Black Square Activism: What Does It Do, Really?

7 Min Read

Amreeta Lethe Chowdhury

TW/CW: This piece contains discussions of rape and violence


It is not unusual to find new trends and challenges cropping up on social media whenever a sociopolitical movement is underway. During the Black Lives Matter movement, we saw #BlackoutTuesday take over our feeds and claim to be honouring the ongoing protests. Except, well, it didn’t really do that. What coupling photos of black squares with #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM did instead was clog up the hashtag feeds which activists were previously using to gather petitions and protest information under.

Even the black and white photo trend which was meant to raise awareness about femicide in Turkey soon became yet another photo challenge, losing its contextual relevance and significance along the way.

In the wake of the string of horrific rape cases Bangladeshi social media has seen in the last few days, a similar challenge popped up, claiming to stage a “female blackout” today, 6 October, to show “what the world might be like without women”. Women partaking were to change their profile pictures to black squares for a few hours. It also excluded men from participating in the “project”. The message was disseminated as a cropped screenshot from a nameless sender, resembling chain mail or spam more than anything constructive. Subsequently and unsurprisingly, black profile photos flooded social media.

Before pointing out the several issues this message has, it is important to understand where this black square show of solidarity comes from. More often than not, it is likely that it stems from feelings of helplessness in the face of such magnitudes of injustice, and the need to show protest in some way, no matter how small. And of course, we retain the right to use our social media platforms and mourn how we want to.

However, it is still a flimsy effort that does not urge its participants to demand any meaningful change. It also excludes a significant group of people who must be included in our conversations of rape and violence — men. The message has drawn some criticism for these matters and others, and many have chosen to recontextualise their black squares to instead be a show of support and mourning.

Regardless of our reasons behind partaking in it, it is important that we evaluate just how effective these shows of solidarity and protest are, and if we are unintentionally causing harm or not. Are your black square profile pictures clogging up people’s feeds? Is captioning those same photos with important hashtags taking up the space for more constructive, informative posts put out by activists? Simple workarounds include making your profile pictures private and not using those hashtags.

But the most important question you ought to ask yourself at the end of all this is, “Is my activism or solidarity limited to a mere profile picture change?” It is crucial that your answer to this question be a firm “No.”

The rape and violence that we are protesting are not isolated incidents, and they do not exist in a vacuum. These incidents and the social structures enabling them are not just perpetuated by individual men or even men collectively; what we see now is not solely a product of patriarchy, but rather the combined result of centuries of patriarchy, ineffective and reluctant state response, a broken education system, and continuing taboo around sex. And even these are not the only factors leading to the rape culture that is so prevalent in Bangladesh.

That might sound like a lot for one person, or even a group to fight alone, and so resorting to a profile picture change seems like an easier option to get the message across. But it is not. It is nowhere close to being a substitute.

Combating these issues in the long term requires survivors, allies, and activists to organise and work towards systemic change. It needs us to take a critical look at behaviours and practices which enable rape culture, our education system that does not teach any form of sex education and shuns it instead, our thirst for vigilante and severe retributive justice that refuses to look at what is ceaselessly leading to these crimes.

While this might seem overwhelming and an overload of information at first glance, these are the factors that must inform our conversations surrounding rape, not intermittent calls for justice when a situation gets out of hand. A lot of the time, especially now when Covid-19 is still a threat, it is not possible for many people to participate in street protests or organise physically, and so social media activism might seem like a more accessible alternative. And it can be. But even online activism cannot be limited to black squares.

If we are to fight systemic injustice, we must be willing to learn and educate ourselves and those around us. Our shows of solidarity and protest must be informed by this learning so that we do not inadvertently harm those we want to help, so that our calls for justice are not futile.

Demand more of yourselves, of your protests, of your protectors. Justice will not come about easy.


The writer is Editor in Chief, The Dhaka Apologue.

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