Wearing black on a Thursday — much more than a fashion statement

Jan Logie, an early promoter and supporter of Thursdays in Black.
Jan Logie, an early promoter and supporter of Thursdays in Black.
Thursdays in Black (TIB) is a volunteer student association working towards a tertiary sector that is free from sexual violence.

The group raises awareness on issues around sexual violence and provides education on the impact sexual violence has within the student community and in wider society.

Students and staff are encouraged to dress in black on Thursdays as a visible sign of support.

Wearing black is a quiet and non-confronting way of saying something important in public.

It is simple but profound.

If you are on campus, you might notice some students wearing T-shirts or black badges with campaign messages such as ‘‘We hear you’’, ‘‘We believe you’’, ‘‘We support you’’, ‘‘We wear black on Thursdays for you’’.

However, for most participants it is simply choosing to wear ordinary black clothes for the day. If you are not familiar with TIB, you might not even be aware that there is an agenda behind the dress choice.

Even those who are aware of TIB may not appreciate its history and development.

Harriet Winn, a former student at the University of Auckland, explains the church origins of TIB in her study Thursdays in Black (2018).

The movement began in the 1980s as an initiative of the World Council of Churches (WCC). The WCC was founded in 1948 as a worldwide Christian fellowship of global, regional, national and local churches, supported by an ecumenical centre in Geneva.

From its first beginnings, the WCC has always been concerned with more than just good relations between churches and faith groups. In the aftermath of World War2, the ecumenical movement was also keenly aware of the need for Christian churches to promote peace and justice.

In 1988, the WCC launched a Decade of Solidarity with Women. This included solidarity with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who were still dressing in black with white head scarves every Thursday to protest the deaths and disappearance of their children during the military dictatorship (1976-1983).

TIB was promoted as a peaceful protest against rape and sexual violence. Black had often been used with negative connotations, especially racial connotations. For TIB, black was identified as a colour of resilience and resistance. It echoed the Black Sash movement founded by white women in South Africa in 1955.

Wearing black sashes at protest meetings had symbolised their protest against apartheid and their mourning over South Africa’s constitution.

The Decade of Solidarity with Women was followed by a Decade to Overcome Violence.

In the 1990s, further inspiration for TIB also came from the Women in Black in Serbia who protested the use of rape in the ethnic conflict.

TIB first came to New Zealand in 1994. Jan Logie was serving as national women’s rights officer for Tertiary Women New Zealand at the time and was a key figure in promoting the movement. Student groups in universities proved receptive and TIB was launched at the University of Auckland in 1994.

By the end of the 1990s, the movement’s momentum was waning. This was because funding for student organisations had become so scarce, rather than because the problems of sexual violence had become less pressing.

In 2013, publicity over the Roast Busters case in Auckland, and the police’s response, showed how much work still needed to be done to challenge rape myths and widespread assumptions and attitudes about sexual violence. Rape myths are common but mistaken beliefs and attitudes about rape and sexual violence. In many cases, rape myths shift blame away from the perpetrator and wrongly project responsibility on to the victim or survivor. This often leads to victim-blaming and survivor stigma.

In 2016, TIB was relaunched with support from the New Zealand Union of Students Associations, as a student-led movement. In October 2017, the #MeToo movement further underlined the need for everyone to be more aware of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Education around rape myths and their damaging impacts remains one of the most effective means of challenging the attitudes and values that allow sexual violence to flourish. The group at Otago has been very creative and effective in this educational work.

In its new phase, Thursdays in Black has also been more intentional in its commitment to mātauranga Māori and an understanding of how sexual violence intersects with other social issues.

At the same time, the WCC has renewed its commitment to TIB.

The WCC website frequently features photos of church leaders and groups wearing black on Thursdays. It also publishes resources from all over the world encouraging churches to learn more about addressing rape myths, and the problem of sexual violence, as a practical expression of Christian love and concern.

While TIB is an intentionally simple campaign, it is having a significant positive impact in the churches and in the tertiary sector.

Prof David Tombs is the Howard Paterson professor of theology and public issues at the University of Otago.