Yesterday, on a grey afternoon, we went out together, joining a 200-strong crowd of women and men, some with children, to watch a group of around 40 young student women (some, we are proud to say, our own theatre students) perform a dance in Lancaster Market Square as part of a protest demanding the end to violence against women. If all goes as planned (and there is every sign it will) on February 14th in 120 sites across the UK and countless others in 135 countries across the globe, thousands, maybe millions, and who knows maybe even a billion will be participating in similar if not the same dance with as many others watching them.
The numerical figure that is the impetus behind all these other numbers comes from a recent report from the United Nations that one in three women worldwide will suffer rape, or be beaten or otherwise assaulted at some point in their lives. The driving force behind the One Billion Rising global protest is playwright and activist Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues and also the force behind the annual ‘V Day’ campaign against violence against women which is celebrating its 15th Anniversary this year.
Yesterday Eve Ensler came to Lancaster to speak about the One Billion Rising campaign, alongside Ellen Miller a representative from Lancaster and District Women’s Aid. This barely publicised visit came as a huge surprise, not least to the students who are working on the Student Unions’ annual V Day production of The Vagina Monologues and who originally contacted Ensler via twitter, thinking they’d be more than thrilled with a reply via that medium,
Ensler has been travelling for a while promoting this grassroots global protest enabled, like so many campaigns, by social media. Recently she has been in India where the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of Joyti Singh has made this issue central to the social and political agenda, and Ensler is actually in the UK for a far more high profile, and celebrity studded event in London on Monday. In some ways even she seemed surprised to find herself in a crowded room in the local library of this small, damp, Northern British city being introduced by a Lady Mayor wearing a neat suit and charming, if slightly battered hat who was possibly, in turn, a mite surprised to be appearing underneath a large, graphic image of a vagina.
In her articulate and passionate speech Ensler explained that this- simply this-a group of ordinary people in a town square, large or small, wherever and however, coming together to insist on the possibility of a world in which violence against women was no longer a given, was the whole point of the One Billion Rising campaign.
For us it is interesting how, like many other recent grassroots feminist campaign’s, One Billion Rising (like V day) revolves around performance, the dancing, drama productions, singing and other activities produced under its aegis representing a mode of protest that is powerful because it is celebratory and life affirming in its refusal of violence and hate. When Ensler spoke of watching women in Kerala in India gradually warm up to dancing as a mode of ‘rising’, we couldn’t help but be reminded of how her description fitted our response to the naked dance in Nic Green’s show Trilogy; an image of what it might be like for women to be free (albeit in the One Billion campaign with their clothes on, which would certainly be our personal preference).
In particular, this image of women letting go of some of the socially imposed constraints that demand constant self- censoring, is in stark contrast to recent remarks made in the press by performer Joanna Lumley. In an echo of far too many commentators and public figures ( of all genders), she is widely cited as advising young women on how to stay safe, focussing on the need to restrain their dress and behaviour as if they themselves were the cause of rape and assault.
Ensler referred to an article in The Observer published that morning which claims that she has been criticised by women from within the ‘feminist fold’ for her engagement with celebrity and for encouraging men to participate in the One Billion Rising protest. She commented that she has not heard of this criticism herself and indeed it is noticeable that the article does not indicate its sources. Ensler went on to make the point that this protest had no chance of succeeding unless men did ‘get involved’. This because she remarked ‘It turns out we don’t rape ourselves’ but she also underlined it is crucially importance that the millions of men who are horrified and outraged by culture(s) of violence against women demonstrate their solidarity in insisting that things can and will change. She also spoke of the need for public sex education in a world where increasingly, many young boys first exposure to sex was through on line pornography, not a great model for learning to give and take sexual pleasure.
It is the nature of the media to present situations in terms of oppositions and conflicts, it is a means of making news stories more dramatic. As reports often indicate, Ensler has been subject to criticism on all sorts of counts, by all sorts of people embracing some women who identify as feminists and some who do not, including in relation to broader politics of the women’s refuge she has set up in the Congo named ‘The City of Joy’. It is always easy to criticise and much, much harder to make something concrete happen and in this globalised world where to (very) loosely paraphrase feminist theorist Sonia Kruks, very few people can claim to act with entirely ‘clean hands’, the desire to act only with the purest of pure political correctness may be a recipe for doing nothing at all.
Before discussing the context of The City of Joy and other areas of the world where rape and violence against women and children are used as weapons of war and terror, Ensler stressed that violence against women occurs everywhere, including places like Lancaster, where if it is less visible it is because it is overwhelmingly domestic in nature. Speaking for Lancaster and District Women’s Aid, Miller took up this theme stressing how locally such violence can often be a by-product of poverty and deprivation, turning the home environment from a place of refuge into one of fear for women and children, girls and boys.
For us it was moving and inspiring to see this group of young women dancing (and later singing) with such pride and lit up with commitment to this cause, as it was to hear about the work of Women’s Aid. There is always a danger that events like this, especially when they involve performance, will be ‘cathartic’- expressions of emotion without lasting material impact. However, Miller stressed just how much this whole event, including and perhaps especially Ensler’s visit, had given renewed heart to those who work for it and struggle to keep it going in times when future funding is radically uncertain. In fact, this dance and the performance The Vagina Monologues are fund raising in aid of this organisation and Ensler immediately pledged a further £5,000 from the V day campaign to support them.
As she was leaving, clearly as lit up as everybody else in that room, the Lady Mayor seized the microphone, to say ‘I think this is wonderful’. And it was.
Gerry and Elaine
link to One Billion Rising website