By Rafia Zakaria
February 16, 2013
Last year noted American feminism playwright Eve Ensler announced that Valentine’s Day 2013 would mark the day for “one billion rising” a day when millions around the world would rise against violence against women. One billion rising is “a global strike, an invitation to dance, a call to men and women to refuse to participate in the status quo until rape and the rape culture ends, an act of solidarity demonstrating to women the commonality of their struggle, a new time and a new way of being” the slickly produced website proclaimed, right under a box where one could watch a live webcast of “solidarity events” taking place around the world. The venue was Delhi, India when I visited the website and the message was indeed hopeful, and a group of young girls performing street theatre to a packed crowd. One by one they re-enacted commonplace incidents of harassment and abuse, now with women taking charge and rising up against them.
There seems little to complain about of the event in Delhi, or the festival on the riverfront in Sydney where children sang songs about women or the flash mobs and sit-ins that took place in New York City or San Francisco and even South Africa, the Philippines and even Afghanistan (gasp!). The motivation for One Billion is indeed noble, who can argue that the astounding and crippling figure of one in three women raped and beaten during her lifetime is a miserable one, requiring renewed unity and impetus for activism. From the perspective of Pakistan, where billboards forbidding Valentine’s Day predictably appeared on the streets of Karachi, the goal seems even more venerable; a gathering of women dancing would indeed be an act of rebellion in a country where the mere sight of a woman’s uncovered face is an issue of contestation, where countless sins of gender hatred fester beneath the thinnest veneer of civilized interaction and where on V Day itself, the body of Bakht Bibi killed by her family for marrying against their will was found in lying in the gutter. She had been killed by her brother several months ago.
What then to be said against a visually appealing act of solidarity that would seek to bring all women together; underline the similarity of the African American single mother sitting in a domestic violence shelter in Seattle with the plight of the office worker in New Delhi or Lahore who must bear the taunts of leering louts each day and every day on the way to work and on the way back. They are, after all, fighting the same enemy, if coloured differently or mouthing abuses in a different language. Yes, One Billion Rising is indeed a great argument in favour of solidarity and a revival of sameness whose demise has plagued feminism. In a post-modern age where difference rules and power relations lie exposed, too much talk of white women and brown women and Muslim women and secular women and poor women and rich women has made feminism miserable; and it’s time to make it “happy” again.
It is this second agenda that makes one squirm. One Billion Rising is indeed laudable for its renewed effort to recast Valentine’s Day as a day for women, and against violence, it is even more laudable for its efforts to make an issue like rape that few want to think about, that many wish to turn their heads from;, palatable enough to be the subject of public celebration. It is this last act, the sacrifices made for the purpose of palatability and solidarity that the questions and discomforts of One Billion rising lie. In trying to draw everyone in, it asks people to gather, to march, to not show up to work and the like without either giving any specifics as to how such myriad action is likely to “end” violence against women. Going further, it feigns ignorance or perhaps just disinterest in the fact that the many women most at risk for violence, for rape, for abuse and for harassment are the most unlikely to be able to do these things. The women who march and sing and dance; will not be the women who are being raped or hurt or harassed but with the singing and dancing; their duty to the cause will be done, without having to feel bad or guilty or morally connected to the sins that make such violence persist.
But feminism has crumbled not only to the post-modern threats to global solidarity that the movement tried to overcome, but also to the class divisions within each individual society that carve women up by want and need and keep them estranged from the experiences of women who have never experienced them. These are real issues in the United States where the US Congress failed last year to pass the Violence Against Women Act and may fail to pass it again this year but whose details are absent from the One Billion Rising website.
In this sense, it is not so much a challenge to unite the marching women of Manila and San Francisco who are activists against gender violence; but rather to get the same women to look within their own cities; to get inside shelters, to stock up food banks, to ask their maids or the women who clean their malls what goes on in their homes. Not only did One Billion Rising not ask for such actions from its supporters, Ensler went on to say that shelters “promote an understanding that female violence is going to be there forever”.
In this sense, the failure of movements like One Billion Rising is in their elision or ignorance of the power differential between the women, in any country and any society of the world who weep often alone and in silence, and the women who march and make a lot of noise. The former need concrete goals and actual help, help with childcare and finding work while the latter are attracted to events at which they can dance and sing and march. Juxtaposed against the real, unglamorous and unpopular needs of the former, one can’t help but ask whether public extravaganzas such as One Billion Rising can really claim a victory when they get, the unthreatened, the wealthy, the educated and the “shopping for a cause” crowd to show up at protests.
Absent in the extravaganza feminism of One Billion Rising is the demand that the chanters and dancers, analyse their own choices and affluence or become aware of the moral cost it imposes on others denied. The college student attending one protest in Seattle can go back and listen to the rap music that calls women derogatory names without connecting the dots and the placard carrying marcher in Bombay can return to the house cleaned by her army of maids. They’ve done their part for women’s rights, they’ve marched and chanted and danced for the end of rape. One Billion Rising didn’t ask these questions; perhaps because that would not be the “happy” feminism that includes everyone, doesn’t bother much with differences of race or class or anything else and where simply being at an event, or “liking” a Facebook page or wearing a ribbon means you’ve fulfilled your feminist, or rape opposing and violence condemning duty and can move on to the next viral cause on your Twitter stream. Generalisations promote solidarity and that is good for popularity and perhaps popularity will end rape.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.