‘What were you wearing?’ opens in Brussels to highlight injustice faced by survivors of sexual violence

Mannequins dressed in clothing
One in three mannequins were dressed in the clothes worn by sexual assault survivors at the time they were attacked, representing the one in three women globally who experiences violence. Photo: Maccasy
June 26, 2023

BRUSSELS, Belgium - On Monday 19 June, RISE and Spotlight Initiative opened the exhibit ‘What Were You Wearing?’  at the Salle de Glaces, Brussels Parliament. The exhibit consists of more than 100 mannequins dressed in clothing worn by survivors at the time of their assault, representing 1.3 billion survivors worldwide. 

The title aims to subvert a question that is often used to blame survivors for the violence perpetrated against them.

It is the first time the exhibit has been shown in Europe after being displayed at the United Nations Visitors’ Centre in New York last year.

Guests were welcomed by the Vice President of Brussels Parliament Guy Vanhengel, who said that “This exhibition reminds us that an outfit is never responsible for sexual assault. It is the person that commits the aggression who is responsible. I hope that this exhibition will help change the way people see survivors, and that shame will change sides.” 

Brussels Minister Sven Gatz asked the crowd to reflect on the exhibit as they walked through it, urging: “Let it seep in, let it change the world. That’s why we’re here, that’s why Parliament is here, that is why politics exists.”

Amanda Nguyen, the Founder of RISE, spoke about how she conceived of the exhibition during the pandemic as a way to gain visibility for survivors’ rights when in-person meetings were limited. One of the first outfits on display is the dress that she was wearing when she was raped as a student at Harvard. 

“I am deeply grateful that you have helped me redefine that dress,” she said. “That dress was the worst day of my life but here, as I look out at you, it represents justice, it represents peace.”

Woman in white dress chats with crowd
RISE Founder Amanda Nguyen. Photo: Maccasy

Ms. Nguyen and RISE have successfully campaigned for more than 65 laws to protect the rights of sexual assault survivors.

UN Global Advocate for the Spotlight Initiative, Cecilia Suárez, read a poem urging guests to “continue betting on those silent and slow changes that we have witnessed through the joint efforts of the Spotlight Initiative”.

Ella Robertson McKay, Managing Director of UK charity One Young World, addressed the ongoing impacts of rape, describing it as “an earthquake or a hurricane… It doesn’t just affect your past, it steals from your present and jeopardizes your future.”

Comic artist Christina De Witte (aka Chrostin) presented some of her work and reflected on her experience as a young woman navigating street harassment and the threat of violence, while Martin Seychell, Deputy Director General of the European Commission, urged those present to “join forces to envision and create a world that is free from sexual violence”.

Woman in black dress speaking into microphone
UN Global Advocate for the Spotlight Initiative, Cecilia Suárez. Photo: Maccasy

Trafficking survivor and activist Maite Lonne said: “Raising public awareness, educating young people about social media and providing services providers with professional training are both necessary and vital.” 

Co-Founder of Collectif OXO, Lauraline Michel, reiterated the resounding impact of violence on not only women and girls, but entire communities. “Violence has a huge impact on the lives of the survivors. But it also affects the lives of people around them, those of the service providers, and society as a whole,” she said.

Maîté Meeus, Founder of Balance Ton Bar, a movement that is campaigning to improve the safety of women and girls in Belgium's nightlife, said “We are not asking for a favour, we are demanding a fundamental human right.”

crowd walking among mannequins
Guests attend the exhibition launch. Photo: Maccasy.

Spotlight Initiative’s Global Coordinator Nahla Valji said that the exhibition was a stark reminder of how much work remains to be done, but that it is a “unique privilege to work on an initiative that has for the first time proven what it takes to end this violence once and for all.” 

She thanked survivors for sharing their stories and for their advocacy.

‘What were you wearing?’ is on display at the Brussels Parliament from 20 June to 1 July, 2023.


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