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A Kony for women

Sarah Macdonald
Published: February 12, 2013 - 12:00AM

It’s a powerful set of images to a rousing beat and soaring song.  It features women from all over the world rising up; one throwing off an attacker, another dropping a heavy load, a third chucking paper in the face of a sleazy boss, to join in a wild, joyful dance of freedom.

These images are not from my fantasies but from a video to promote the ‘One Billion Rising’ campaign that will take place on Valentine’s Day.

I’ll admit my heart swells at the idea of women rising up together to demand an end to violence.  The video is a hopeful, powerful and positive fantasy. Yet, it does strike me as a touch reminiscent of the Kony campaign. 

Remember Kony? It was last year’s hit video about child soldiers in Uganda.  With its 21 million hits on YouTube it promised so much in terms of Hollywood like campaigning; but then delivered so little.  I didn’t see a single poster in my city and Joseph Kony is, of course, still at large.

But the creator of One Billion Rising is not a naive Christian organisation without a back up plan. Eve Ensler is a writer and activist who ‘grew up in hell’. Raped and brutalized by her father Ensler has spent much of her life studying the silenced epidemic of rape, assault, brutalization and hate that she says scars women of every age, every race and every class, on every continent.  Propelled by a series of interviews with women she wrote The Vagina Monologues in 1996; a work still performed all over the world.  Then, armed with the UN statistic one in three women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime, Eve Ensler travels the world aiming to end what she calls ‘a global patriarchal pandemic’.  She has raised more than 90 million dollars for rape crisis centres and places for women across the globe. 

Eve Ensler knows that dancing won’t end rape. But she’s calling for a revolution of joy.  She wants women to dance to reclaim our bodies for ourselves.  She sees dance as an act of empowerment and defiance. For Eve the dance on Valentines Day is about breaking out of a cage of fear and of intimidation.

Now it’s easy to be cynical about dance for change and about a white western feminist calling for a global sisterhood.  But Ensler support goes beyond the Kony Kardashian style hype.  Her celebrities have more gravitas - Anne Hathaway, Robert Redford, Yoko Ono and the Dalai Lama are on board.  Her campaign is global and most countries have events – including Australia (Prime Minister Julia Gillard has recorded a video) while San Francisco has even declared February 14th One Billion Rising Day.   

While I may not learn the dance choreographed by Debbie Allen with its incantation to call the powers of the universe, I am not against a jolly good dance on Thursday. 

But here’s my rub.

I question how Eve Ensler broadens her argument.  In interviews, recent videos about V-Day and in her next book The Body of the World, Ensler is developing the theme that the raping of women is akin to the rape of the earth.  She talks about climate change being like sexual assault  – with the same attempt at denial and blaming of the victim.  She talks about a rape culture on the planet from women, to the earth, to rape of the poor through land grabs.

Eve Ensler is a '70s-style feminist like Naomi Wolf – they are both very touchy feely, they both like to focus on the vagina, they talk about joy and energy.  As a Generation X, I understand the boomers and grew up singing along to Carole King’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’.  I’ve done the ‘Which goddess are you?’ quiz (Athena) and I’m a fan of the Goddess of all earth in Hinduism (Gayatri).  Yet, even I, am resisting a giant eye roll.

By drawing connections between the violence men perpetrate against women and violence against the earth, Ensler dilutes her message.  For a start, the earth cannot feel the trauma inflicted upon it in the same way as a sentient human being.  What’s more, the earth is not a woman and women alone are not responsible for its management and protection.  Women are in management of in mining companies, car manufacturers, coal-fired power plants and the banks that fund them.  Women are consumers.  Buying into the eco feminism Earth Mother stereotype is an out of date romanticism and perhaps a throwback to biological determinism.  Isn’t it a touch patriarchal to see women as nurturing mothers whom only do good?

I appreciate Eve Ensler’s need to build coalitions at the intersections of race, sexuality, poverty and climate change.  But language is powerful and can put many off her cause.

Of course there are often direct links between violence against women and mining. Eve Ensler herself has spent much time in the Democratic Republic of Congo where armed militias have used systematic rape to break up and control communities to aid and abet mining.  Over half a million women and girls have been raped in the last 10 years in the Congo and V Day has funded and built  'City of Joy' a community for women survivors of gender violence in Bukavu.  At the opening, women danced with such bravery and joy that Eve Ensler developed the concept of the Valentine’s Day Dance.

Clearly, there is a link between consumerism, mining and violence.  We should demand goods from places that respect human rights.   Yet I feel Eve Ensler’s ‘feminist tsunami’ is overreaching if it wants to rejig capitalism and solve climate change.  At its best ‘One Billion Rising’ will be an act of defiance, liberation and consciousness-raising.  Let it be that. Let it be empowering. Let it raise awareness.  Go dance if you will.  It’s a Valentines Day gift better than any wilted red rose in plastic.  But when the music stops I hope the campaign turns to practical ways to develop policy, programs and a change in attitudes to stop violence against women.  I’m heartened that the UK is using V-Day to debate new sex education that will incorporate talk about violence and abuse in relationships.  There is a lot more to do when the dancing stops.

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