Talia Meer
Talia Meer

From Slut Walk to One Billion Rising: Losing the protest plot

Following her wildly popular Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler, the American feminist playwright and activist, has a new campaign, a new activism, a new brand. One Billion Rising.

The concept is simple. Motivated by the popular consensus, that one woman in three worldwide — that is one billion — experiences some form of violence in her lifetime, Ensler hopes to reclaim February 14, as V-Day, vagina day. A day where women of every stripe and colour, hopefully one billion of them, take to the streets and … dance.

As Ensler puts it, she is encouraging women and men 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”.

Does this seem a little odd to you?

Let me be clear, gender-based violence (GBV) is the scourge of our society. We should do everything within our power to stop it. Also, I like dancing as much as anyone and I have great respect for the time-honoured tradition of street activism. From the civil-rights movement to the South African anti-apartheid movement, women and men have used protests, marches, toyi-toying to make their grievances known, to make demands, to make a point. And this is where things get a little confusing for me.

What is the point? What are the demands that we are making? Misogyny in our society is so pervasive, so deeply entrenched in the fabric of society, ingrained in our religious texts (or at least most interpretations of them), in literature, and popular culture, in our very record of history. Can we just dance it all away? Or dance it away just a little? We certainly cannot “dance until the violence stops”!

And given the absence of a clear, context specific list of demands, what can the movement achieve? Who is its audience? It may raise the profile of GBV, however briefly, but what then? In South Africa for instance we already have very progressive GBV legislation in the form of the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Acts. So are we dancing for better law enforcement? Or are we dancing for better sex, gender and GBV education for our children? Are we just dancing because – like many others the world over – we want to be part of a flash-mob, a spectacle, a global trend? Or are we dancing because it’s a convenient, contained, dare I say ”fun” response to an issue few of us really want to confront?

Like the contentious Slut Walk, One Billion Rising runs the risk of sensationalising gender-based violence activism. It abstracts the on-going struggle of GBV organisations, individuals and survivors, to a brief, quirky and enjoyable moment. A walk in your knickers or a dance.

What happens afterward? By focusing on public spaces One Billion Rising obscures the fact that GBV happens in private spaces, in our homes, and our beds, and its sensational appeal suggests that its effects will be relatively short-lived. All of the walkers, or dancers, some women, some men, some survivors, will go home. Most will feel relieved that they had a moment, of catharsis, a moment, to feel supported, unconstrained and safe. Some will feel pious that they have done their bit. Most will continue with their daily routine, most will not talk to their sons and daughters about how masculinity, in fact the very idea of a man, is a social construct, a made up thing, one that they can remake, better. Most will not confront the impact of patriarchy, misogyny, able-ism or racism on their lives, how they intersect, and how the process of breaking them down is an on-going, difficult and terrifying battle.

And then there is the fact that for some the battle is harder than others. With Slut Walk anyone whose religious beliefs, culture, body image, or even physical safety did not allow them to walk through the street semi-naked was automatically alienated, leaving Slut Walk the preserve of the privileged western no-pants brigade.

Similarly, with One Billion Rising, NOT everyone has the same privilege to drop what they are doing and walk into the street to dance. Many people on the wrong side of the race/class divide cannot leave their jobs in the middle of the day and not face penalties, financial losses or even job loss. And what about persons with disabilities? More than 60% of women with disabilities experience violence in their lifetimes. To misuse Emma Goldman, can you still join the revolution if you cannot dance?

We live in an era of instant gratification, where we want to ”do good” fast, and feel good about it. Where activism, or philanthropy anyway, is a brand. When you can buy a wrist band and save a rhino, click a button and feed a child or buy a Red iPod and save Africa (the whole continent), why would anyone think seriously about their activism, about the potential it has (or lacks) for long-term change? About those it excludes, those it alienates, those it silences and hence those it further vulnerablises.

As other commentators have made clear curbing GBV means changing the way we talk about woman, about sex and about gender, it means re-authoring masculinity, and sexuality, and changing the power relations our society is premised on. It is no slight task, and it will not be achieved in a singular heady, choreographed moment.

In a society that constantly bears down on women, tells them how to dress, how to act, where to go, with whom, at what time, such moments are extremely valuable for some, moments of visibility, freedom, of solidarity, of empowerment. But these cannot exist in isolation. So I am not asking you NOT to participate in events like One Billion Rising or Slut Walk, I am asking you to consider what you will do afterwards.

Tags: , , ,

  • Reattributing shame as an act of social justice
  • Black rage: Does anger justify the means?
  • A brave, brave little boy
  • The Remember Khwezi protest has shone a spotlight on our society’s patriarchal nature