Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

One billion bodies reclaimed

In the past few years there have been waves of feminine revolution that have been directly rooted in body, art and the carnivalesque. Not essentialism mind you, but with the clear mandate of deconstructing the patriarchal hold over language and behaviour which defines feminine sexuality and controls, oppresses and destroys the combined woman.

The Slut Walk, which saw a global collective of women reclaim the word ”slut”, was one such wave that garnered the support of feminists such as poet Alice Walker, who sanctioned it in an interview with Guernica Magazine. She succinctly encapsulated the essence of the movement in her interpretation of the use of the controversial word when she said: ”I’ve always understood the word ‘slut’ to mean a woman who freely enjoys her own sexuality in any way she wants to; undisturbed by other people’s wishes for her behaviour. Sexual desire originates in her and is directed by her. In that sense it is a word well worth retaining. As a poet, I find it has a rich, raunchy, elemental, down to earth sound, that connects us to something primal, moist, and free.”

Then there is also the on-going wave of naked protest, manifested in FEMEN, the Ukrainian feminist group. FEMEN has used a bare all strategy very effectively in global protest, mostly to give emphasis to international abuses of women’s rights. FEMEN activists use their naked bodies as human placards with subversive messaging to make a feminist statement about the diminution of the female body to an object of lust and to highlight their message that women are not commodities.

Utilising nakedness as a rebellion against detested and repressive patriarchal social norms or government policies is not new. It’s been with us almost as long as covering up and is utilised in Africa and Europe by women who have simply had enough. However, recently there has been a widespread resurgence, which goes to show that despite the collective Victorian neurosis around issues of nudity, globally, the tactic continues to be both feasible and relevant.

Then came the visceral and far-reaching support for the Russian punk protest outfit — Pussy Riot. A small collective of young women wearing tea cosies on their heads who took on the entire draconian Russian ruling party through performance stunts which centred on subversive lyrics and punk electric guitar in ”sacred” or public spaces, Pussy Riot was hugely impactful on the worldwide feminine imaginary proving that even small collectives practising civil disobedience can pack a powerful punch at patriarchy. When three of the young women were arrested by the Russian police and finally sentenced to four years in a hard labour camp, the uproar from the collective feminine reverberated globally and the phrase ”Pussy Riot” became part of the feminine arsenal of reclaimed lexis used in a revolutionary sense.

The next wave of body, art and the carnivalesque in protest arrived with the One Billion Rising campaign, which, though it has used a less subversive and more inclusive mainstream language, is no less rebellious and destabilising to the world order of patriarchy.

One Billion Rising began as a call to action for one billion women and men throughout the world to rise, strike and dance in order to call attention to the horrifying statistic that one in three women, which adds up to one billion, will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. The campaign was run by Eve Ensler’s now 15-year-old organisation, V-Day, which is most famous for activating people’s feminist imaginary through Ensler’s ground-breaking play, The Vagina Monologues.

It is no surprise that Ensler came up with this seemingly impossible but doable notion when one considers what her life work through V-Day has accomplished. Together with their dedicated local organisers dotted all over the globe, they have raised more than $100 million, funded over 13 000 community-based anti-violence programmes and educated millions. The organisation reports that 86 cents to the dollar goes directly into ending violence against women and girls, largely due to their model, which relies most heavily on fervent local volunteers and keeps the organisation itself small and virtual. In 2012, alone, there were more than 5 800 V-Day benefit events.

The network of V-Day volunteers spreads to all four corners of the world. It is a subtle and respectful spread of sisterly support that does not impose neocolonialism or euro-centricity onto local or indigenous communities. Rather, it is organic, mostly inspired by a woman from within the community and totally in keeping with the culture in which the organisation lives and breathes. Thus, one will find a V-Day supported revolutionary centre in Congo, safe houses in Kenya, in Somalia, Iraq and Pakistan, being run by women who already do the work. V-Day is an empathetic structure that is there to honour the work being done in countries or communities where women are most vulnerable to war and patriarchy and abuse. It does not rely on NGO rule-based organisational methodology but on goodwill and trust. It is a feminine organic and open system of self-empowerment philanthropy and perhaps this is why dissenters simply miss the work that V-Day and Ensler do globally, because this is a language that is not yet fathomed in world culture. But they can be assured that with a bit of research they would discover that it is a vast and generous body of grassroots work.

It was out of this ethos that the One Billion Rising campaign was birthed last year and since its inception it has ignited a network of women’s organisations, communities and individuals worldwide using a multimedia campaign approach to spread the word. Over a year the results have been profound. Activists in 203 countries from more than 13 000 organisations around the globe danced this Valentine’s Day. In Paris, the Women’s Coalition of the French Parliament danced. In Bangladesh, millions of men and women formed a dancing chain across the country. In Bosnia, women and men danced along the riverside and public squares. The mayor of Lima, Susana Villaran, officially made February 14 One Billion Rising Day. In many African countries women and men, joined in the dance revolution from Sierra Leone to Libya to Gambia, to Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi.

Here in South Africa more than 40 women’s groups joined One Billion Rising (OBR) in solidarity with the OBR SA campaign — which placed the issues most pertinent to this country’s women at the centre of the discussion. Thus at Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, women’s organisation leaders took the podium to highlight issues such as hate crime against the LGBTI community and the call for government action towards the levels of heinous rape murders in South Africa was made. Well-known feminist, author and scholar Pumla Gqola in her moving speech at the event said: “I rise in solidarity with all survivors, victims and all those who will be brutalised by gender-based violence again. I rise and dance to counter the isolation that gender based violence breeds, to counter the shame, to refuse to shoulder the blame and to put an end to the excuses. I rise to say our bodies are ours and we matter.”

Over 50 events happened all around South Africa as women and men in solidarity with one billion women, gathered to voice their stories, dialogue around issues that affect their lives, rise up and demonstrate outside magistrates’ courts and took over public spaces. Schools and universities came alive with protest and dance. From Marikana to Muizenberg, its impact was far-reaching and inclusive and ignited a renewed passion and solidarity among activists who are already working on the ground. This was no tea party, as some dissenters have asserted. It was a wave of action and solidarity and sisterhood. The message was clear — patriarchy must be dismantled, smashed, danced out of existence for it is patriarchy that is the root of violence against all women. “We’ve had enough and that is all there is to it,” said Yvette Raphael of John Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa.

Some dissenters have pooh-poohed the element of dance and attempted to write it off as one big vacuous aerobics class. Again, they have sorely missed the point of the ancient method of carnival and celebration to bring down governments — as practiced by our pagan and medieval ancestors and in many cultures around the globe. To see a repressed, oppressed, exploited and unhappy workforce burst out in dance, laughter and revolutionary madness is the most destabilising phenomenon for the ruling elite to witness — it means they have failed in their oppression and the people still have the will to life and happiness in them. It scares the ruling class and it forces change.

Choreographed or not, dance is a subversive act, a defiant act in a world that is ruled by anti-celebratory patriarchal forces that have done their utmost to smash, rape, violate, denigrate the joy out of the feminine through systematic violence and oppression. Dance is a rebellious expression of body in civil disobedience. It is a wild and unfettered revolutionary jamboree that jazzes wildly in the face of the fire and brimstone wrath of a patriarchal, capitalistic, heteronormative, linear interpretation of life — a destructive anti-celebratory phallocentric force that has for centuries been thrust upon the entire global community.

Enough already!

In my view the Slut Walk, Pussy Riot, Naked Protest and One Billion Rising are all signifiers for the resurgence of the indivisible visceral sexual, emotional and intellectual nature of women that has been pushed underground and controlled by a misogynistic order for centuries. It seems to me that women are responding to a collective archetypal call to seize back the freedom to be themselves. It is also about rebelling against the social and public discourse that has been controlled by a patriarchal hold over language, a phenomenon that continues in the neoliberal discourse of today. It is about the power of the feminine sexuality, emotionality and intellect that is demanding to be here, to exist and to be treated with respect and nurture. It is a loud and urgent call to stop war on women’s bodies. “No more rape” is the central primal scream to this uprising. And when a billion voices make that call on the same day — something is bound to change.

All these feminist revolutionary waves are signifiers for a collective consciousness that is defying and destroying the paradigm that perpetuates the patriarchal agenda in multifarious ways. It is fuelled by the very thing that patriarchy wants to deny and destroy and that is the fact that women do possess the capacity for a deep jouissance that exists outside of its cruel reach — even in the most dire of circumstances. It is this life force that women access to force change and it is an essence that cannot be written off in shallow renditions of a Western pop culture interpretation of joy as a smile and happiness. Joy is an inner resource not an advert. And those dissenters who think that the joy workers in this world are insulting women who live in poverty or forcing a neo-colonial ethos onto women in indigenous cultures, have sorely missed the point of what the collective feminine possesses outside of race economics and culture. It is the very thing that patriarchy has tried to oppress and harness but has never been able to access. Perhaps this essence lies dormant for decades but we have seen it ignite in protest over the years. We witnessed it in our history in the women’s march of 1956, which was fuelled by rage and feminine will. The young Winnie Mandela had it in bucket loads when she incited the people of South Africa to get out on the streets and fight for their lives. Now one billion people across the world accessed that revolutionary joy on a day that is a call to activism to bring down patriarchy and break the chains.

One Billion Rising did indeed see one billion people rising on V-Day. The fact that it really manifested in such great numbers and multifarious expressions of women reclaiming their right to both express their rage and live in their joy is a manifestation of our collective desire to no longer be obedient. It speaks of necessary subversiveness. It also tells those men that their sexual abuses of women will no longer be tolerated. It unites women in a common sisterhood and it raises our voices in a collective feminine language such that we will no longer be spoken for. And mostly it defies and weakens the destructive anti-life force of patriarchy.

As Eve Ensler herself said of One Billion Rising: “We Will dance up the will of the world to end violence against women and break out of the cage of patriarchy, reclaiming our bodies, our rage, our desires, our pleasure, our joy and our power.”

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

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    • Pandora’s Doos

      Impressed that you mention the Russian suppression of Pussy Riot and the severe repression and lack of human rights in that country. As per the current SA elite, Russia and China can do no wrong. Not for any valid reason – just because they aren’t the dreadful West.

    • Just a Thought

      I would refer you to Martin Hajers article entitled “Frame in the Fields – Deliberative Policy Analysis . Understanding Governance in the Network Society”. This article revolves around the effective inclusion of the public in governance (not government) and uses an example of how a dutch community objected to the development of their patch of countryside by erecting large frames to show what they wanted the area to look like.

      I would suggest that that this may be a subtle way of objecting, but it is less ironic than women who oppose male authory by showing off their breasts off to the people who’d probably like to see them in the first place (insert homer simpson DOH).

      So I think this argument is not based on a very strong foundation.

    • The Creator

      One Billion Rising is a silly publicity stunt dominated by celebrities which accomplished nothing.

      Pussy Riot was a silly publicity stunt on behalf of a talentless pop group trying to scam money out of a Western puppet political initiative trying to derail democracy in Russia.

      You can do a lot better than this, Ms. Schutte.

    • Pingback: A Big “Thank You” to all the Dancers Who Came out to Support the One Billion Rising Community Dance | Bits Of Chelsea()

    • Mr. Direct

      http://mg.co.za/article/2013-02-26-ministers-absent-from-crucial-gender-debate

      Hmmm – maybe some people did not dance hard enough in South Africa.