February 23, 2013

A Response to the One Billion Rising Campaign

There is no movement that is above criticism. Especially not within Feminist circles. So it’s no surprise that One Billion Rising, despite the phenomenon that it has come to be, drew its own share of flak. On the offset, I suppose I should clarify that I am a huge, if not blind, fan of Eve Ensler. I found the Vagina Monologues a transformative read. For those of us who have lived as “women” in the hegemonic Indian culture, saying the word “vagina”, even to describe a book’s title, can really be considered transgressive. The celebration of my lady bits through Ensler’s poetically articulated monologues was, then, particularly liberating. Granted, I was a lot less aware of my cis privileges, a lot less cognizant of what it means to be (able to be) a loud and proud vagina holder, when I read it the first time. But still, there I was, being a puddle of excitement when I heard of the One Billion Rising movement around July last year. However, as my engagement with the movement progressed, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the way various aspects of it were being carried out.

For one, the movement could only be carried out by registered organizations. This led to, as I see it, a monopolization of the event by certain organizations that had relatively more funds, resources and connections while other, smaller organizations and individual activists could only play the role of being allies to the main organizers. Gradually, the event became more and more co-ordinated and more and more choreographed (literally and metaphorically). For what promised to be an inclusive, spontaneous celebration where people were to “walk off their jobs, walk out of their schools, walk out of their homes and gather in fields, stadiums, churches, blocks, beaches and dance until the violence stops”, there seemed to be an awful lot of control.

For another, I have some qualms with the way the event was publicized. On a local, national and international level, various celebrities were called upon to express why they “rise”. Posters and videos were made with their perfect, photogenic faces on it and distributed widely. Of course, it’s great to have supposed youth icons come out in support for a cause and I am in no trivializing their investment in the cause for gender equity. Today, if the main aim of a movement is to raise awareness, the ways to attract media attention must be optimized and roping in known faces is a great strategy. But must we attempt to “mainstream” our cause at any cost? At least for a movement that was as established, renowned, wide spread and moderately well funded as the One Billion Rising campaign, the posters and promotional videos could have been used to educate people about the feminists who have worked in the Movement tirelessly and thanklessly for decades. Instead, I had to be subjected to posters of Farhan Akhtar who advocates problematic slogans like “Are you man enough?” to apparently attack rape culture, plastered all over my campus while my feminist role models remained invisible. (This, of course, might not have been the case universally. I am only basing this on my personal, possibly limited, observations.)

Finally, the OBR campaign has repeatedly vouched for inclusivity, espousing the fact that violence against “women” is a “societal issue” which makes conversations with “men” imperative. Conversations are most certainly important but are they only pertinent between two genders? I have always felt that Ensler was more trans* blind than trans* phobic. But despite the repeated criticisms her monologues received on that front, the OBR movement remained jarringly gender binaried. In the Mumbai Rising event, despite having a trans* person speak about her experiences of violence on stage, the rest of the event was solely addressed towards men and women. The exclusion of trans* people in the entire campaign felt strangely violent for a movement fighting against the same.

That said, as a survivor and an ally of others who have survived gender based violence, I did see the appeal of a space like OBR. Contrary to allegations of it being an imperialist campaign, I feel that many global movements, like SlutWalk, are appropriated and transformed to suit the local cultural environments where they play out. Despite the monopoly of certain organizations in the movement, various artists and groups who do not conform to mainstream values of art and culture did get recognized. People and activists across boundaries of class, ability and gender had gathered together to create that momentary space of safety and solidarity. I strongly disagree with critics who have dismissed the campaign as frivolous because it does not have any “actual effect” (here’s looking at you, Gyte). “Actual” effects don’t have to be always measured through tangible means. Since when did the Feminist Movement start downplaying experiences and prioritizing facts and numbers? Patriarchy is not a monolithic problem and therefore approaches to dismantling it won’t be homogenous either. Using one’s body to dance, seeking autonomy and liberation in performance, finding the strength to heal through movement can be every bit a radical protest in the face of a patriarchal culture that seeks to constantly control our bodies. As Emma Goldman (probably) said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”


9 comments to A Response to the One Billion Rising Campaign

  • Susan

    What does this mean: ” I have always felt that Ensler was more trans* blind than trans* phobic.”
    Are the * symbols significant in some way? Is this a secret code? 🙂

  • Susan

    I put in a smiley to indicate that this was not a hostile question, but it was still a serious question, and I’m disappointed that there has been no response. Are the articles on UltraViolet intended just for people who speak academic jargon? There are feminists outside academia, you know.

    • Shreya Sen

      I am truly sorry for the delay. ‘Trans’, as a term, usually only refers to ‘trans men’ and ‘trans women’. When we use ‘trans’with an asterisk, we use it as an umbrella term to refer to all non cis gendered identities (‘cis’ is used to refer to people who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth). So the term ‘trans*’ also includes people who may identify as ‘hijra’, ‘kothi’, ‘genderfuck’, ‘genderfluid’, ‘two spirit’, ‘angrogyne’, ‘agender’ and so on. It is a much better term to denote the diversity and fluidity of gender and gendered identities. I haven’t engaged with Queer theory enough to be able to talk about the historical context of the term, but my trans* identified friend says it’s the least unsafe word to use as of now! 😀

      I hope that helps. 🙂

  • Sasha

    How typical – pretend that any response that isn’t gushing praise doesn’t exist! Shameful!

  • Hi Susan, we’re trying to get in touch with Shreya and ask her to respond. Because this website works with contributed articles, it is not always possible for authors to respond. Sometimes they don’t have connectivity and so on. The idea of the website is to provide ALL women with a platform where they can speak, not only women who have broadband connectivity and are always online.

    Sasha, a little more reading on the history and logic behind this website would have prevented you from making a rather trigger-happy comment.

  • Susan

    Thanks for the response, I learned something new :-).

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