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: , , ,

  • Please stop telling me how not to get raped
  • When the system betrays our children
  • Like every other day of my life, this morning I woke up female
  • Don’t become just another statistic on September 5
  • 33 Responses to “From Slut Walk to One Billion Rising: Losing the protest plot”

    1. Momma Cyndi #

      I’m in two minds about this.

      To have large numbers of people standing together and saying that abuse is wrong could show the monsters out there that they are up against a united front. Unfortunately, most of those monsters don’t even recognise that what they are doing is monstrous.

      Unfortunately, like many good initiatives, it has been hijacked by individuals wishing to do grandstanding and blaming ‘neo-liberal counter clockwise agents of capitalism’ (or some such fooey). That happened during the 1970s too, when a perfectly good woman’s liberation movement was hijacked and made into a man hating mess of hairy legs and bad manners.

      The hand that rocks the cradle, rocks the world. Maybe the answer lies with us simply not putting up with being treated like disposable purchases?

      February 13, 2013 at 4:50 pm
    2. Daniel Berti #

      One Billion Rising did get you to write this article, and me to read it. I think that’s something significant – and I’d like to think of it as a generally intended consequence. The campaign might also become something that contributes to a change of atmosphere with regards to GBV, which I think is significant too. I’m not sure that any form of action will be devoid of possible criticism, or that the campaigners aren’t aware of their absurd optimism when they say they will dance until the problems are solved.
      You mentioned that other commentators attempting to deal with other aspects of the problems. I think that there’s a lot of room for all avenues that may contribute to change and I’m not sure that One Billion Rising is counterproductive (which you seem to agree to). So I guess I just find the tone of your article to be weird.

      February 13, 2013 at 7:06 pm
    3. Suntosh Pillay

      Hi Talia, I really enjoyed really this. It definitely helped me refine my own opinion and make sense of this entire issue myself.

      Like “clicktivism”, a quick dance is a cathartic moment to feel like we’ve done something. It’s a response to helplessness. It tries to give us back control. However artificial, however short-lived, however impossible to measure.

      I think we should engage in these activities, but in a fiercely critical manner by having extended conversations afterwards about how to take the core messages forward into those private spaces where the silent suffering is really happening.

      February 13, 2013 at 8:48 pm
    4. Athambile Masola

      it’s true,what will happen next week? people will forget, they always do because the problem with gbv isn’t whether women dance or not or whether we go out into the streets. the point is, the more we talk about this,hopefully patriarchs will be confronted with the fact that as women we are not happy with the status quo. and just because people will forget next week doesn’t mean there isn’t value in the project.what this campaign highlights is that women are still the ones in the forefront when it comes to saying “please stop raping/murdering/violating us”.what would be effective is if men were the ones organising something saying “women are human beings. treat them as citizens and not mere vaginas”.i’m happy the campaign is happening and the kids i teach will know about it and hopefully remember the importance of using any opportunity to remind us that we are yet to achieve equality in the world.

      February 13, 2013 at 10:23 pm
    5. Rhoda #

      well said, Talia Meer! thank you for your wonderful articulation of my jumbled thoughts

      February 13, 2013 at 11:00 pm
    6. Tofolux #

      @Talia, recently we have seen the most hienous crimes against women and the girl and baby child as young as six months. The violence is so bad that many ordinary citizens are appalled at the sheer lack of humaneness. It follows that the consciousness and pysche of communities are at question as they ask themselves how these ”monsters” live amongst them. Activism against any wrong in our society should always be welcomed and really it doesnt matter who does it as long as someone has the courage to do it. We know only too well that awareness amongst communities works and we also know that these awareness programs brings with it education, a sense of healing & civic unity. It is quite remiss to point fingers or call into question any campaign especially when it is sorely needed. It is also remiss when another woman tries unnecessarily calls into question another woman’s initiative. In our community, we call this syndrome a ”bring her down” syndrome. Instead of joining hands and adding not only your voice but skill and opinion, you cast doubt. Activists can be anybody but in the main these are ordinary people. The consciousness tho is that you accept that you are part of a community and that you are concerned abt certain issues that affects our community. Successful campaigns work becos not only does it bring society together is creates awareness and personally we need can never get enough awreness especially when it is aimed at protecting women. We clearly need it.

      February 14, 2013 at 8:11 am
    7. Steph Brotherton #

      What you say is really food for thought and hopefully some action. How many of those who take part in these protests go back to situations which will be worse to face because of the protest.. or do the victims even have the courage to participate, knowing what awaits them. The victims are the ones who have to be encouraged to report the abuse and follow through with the law. No amount of street protest is going to stop violent criminals, and rape and abuse are violent crimes. As you correctly state, we have the laws, but the enforcement is sadly lacking, no matter how many statistics are thrown our way.

      February 14, 2013 at 9:18 am
    8. stan #

      Well put.
      Instant creation does not mean instant solution
      Similarly creation of plans implies that someone has to implement OVER TIME and persistently and in a sustainable manner BEFORE the next instant is created

      February 14, 2013 at 9:42 am
    9. #slutwalkjhb happening on September 28 for the third time – is part of possibly the most succesful rape awareness protest in history.

      It attracts people from a cross section of society, all races, all ages, all races some dressed provocatively to make the point that nothing the victim does “justifies the assault”

      The key point is that it takes the discussion into society, broadening its impact – and succesful because its single minded and focussed on creating a social object around which people can coordinate.

      I am an organiser of #slutwalkjhb.

      February 14, 2013 at 10:52 am
    10. … Many of the participants in #slutwalkjhb march in jeans and tshirts. Your point that they should be scantily clad is just not what happens, because that’s not the point merely what you suppose happens.

      February 14, 2013 at 10:55 am
    11. Eva Gilliam #

      Any platform for talking about Sexual Violence is necessary. Sad to see a woman trash the One Billion Rising campaign cause it doesn’t fit a protest mold. Dancing will not change the situation immediately – but let me tell you, 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.

      February 14, 2013 at 11:49 am
    12. Mahlo Maku #

      I was a teenager when the vagina monologue was performed in South Africa. I did not have full access to the content due to the age restriction, however the little that I could grasp empowered me. It was liberating to hear women to talk about and treasure their feminity.That freedom and power has been my prized possession into womanhood.I will not let anyone or anything threaten it in any way. Not violence or abuse.

      The GBV statistics in the country are harrowing. Even more so the cases that go unreported. Awareness, no matter how small can make a difference just like the vagina monologues made me mindful of my femininity and power.

      One billion rising may not raise conviction rates. But it might raise the awarness amongst victims and empower those that are manipulated by society to actually come forth and report the violence.

      There are lobbyist who affect change at the highest places and then there are “branded philanthropists” who care about change at grass roots level including the people’s mind sets. Eve Ensler might be “doing good to feel good” but I feel even better that the conversation and the empowerment is expanding.

      One billion (women) cannot be wrong.

      February 14, 2013 at 12:13 pm
    13. neil #

      I don’t know if anyone has spotted the lurid, sexist, predatory adverts on E tv lately (SMS ‘PORN’ blah blah), plus their very sad smutty late night call-in show, where wiomen lounge around in skimpy outfits on the sofa taking calls? I think that this nasty use of air-time should be closed down to begin with. It wouldn’t take a lot. A few well publicised pickets outside their offices should do it.. In fact, it always struck me as disgusting that so many programmes in general, especially on SABC, feature violence. This, in one of the most violent cultures on the planet. I’m not saying that taking the broadcasters to task will stop rape and murder. But at least it would send a strong signal and help to move SA in the right direction.

      February 14, 2013 at 1:50 pm
    14. sfiso #

      .Today its the 14th of February, the One Billion Rising campaign day. In South Africa we were reminded that violence against women has no race. In almost all communities, black, white and coloured we saw the ugly face of violence against women. While Anne Booysens, Reeva Steenkamp had faces and therefore humanity, the black children and women didn’t have names and faces. Its not racism, just the way thing are done in South Africa including by well meaning journalists. When I was a kid, about 6 yrs old the first words I learnt were ” Ek sal you more…. ek gaan you opfok…. ” Jou Donner!” Its a culture where you don’t win an argument, you beat your opponent or adversary into submission. So in the South African way of doing things, if you want somebody’s land, you make laws and beat them the hell out of it. Its a long story starting from land grabs in 1913, Forced removals etc you kill people out of the way. Its an entrenvhed culture that has eventually ran full cycle. The unsaid stats are about every white woman who was a victim of incest by a close male relative, its not OK to talk about it but its an open secret. We as black people have lived for400 years in which it has been impressed on us that its not moral right or ethics that win the day but sheer violence. I remember before 1994 you had to side step khakhi clothed, gun holstered gunston smoking hairy guys in the supermarket who bore down on you and made you feel Might is Right. Even traffic officers spoke…

      February 14, 2013 at 2:43 pm
    15. Rachel #

      I danced today and it felt good to know I was dancing with others all over the way. The One billion rising event gave me a focus for thinking about my personal experience and motivated me to send over twenty letters on campaigns that are working to end gender based violence. I am encouraged by seeing the efforts of others all over the world. Don’t dance if you don’t want to but think about positive steps you can take to change things for the better rather than knocking what is clearly working for many of us.

      February 14, 2013 at 6:39 pm
    16. Nina Callaghan #

      I appreciate Talia’s final words on the matter the most…about what to do after the fever of this event dies down. For me, any platform that leverages the issue of gender violence around the globe is worthy and must be supported. As to the issue of the Ensler “brand”…yor – if Virgin were to launch a campaign of this magnitude, inviting groups to shape their own protest, I’ll probably do it. Women and groups are meeting, organising, attending, and yes, dancing. I can’t remember when last so many were moved to DO something. It is a launchpad to conversations which is where we start and where we reflect and decide on how we change our behaviour – be it our speech, the way we talk to our children, the comment we don’t let slide at the braai. It’s ma too obvious we won’t stop rape with a dance. But surely when a movement presents itself, are we prepared to sit out the tune? Not me.

      February 14, 2013 at 6:59 pm
    17. Heinrich #

      Johnny and his two bully friends steal the sandwiches of the other kids. They break the noses and fingers of the smaller boys and pull down the girls’ underwear.

      Johnny and his buddies are taken to the principle’s office, where they are treated to cake and cold drinks. They are asked a lot of questions and are made to feel important.

      The rest of the school goes dancing during intervals . The message is : “We don’t like what you are doing to us”

      Johnny and his pals laugh and say : “We like what we are doing to you”.

      February 14, 2013 at 9:00 pm
    18. Michelle A #

      We did One Billion Rising in Jakarta, Indonesia yesterday, and it was amazing to see hundreds of people from different walk of lives, came together and be one for a change, to rise against GBV. Man, women, children, from difference races and nationalities, all came together and shoed their support to GBV victims and their hate towards GBV crimes.

      It might seem for some people that it was a pointless act. You can’t dance away violence, you have to act. But act usually comes after awareness, and OBR gave GBV a public venue to raise awareness. All those campaigns in the website, all those Reason to Rise spoken by the OBR activists before the dance, were expected to make the clueless bystanders get a glimmer of understanding why these ‘crazy people’ had the audacity to walk away from their work to come together and dance.

      These people also came dressed in their own garb. Some Moslem girls and ladies came all covered by hijabs. Some came in their work clothes. Some came clad in shorts and tank tops, some came in their street wears, some even dressed up in quirky costumes, fishnet stoking and boots, glittering sequined cocktail dresses with high heels, colorful spiked mohawks, body piercing. Everybody came as who they are comfortable being, be together and dance. This shows that no matter how you are dressed, you don’t deserved to be labeled as GBV victims who are ‘asking for it’ because of how you dress.

      I do hope OBR continues to raise awareness against GBV…

      February 15, 2013 at 5:45 am
    19. The Critical Cycnic #

      All efforts to raise awareness and rid the world of the scourge of violence, especially power play violence in all forms, misguided or not, deserve support in some way from those who agree with the basic principles.

      I believe the question of how to rid the world of its injustices is starting to be answered NOT by the people appointed by us to act on our behalfs – the governments of the world whose inaction and inability to direct their enormous resources to solving the problems smacks ever more of complicity in global crimes like human trafficking, the drug and arms trades, money laundering – but rather BY THE PEOPLE who really not only WANT to make a difference but also INTEND to.

      Avaaz is a global community of over 19m individuals with targetted campaigns making a difference on a multitude of global and local issues. Learn about us here http://www.avaaz.org/en/index.php

      If you are financially able, I ask you to Please support AVAAZ’s efforts to build a better world for all.

      Want to take real action and end the war on women?:
      https://secure.avaaz.org/en/end_the_war_on_women_loc/?fp

      @Tofolux – Perhaps you should see it as another perspective, an opinion that may have validity instead of a deliberate ‘bring her down” attack? I suspect a lot of women in your community have learned to keep quiet and not ‘rock the boat’ with a different opinion. This is how the powerful oppress the meek and people like you reinforce the old power systems..

      February 15, 2013 at 12:09 pm
    20. Tofolux #

      @critcyn, you obviously have not been involved in any community campaign. Ever heard of unity in diversity? I will not over-analyse but for me, it is important that ALL women stand together, support each other, bring strength to each other, why, because it is what we have always done. We dont have to beat each other up to get to the same finishing line. We can help each other to get there. Is that enough clarity for you, critcyn?

      February 15, 2013 at 3:38 pm
    21. So what, sit on the couch and do nothing then? This article is pure b.s.

      February 15, 2013 at 7:29 pm
    22. Hameeda #

      I think the campaign provides an impetus for more permanent change. Change should start somewhere. Maybe dancing in the open, making it into an empowering spectacle will cause awareness which is the key to change. Dance, but remember why you danced.

      February 16, 2013 at 2:22 pm
    23. Isabella Van Der Westhuizen #

      What an insightful argument. When I opposed the slutwalk brand a few years ago I was naturally dismissed as a misogynist. The modern liberals have a schizophrenic approach to this scourge. We want our easy access to pornography probably the biggest assault on the female body out there. That is a sacred right the right to freedom of expression. We cannot see how this pervasive culture of pornography sets the tone for rape and violence against women who are all just sexual playthings anyway. The modern feminist movement cannot have it’s cake and eat it to. The strict sexual mores of the past were designed to protect women from the predatory nature of men. I cannot see slutwalk or the dreadful vagina monologues helping with this in any way.

      February 17, 2013 at 6:59 am
    24. Violet #

      I am in two minds.You raise valid points about GBV. It is a scourge in our society and stems from deep misogyny which is so entrenched in everyday life.I also think that misogyny in all our institutions are not effectively addressed and we don’t have the kinds of conversations around masculinity and how men claim and believe they have ownership over women’s bodies. I also agree that international campaigns are once off.I do think that such campaigns do raise awareness on a very large scale.However as someone who did ‘dance’ I feel insulted by the suggestion that I want to ‘dance’ violence away and that violence probably is something that is not important to me and that I certainly will not have any conversations about it.It will just become a distant memory and clearly I don’t understand it. I also feel it is an insult to survivors who may have found a platform to express their outrage.I feel it is unfair to criticize citizens who wants to get involved and don’t know how. I feel that it discourages anyone from supporting such efforts. So my question is who are the ‘real’ people who are allowed to stand up against violence because surely it was not the one billion risers? They were just having a good time and taking a day off work. What I am concerned about is how government responds, how police responds and how activists respond to each other. It has become a slaying in the media of who has the ‘right’ to stand up against violence? Who has the right to respond and in what way

      February 17, 2013 at 2:25 pm
    25. Reggie #

      It was powerful for me too see so many people coming out into the streets and saying NO to violence and rape. People were interested, people were keen to get involved. It was a huge unity of people standing together from all walks of life, from all races, from all gender identities and sexual orientation. It was refreshing to see more men coming out and standing up against violence. It was refreshing being approached by people saying, i don’t know how I can be of help, how can I get involved. There is a momentum which has been built. And people were not just dancing, they were protesting to a very serious issue and said enough is enough. These were concerned citizens. It is very sad for me to see how we have claims on who can protest and who can’t protest. It is sad for me to see how we trash efforts by citizens who are standing up against violence.In fact it feels like another form of violence. I do hope that the One Billion Rising does lead to companies spearheading programs on violence not just aimed at women but aimed at men too as well as boys and girls. This issue is so serious that we all have to continue acting, we cannot afford for this to be a once off event.

      What is the alternative to not taking part,should we rather sit at home and remain silent? I think the article raises strong arguments which we must keep in mind but I can tell that the response is coming from a person sitting behind a desk rather than being PART of an event

      February 17, 2013 at 3:33 pm
    26. george orwell #

      Excellent piece.

      You make great points. Thank you.

      February 18, 2013 at 9:02 am
    27. george orwell #

      isabella van der w, you make very good points too.

      I also failed to understand how feminists walking half-naked down a street, calling themselves ‘sluts’, was doing ANYTHING to improve women’s lot.

      The poorest of poor women were too busy working to put bread on the table and didn’t have time to ‘party’ down the street in a black bra and suspenders to make a point about ‘feminism’.

      I also failed to see how a’Slut Walk’ or a “Vagina Monologue” changes the male focus from wanting to see women’s vaginas and calling them sluts.

      As you say, neo-liberal ‘feminists’ want to have their cake and eat it too.

      Scratch a neo-liberal ‘feminist’ and you find a woman subjecting herself yet again to ‘the male gaze’ and scoring another own goal.

      February 18, 2013 at 9:09 am

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