By Justine Gonzalez-Berg
When people take to the streets and dance in the name of ending violence against women, what impression remains in the concrete? One Billion Rising has left a wake of criticisms and praise and many important questions for feminists to consider. One Billion Rising achieved an infusion of energy and awareness around violence against women, but fell short in creating a more inclusive and anti-oppresive global feminist movement. Feminists and other activists can learn from the successes of One Billion Rising and build on its shortcomings. One Billion Rising was a global day of action on February 14th, for which activist Eve Ensler called on women around the world to dance in public to call for an end to violence against women.
Initially, the brevity and simplicity of One Billion Rising was criticized. The enormous amount of resources spent calling on people to “strike, rise and dance” to demand an end to violence against women seemed misplaced and potentially a mockery of the issue. In response, commenters asserted that the event raised awareness, which is a basic and necessary form of activism. Others brought attention to the fact that for many people One Billion Rising was more than a daylong event. One local coordinator wrote “our months of preparation looked like: ground working and unifying on the multiple definitions of ‘violence against women’, workshops discussing a wider definition for violence against women… and a roundtable discussion on how to keep the momentum moving forward to build a progressive women’s coalition in San Francisco.”
Another argument in favor of One Billion Rising was that politicians have harnessed it to push legislation. In the US, Michigan State Senator Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) has called on Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), riding on the power of One Billion Rising. In the UK, Parliament Member Stella Creasy is pushing a bill for better sex-education and calling it the 1 Billion Rising Act. As important as these legislative initiatives are, we cannot idealize them. In the case of the US, the bill would effectively allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars to governmental programs devoted to dealing with the effects of violence, not targeting its causes. Feminist, activist and founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Andrea Smith pointed out that governmental funding can end up situating anti-violence programs in police departments where they “effectively [operate] as an arm of the state.” This is not to ignore the importance of the VAWA or to undermine the necessity of legal and physical assistance to survivors, but it is important to remember that legislation is only a part of the solution.Ending violence against women will only be achieved through synthesizing top-down, grassroots, radical, reformist, local and national efforts.
Natalie Gyte of the Women’s Resource Center, writing on the Huffington Post, pointed to the patriarchal system as the root cause of violence against women, indicating that the breakdown of patriarchy must be the core effort. People dancing in the streets hardly challenges patriarchy, but it does humanize the bodies that are politicized by the patriarchal system. And yet, One Billion Rising also reinforced patriarchy by replicating other forms of oppression. In the opening clip of its promotional video, One Billion Rising referenced Female Genital Cutting as violence against women. Considering how that is a very “Western” notion of what constitutes violence against women, the reference was a form of imperialist feminism, and it was not the only instance of such a critique. Another critic pointed out that a call to dance is innately ableist, and yet another voice emphasized that the demand for workers to strike (in order to join the dance) is inherently privileged. A few years before 1 Billion Rising, Professor Gada Mahrouse said “one cannot end violence against women without tackling racism, colonialism, immigration policies, land rights, the prison system, militarism, heterosexist normativity and neo-liberalism.” The campaign not only failed to “tackle” these issues, it reinforced aspects of them. Indeed, One Billion Rising “[seemed] to pay little attention to the transnational and intersectional systems of power (including gender, race, class, sexuality, and dis/ability, imperialism, colonialism, war and occupation)that make women differently vulnerable to violence.”
These shortcomings effected the campaign, however many people expressed appreciation that One Billion Rising provided a platform for survivor solidarity. After almost every article critiquing One Billion Rising there were many voices defending it. One commentator said “dancing will not change the situation immediately…but I watched 20 young women, all survivors, dance today in the centre of Cape Town – and they were proud and amazing – and if this campaign can give them that, and maybe speak to a few people watching, it is worth it.” The moment of solidarity acted as a crack in the ice of silence, and that crack can only widen.
Commentators also expressed disappointment that feminists would spend time criticizing the work of other feminists, saying it was an “insult to survivors who may have found a platform to express their outrage… [and] it is unfair to criticize citizens who want to get involved and don’t know how.” While valid points, feminists must also hold each other accountable to shared ideals. Any activist movement must continually reevaluate its strategies. Andrea Smith said, “if we become invested in feeling we did the right thing, we fail to notice that the way oppression operates is that it changes. So even if we come up with a good strategy one moment, it may not be a good strategy at the next moment. We should never be wedded to these strategies but always flexible and always engage in a process of self-critique.” It is fair, in fact it is necessary, to criticize the methodologies of seasoned feminists like Eve Ensler, especially since it wasn’t the first time she had been called out for problematic activism. Although One Billion Rising did raise awareness, spark a conversation, initiate further action and provide an important space for survivors, its creators appear not to have engaged in the self-reflection necessary for the progression of feminism.
The contested legacy of One Billion Rising offers much to learn for feminists and activists on other issues. It is critical to consider the relationships between different systems of oppression and social problems to create a lasting, positive impression in the concrete when the dancers vacate the streets.