear as if the ink fell from the mouth to the page, I enter someone else’s dialogue. I enter, and then, I leave. The stories are temporal subjects. Some stay. Some haunt and echo in empty nights, filling a vessel of darkness as I wonder how there was any breath left for life after the words dried up. Some attach to my own story, refusing to leave like ghosts saying goodbye to a beloved home. Stories find homes too.

Then I need to translate the trauma.

I ask you, do I unearth your familiarity or do I forsake your future?

The virus, travelling, threatening to invade, is the metaphor for the violence that voices beyond silence and stillness carry. 

When you speak to I, the unseen, the unheard, is activated, and the suffering seeps, creating patterns in symmetry to flowers when water droplets fall from their petals. 

The violence becomes neither yours nor mine. I hold still your story. 

And, this story that I am telling is a story of silence. I have found ways to be still with the story and the silence. Yet, the struggle starts when there is no space for our stories. The suffocating silence is a masked violence, since, this time at least, the perpetrator is faceless. Rather, the enactor of conditions formed from silence and stillness is when words are read, not received. 

Reflection and revision on the gendered experiences of violence during the pandemic has gained momentum on the global critique. In conjunction, methodologies and ethical principles for guiding research during a time when resources are even further limited and the home is even further inescapable, to recognise the heightened risks women face when participating in research. At the same time, researchers are required to deliver and develop online versions of conducting research, which severs the connection or at least transverses the phenomenology for the telling of a story. 

As trauma and violence takes root in peoples’ homes whilst environmental challenges of insecurity, instability, and conflict persist from the absence of peace even during a pandemic, we, researchers, must be prepared for stories upon stories.

A stark element will be the overt thread of narrative of the global trauma from the pandemic. Researchers gravitate towards and specialise in areas that hold unique resonance when held up against their own life-narrative yet are not necessarily disclosed especially to participants. The pandemic, though, presents a connection to the meanings of trauma that the researcher and participant will hold; that the crisis has been created and experienced as a trauma albeit in different ways throughout the world. 

I wonder of the nuances that we will see emerge. Researcher trauma is recognised, yet typically in response to the stories of participants, rather than the trauma being rooted in the story of the researcher. There is a heavy taboo to share one’s own story of suffering and rejection is a risk. The art of receiving stories to analyse and evidence appears disjunct from the chaotic reorganisation of identity when the researcher becomes the sufferer. 

I then hope. I hope that there will be more sharing of stories upon stories, more storytelling and more suffered storytellers. There shall of course be greater traumas in the unravelling and unveiling of voices that contain words of violence. Yet, perhaps this is an opportunity for the virus of silenced stories to be eliminated. 

My — our — uncomfortable quest to continue forwards is to shine light and bring forth movement on silence and stillness at a time when a virus, voices, and violence are together. 

I see the sounds of the story. The way your words fell, and I tried to catch your suffering as it fell to freedom. 

And I know that my own story is silent, yet I end with the unsilenced salute from Azar Nafisi’s memoir ‘Things I’ve Been Silent About’ 

‘I no longer believe that we can keep silent. We never really do, mind you.'

About the author

Dr Ayesha Ahmad is a lecturer in Global Health at St Georges University of London, where she established a Global Health Humanities Hub, and also is an honorary lecturer at the Institute for Global Health, UCL, and fellow of the Centre for Gender and Global Health. Her background is in philosophy and medical ethics and her research interests are in psychological trauma, gender-based violence, and conflict. She works on developing trauma therapeutic interventions based on traditional storytelling and is co-investigator on a five-country project called Storytelling for Health: Acknowledgement, Expression, and Recovery (