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They Are “Rising for Justice”

February 10, 2014

If you aren’t rousing from your Rip-Van-Winkle slumber or living under a rock, you probably witnessed (or at least heard about) the largest ‘uprising’ by the inhabitants of this planet a year ago. ONE BILLION individuals in 207 countries were on hand (and feet) to lead this ‘rebellion’. They rose, sang and danced to demand an end to violence against women and girls.

Before ‘One Billion Rising’ (OBR) became a global phenomenon, the calendar day of February 14 used to be enveloped in a rose-scented, chocolate-infused fog. The appreciation for loved ones would arrive in wrapped truffle boxes or romantic rose bouquets. Eve Ensler, playwright of The Vagina Monologues, launched the idea of a very different kind of appreciation – ONE BILLION voices raised in a synchronized and honest manner to seek a definitive end to violence against women.

The movement’s “ONE BILLION” refers to the atrocious UN statistics of the number of women on this earth who will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. With OBR’s adage “Strike/Rise/Dance”, Ensler declared “…we express our outrage and joy and our firm global call for a world where women are free and safe and cherished and equal. Dance with your body, for your body, for the bodies of women and the earth.” Borrowing from the Congolese women, she concluded that dancing “is a formidable, liberating and transformative energy.”

Yet feminists are divided over the message that OBR is conveying. Some feel that movements like OBR facilitate women’s empowerment by attacking the notion that women are mere sexual objects. Many survivors of sexual violence have embraced OBR as an effective form of cathartic release through the medium of coordinated dance. While Ensler has been able to garner support of celebrities for her cause, throngs of activists, writers, social workers, students and ordinary people, mostly women but also some men, have flocked around the movement.

In many countries, OBR allowed for the public promotion of women’s rights where it was unthinkable before. In Somalia, the awareness raised by the campaign has focused on the women and journalists jailed for daring to report rapes to authorities. In Guatemala, OBR helped in the creation of a law for the criminalization of perpetrators who impregnate girls under 14 years old. The law also includes penalties for forced marriage of girls under 18. In the US, the campaign is credited with the support for and passage of the Violence against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which expanded protections for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. “OBR wasn’t just a 24-hour period where busy people stopped for a few minutes to rise and dance,” was the view of a campaigner in the US.

However, the media hype over OBR and Ensler’s own celebrity status have caused some resentment among grassroots activists. These feminists, many of whom have been working on women’s issues for quite some time, feel that OBR has hijacked the movement. In their opinion, OBR is patronizing and it completely diverts the world’s attention away from the real issue of gender-based violence and rape with a pleasing-to-the-eye coordinated dance on one day.

Perhaps the biggest grievance that these activists harbor towards OBR is its refusal to name the root cause of women’s inequality – its outright refusal to point the finger at a patriarchal system which cultivates masculinity and which uses the control and subjugation of women’s bodies as an outlet for that machoism. They single out OBR’s inclusion of men in the campaign and of such statements as “violence is not a gender issue; this affects our societies as a whole.”

A few have even referred to OBR as a form of “neocolonialism.” The movement’s white, American leaders often lecture the survivors in conflict zones of Africa to “rise” above the violence they have experienced by dancing. The consensus from those on the ground, providing services to women survivors, is that women of privilege should not preach feminist ideals, particularly where gender and race intersect – and essentially where ‘developed’/’developing’ world’s intersect. Instead, the best form of action would be to lobby their own governments to stop their patriarchal, neocolonial influence in so-called ‘developing countries’.

Against the backdrop of such controversies, OBR is celebrating its third anniversary. This year the campaign is focused on “Rising for Justice” (OBR4J) with the adage “Rise/Release/Dance.” Here, “justice” is about restoring the primacy of connection so that we understand that violence against women is not a personal problem, but connected to other systemic injustices whether they be patriarchal, economic, racial, gender, or environmental. Impunity lives at the heart of these interlocking forces. The path to justice begins with acknowledging how violence is enabled and perpetuated – calling out where endemic patriarchy and institutionalized misogyny creates a barrier to real justice for survivors.

The organizers expect OBR4J to enjoy a similar level of participation as in the previous years. It is a call to survivors to break silence and “release” their stories, dancing and speaking out at the places where they need justice – courthouses, police stations, government offices, school administration buildings, work places, sites of environmental injustice, military courts, embassies, places of worship, homes, or simply public gathering places where women deserve to feel safe but too often do not. OBR4J intends to focus the world’s attention on the issue of justice for all survivors of gender violence, and on ending the rampant impunity that prevails globally.

In the run up to this year’s event, a number of “rising” activities have already been staged. On January 8, 2014, many cities, including New York, Santa Fe, Miami, Mumbai, Manila and London, organized forums called the State of Female Justice. At these events, leaders of activist groups, lawyers, thinkers and survivors talked about a more inclusive, multilayered story. On February 9, the first “Rising for Justice” march took place in Hong Kong in support of ‘Erwianna and All Migrant and Domestic Workers’. Erwiana is a domestic worker from Indonesia working in Hong Kong who was tortured and beaten by her employer. She is now hospitalized and still in critical condition. Hong Kong has among the largest numbers of domestic workers from Southeast and South Asia.

OBR4J has been resonating well with Indians, particularly in the light of a number of very high-profile sexual attacks on women and girls since last year’s gathering. With violence on women at record level and the enforcement of laws sloppy at best, even after the passage of the Criminal Law Act in March 2013, it is expected that Indians will throng to the streets in large numbers. Already, Bollywood has lent its support to the campaign through superstar Aamir Khan and former Miss India Gul Panag. Last week, the noted Parvathy Baul – I attended her lecture-demonstration in Toronto last July – performed in solidarity with OBR campaign, spreading the message of love, devotion and peace through her baul music.

People from all walks of life are getting involved too. Several NGO’s are highlighting the need to make public spaces and the transit infrastructure more accessible and safer for women and girls. Organizations working on Section 377 of Indian Penal Code plan to raise voice against homophobia, racism and discrimination against people from the northeast and Africa. On January 12, the “Talk to Me” initiative launched by Apne Aap Women Worldwide encouraged passing by men to chat with women from the red light districts of Munshigunge and Park Street in Kolkata. The only condition was that the men could talk about anything except sex, like questions about the women and their lives. Till February 14, women from various red light areas are holding an event every day to rise for justice.

Throughout India, every state is planning an event with flash mobs, dances, speeches and other public displays. India continues to be at the epicenter of Ensler’s movement, which is now ready to “harness the energy that has been created over the last one year and launch the Rise for Justice”. Kamala Bhasin, India’s leading feminist activist and coordinator for OBR campaign in South Asia explained, “We are happy that women are now coming forward to file reports against even the most powerful elements. Until last year, who would have imagined an Asaram Bapu to be behind bars. We are here to say that no Tarun Tejpal or Justice Ganguly will henceforth be allowed to slip away scot-free.”

As worldwide momentum for February 14 gathers, communities are coming together, building coalitions through media outreach and grassroots organizing. However, OBR still remains an awareness campaign. Eve Ensler’s other charitable organization, V-Day, has raised money for some effective work on the ground, such as running educational projects, re-opening refuges and safe houses. These are the activities which have actual effect. It is imperative that NGOs utilize the media spotlight on ORB to raise funds to sustain their own activities.

As separation between nations becomes more transparent, we can share a lot of common interests and experiences. The stories of women and girls that will be exchanged at various OBR4J events throughout the world will not only broaden the images of women/girl-friendly justice, but will also create understanding and communication between the government and NGOs. We can achieve a lot more by working together than toiling in isolation.

On February 14, 2014, let us all come together in recognition that we cannot end violence against women without looking at the intersection of poverty, racism, war, plunder of the environment, capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. Let ONE BILLION voices rise to “Break the Chain.”

Subhodev Das


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