The premise of One Billion Rising is to ‘rise’ above forms of violence; to dance, to celebrate
and in doing so to ‘DEMAND an end to this violence’. It was created by Eve Ensler, the creator
of The Vagina Monologues, whose exposure has risen along with the success of the play. It is
receiving considerable media attention, has gained political ambassadors such as Stella Creasy
MP, and has even had special mention of support from the Office of the UN Secretary General.
However, reservations about this campaign are being expressed quietly amongst grassroots
activists. I say quietly not because we’re not speaking loudly, but because mainstream feminists,
mainstream press, politicians and large organisations don’t tend to be so interested in those of us
lacking considerable PR power.
The primary problem with One Billion Rising 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. In fact, a colleague saw Stella Creasy speak at an event last week where she spoke
about One Billion rising and its inclusion of men in the campaign, stating ‘violence is not a
gender issue; this affects our societies as a whole’. Really Stella? Really?
In asking women to dance in order to overcome violence and rape, focus is displaced and root
causes are overlooked, 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. It’s like saying to
survivors ‘Ok, you’ve been raped, but you can overcome it if you come together and dance for
20 minutes on Valentine’s Day… Eve Ensler says so…’. It’s patronising and it denies not only
the causes of violence, but also the devastating and long lasting effects. Thus, a campaign with
unprecedented media fire-power has failed to achieve anything other than to create a façade
which will have no effect whatsoever upon the global pandemic which is gender based violence.
The fact is that Eve Ensler’s other charitable organisation, V-Day, has raised money for some
effective work on the ground; running educational projects, re-opening refuges and safe houses.
These are the activities which have actual effect. However, instead of continuing to focus on
and raise money for such essential services, it seemed important to Ensler (or some PR guru at
her end) that a high profile, notoriety-gaining campaign be launched. I don’t see why it can’t be
enough to do essential grassroots work. Why has such a huge PR campaign, with ‘a message
from Eve’ videos plastered everywhere, been necessary?
The answer from most will be that it is an awareness raising exercise. However, I can tell you
from working with grassroots organisations, that seeing footage on the news of women dancing
in unison will do absolutely nothing to educate or deter a perpetrator or potential perpetrator.
Educational programmes on the ground are much more effective form of deterrence. News
footage does not equal awareness, educational programmes do.
The other counter argument to my reservations would be that this campaign provides an effective
form of cathartic release for survivors through the medium of coordinated dance. However, from
women I’ve spoken to with knowledge of counselling survivors, the displacement of focus onto
a dance on one day would not be considered to be an effective way to ‘rise’. Surely the money
spent on this campaign would have been better used to support counselling organisations as an
effective form of therapy?
The aforementioned reservations I have about this campaign are not massively uncommon.
Many campaigns have come before which, by way of seeking to be inclusive of men, refuse to
name the causes of gender based violence. However, where One Billion Rising goes one step
further is in its world domination international influence. One of the main hubs for the campaign
is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a report found that fourty-eight women are raped
every hour; a statistic which is likely to have risen (not the same kind of ‘rise’ unfortunately)
in recent months during fighting with M23 rebel insurgents – a conflict in which rape has been
systematically used as a weapon of war.
I recently listened to a Congolese woman talk in a speak-easy setting of radical grassroots
feminists. She was radiantly and beautifully powerful in her unfiltered anger towards the One
Billion Rising movement, as she used the words “insulting” and “neo-colonial”. She used the
analogy of past crimes against humanity, asking us if we could imagine people turning up at the
scenes of atrocities and taking pictures or filming for the purposes of “telling their story to the
rest of the world”. Take it one step further and try to imagine a white, middle class, educated,
American women turning up on the scene to tell survivors to ‘rise’ above the violence they
have seen and experienced by…wait for it…dancing. “Imagine someone doing that to holocaust
survivors”, she said.
Eve Ensler has reportedly spent much time in the DRC in the build-up to Valentines Day. I really
wonder under what premise she is there? What goes through her mind? Does she think that her
shared experiences of abuse make her a kindred spirit to Congolese women? That her presence
will bring about comfort? Change? Does she really have such an inflated sense of ego that she
simply must jet set around, visiting One Billion Rising hubs?
Another woman at the same event, an Iranian woman who had demonstrated in the 70’s and
seen female comrades beaten, raped, doused in acid, set alight, imprisoned and murdered, also
used the word “insulting”. “Who is someone else to come to my country and claim to ‘help’ me
by telling me to ‘rise’ above the experiences I have had?!” She went on to recount the numerous
occasions when she’d been patronised by white, middle class, educated feminists who assumed
that as an Iranian woman she lacked education and had lived a sheltered and oppressed life
(only to be left open-mouthed by her exceptional education, theoretical knowledge and sharp
gendered analysis). We laughed at the hilarity of the questions she’d been asked (“So do you
go everywhere by camel in Iran?”) but reflected soberly at the state of a feminist movement
dominated by white academics.
The consensus from those on the ground, providing services to women survivors, was that
women of privilege should not preach feminist ideals, particularly where gender and race
intersect – and essentially where ‘developed’/’developing’ world’s intersect. The focus for white,
western feminists should be on gender equality at home, where there are enough problems for
a lifetime of activism. But, if the white saviour complex were to endure, that the best form of
action would be to lobby their own governments to stop their patriarchal, neo-colonial influence
in so-called ‘developing countries’. For it is western companies that create resource enclaves in
oil and mineral rich countries, the profits from which local communities never benefit. And it is
western governments that continue to pervade the economic systems of ‘developing countries’
with their development aid laden with conditionality to replicate western models of governance
which is often irreconcilable with historical economic, cultural, social and economic patterns.
And it is western backed arms traders which cash in on conflict in many ‘developing’ regions,
fuelling both sides for financial gain. Not content with its first wave of colonisation, the west
continues to insist upon ‘helping’ other countries. Word on the street is that the people don’t
want ‘help’; they want to make their own decisions and bring about change free from outside
I sat at the back, listening intently and trying my best to take in the radical thought reverberating
off the cold walls of a poorly heated, poorly lit room in Finsbury Park, not saying anything. It
wasn’t my place to interject into this space with my white-ness, educated-ness or my relative
middle-class-ness. It was my place to listen, drink in as much knowledge as possible, and admire
these amazing women with the knowledge and analysis to recognise a problematic campaigning,
and to reject it outright in favour of gritty, thankless, unrecognised, poorly paid and underfunded
grassroots work. It was a pleasure to learn from them. And it is with their words in my head that
I will not support One Billion Rising.
Natalie Gyte is the Head of Communications at Women’s Resource Centre, the UK umbrella body for women’s charities. This blog was first published by Huffingtonpost