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Thursday, Feb 14, 2013, 4:42 pm

The Global Anti-Violence Dance Party

By Rebecca Burns

In Bangladesh today, schoolgirls are forming human chains to protest gender-based violence. Indians are continuing to build momentum for new measures to protect women following the fatal gang rape of a young student that sparked nationwide protests. And in Paris, the Women's Coalition of the French Parliament will perform a coordinated dance.

These actions, and others in more than 200 countries worldwide, are part of One Billion Rising, a new spin on playwright Eve Ensler’s annual V-Day campaign that comes replete with a theatrical refrain—dance, strike, rise!—and an accompanying instructional video on how to do the “Break the Chain” dance.

Ensler has long been something of a snark-magnet. Likely as a result, she's developed a disarmingly charitable response to criticism within the movement. And as Laura Flanders noted in a recent profile for the Nation, it’s pretty easy to see that the activist playwright’s use of the dramatic taps into something that’s simply different from feminist tomes on gender essentialism and subjectivity. Flanders writes:

Ensler believes in the outrageous, that which upsets, disrupts. It displaces things as they are to make room for what might be.  I don’t know what evidence the art snarks have on their side, but science backs Ensler … Neuroscientists believe that the structure of the brain leads it to memorize patterns and resist new things. It requires a jolt, they say, to change the brain.”

Suggestions that flash mobs show up with context-specific GBV policy proposals in tow miss the role of creative disruption in a long line of radical feminist organizing. So rather than join the ranks of cynics asking what difference dancing could possibly make (and thereby begging for the ubiquitous, though likely misquoted Emma Goldman retort) I’d offer a small caveat: The "everywoman" approach to ending sexual violence globally—which lumps together different experiences of violence in order to highlight the pervasiveness of male violence against women—parallels the path that the anti-violence movement in the U.S. has taken, and is therefore at risk of some of the same pitfalls. 

When Congress failed, for the first time in two decades, to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) at the end of last year, the deal-breaker for Republican demagogues was a set of new measures intended to extend protections to immigrants, LGBT people and Native women. Why were these groups excluded in the first place? The answer has to do in part with the strategic choices of the anti-violence movement itself. In her 2012 book Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation, Beth Ritchie describes how the movement, seeking to put the issue of sexual violence on the agenda in the 1960s, employed what she calls an “everywoman" analysis. In order to combat stigma, it emphasized that gender-based violence could—and did—happen to women regardless of race, class or status.  

Eventually, this strategy would backfire. It succeeded in attracting the support of elites concerned about the issue in their own communities, and paved the way for increased federal funding and eventual passage of the VAWA in 1994. But the legislation relied on a mandatory-arrest and law enforcement strategy that anti-policing groups like INCITE! have since denounced. And by embracing a supposedly-universal interpretation of violence that was actually more particular to the experiences of white women, federal programs struggled to help black women and other marginalized victims, according to Ritchie. Analyzing the rhetoric used by lawmakers supporting VAWA’s passage in the 90s, anti-racist feminist Kimberle Crenshaw noted, “The experience of violence by minority women is ignored, except to the extent it gains white support for domestic violence programs in the white community.”

"One Billion Rising," likewise, seeks to lift up the fact that 1 in 3 women worldwide will be sexually assaulted or abused within her liftime. V-Day’s high-profile work in places like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) derives its visibility from the common experiences of violence survivors worldwide. Ensler derides the “us-versus-them” mentality that erects cultural barriers in the introduction to her new book, Insecure At Last, and the Nation piece underscores her indifference to esoteric intra-feminist debates. But by acting as though the patriarchy operates the same way in Brooklyn and Bukavu, one may miss more than the finer points of Susan Brownmiller.

In the DRC, where V-Day has focused its recent efforts, and where Ensler is spending the day today at the City of Joy base for Congolese women she helped found, there’s been backlash from humanitarian workers and advocacy groups over the context-free fixation on rape in the DRC (As well as the casual embrace of militarization that’s implicit in some projects, though not necessarily Ensler's). Responding to a slew of high-profile attention to sexual violence in the Congo, aid researchers Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern note in a 2011 report:

The specific, often exclusive, focus on sexual violence is problematic in that it hampers our understanding of the relationship between sexual violence and other (supposedly) “ungendered” violence. Emphasising and commenting on only the sexual violence mentioned in testimonies that also talk of other forms of violence hinders our understanding of the relationship between sexual violence and other violence. These forms of violence are, to a large extent, manifestations of the same systemic failures and mechanisms as those contributing to SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence]. By treating SGBV as a phenomenon sui generis we risk ending up with counter strategies that are inherently flawed.

Giving primacy to the similarities of women's experiences can be a powerful strategic move—but it also risks minimizing the way that sexual violence intersects with other forms of violence. The expanded version of the Violence Against Women Act, passed by the Senate earlier this week, could help to correct this within the U.S. framework, but concerns remain about how much will change without first defeating the narrow conception, even with the anti-violence movement, of what a "victim" looks like.

Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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