Feminist movements are not without their share of racial and ideological dominance. Recently a few activists left the One Billion Rising Campaign because the movement did not accommodate their politics. We appreciate Eve Ensler’s efforts, and stand by the idea of using art, culture and dance to fight violence against women. But the voices of the women who chose to leave are just as important. They make you wonder what a truly feminist movement should be about.
Here is an article by activist Gillian Schute on why she gave up her role as the Africa Coordinator of the One Billion Rising Campaign.
For those who have asked why I have stepped out of the role of coordinator for One Billion Rising South Africa, here is my response to both personal issues and the wider issues.
I have ideological differences with the international office, which are in the body outlined below. While I support the ethos of dance and protest I cannot work within the organisational expectations and criticisms/invalidation of my personal politics.
I am an “outspoken and challenging” social critic – it is a conflict of interest as the Managing Director felt I was alienating ‘her people’. She cited my letter – “Dear white people” as an example.
I will not be muzzled, shut up, insulted and shamed for being an anti-racism social justice activist.
My politics are uncompromisingly pro-poor, social-justice and Left based which is seen as a stumbling block and excluding of the middle class.
I refuse to have to fight for the right to take on a solidarity approach and work with grassroots organisations and feminists in a politicized strategy that was more about highlighting the issues of justice for LGBTIQ individuals who have been murdered because of their sexual orientation – or to use the platform to speak to issues that affect the majority of women in South Africa – in consultation and partnership with feminists in South Africa. That this approach was seen as alienating to certain people baffles me. If those people are alienated by this approach then they should not be part of any anti-patriarchy movement.
I don’t think ‘protest movements’ and corporate funding are great bed partners. The suggestion that I was judgmental, radical and other negative adjectives because of my refusal to go that route, was again, telling.
I will not be told to put young v-girl teenagers in the ‘center’ or in leadership of a struggle for justice to end VAW – these are largely middle classed teenagers who say things like – ‘poor people are to blame for their poverty’. Experienced activists who understand social and feminist issues are automatic leaders in movements that claim to be representative.
While I support and believe in reclaiming public spaces, bodies, orgasm and joy – I will not be instructed to call a struggle in South Africa ‘a joyous revolution’ when feminists here are shouting loud and clear that there is ‘no cause to celebrate’ until justice is seen for the women who have been murdered for their sexual orientation – and for women to whom rape is a reality not a slogan.
I also do not accept anyone overriding my integrity and instructing the publicist to change the wording of my press release back to joyous revolution – when I have explained why this is not acceptable – and then have to fight to have it reverted.
I will not share a podium under the same banner with a ‘feminist’ who openly supports the war on Palestine – I don’t believe that we can be ‘all-inclusive’ if that means we must overlook issues of gross injustice towards women who are violated by brutal imperialistic systems. That is exactly the opposite of all-inclusiveness.
I will not place celebrities, who generally remain silent on issues of VAW, as the spokespeople for women’s struggles merely to attract more followers.
I will not be told that this is a free and democratic movement with no rules and then be subjected to top-down instructions.
I will not be put in a situation where there are no funding mechanisms allowed through which to find donor funding for protest action but then be expected to fund through other orgs who have their own funding difficulties.
Mostly I will not be asked questions such as – “There are 54 million people in South Africa – why were they not all dancing?”
Are you fucking kidding me?!?
I came on board in solidarity with a global movement to network with organisations already doing the work in the context of a real South Africa … not to choreograph a nationwide dance using people who have deep-seated poverty issues and are probably not in the space to boogey to feel-good music that is not going to feed their families or get them jobs or housing or access to clean water and decent sanitation.
We chose to honor and support women who live the reality of the violence of economic exclusion by assisting with a community organised march and vigil at Marikana and offering support to the women of that area with a focus on the wives of the massacred miners. We did not impose the OBR music and dance onto this occasion because that felt disrespectful and inappropriate. However it was done as an OBR outreach event, not an OBR choreography event.
I personally always thought of the dance element as an option – not a given. Justice issues were given preference. Creating a safe space for the spontaneous organic celebration of our diversity and sameness and joy and body was part of this.
I find it hard to understand a movement that partners with militant unions in some countries on the one hand and then does not speak out against the public dismissal of the concerns of some grassroots organizational structures and networks, on the other, as played out in Canada.
Activists and ordinary people in all communities have agency and voices – they do not need a global movement to do anything on their behalf. They also do not need global movements to go in and take over or overshadow their vital and established protest actions. Global movements should offer these grassroots protests and movements solidarity not usurpation.
I am in solidarity with the Indigenous Women’s movements in Canada (For our Sisters, Families of Sisters and Spirit) whose request for OBR Toronto to change their day of protests (or join theirs in sisterhood) so as not to eclipse/minimize their annual action calling for justice around the murdered and missing indigenous women of Canada on this same day – was dismissed and then their concerns described as ‘undue vitriol’ by the Canadian One Billion Rising Organizer in her response letter.
Certainly, my concerns have been dismissed or mythologized into insignificance too and none of the plentiful letters I sent outlining my apprehensions, were dealt with adequately, if at all. It was in New York recently, and in the aftermath of the meeting there, that the problematics of OBR came into sharp focus for me.
If One Billion Rising really has global women’s concerns and voices at heart then they should host an international symposium inclusive of all women and headed by women who are central to grassroots struggles, including indigenous women, to guide them on a way forward in terms of global strategy. I suggested this more than once.
I do not think that Eve Ensler is racist or has bad intentions. I think that Eve Ensler is a heartfelt and loving person but is victim to her own invisible white privilege and v-day’s organisational whiteness structures and was thus unable to envisage this revolt against (and from within) her well-intentioned movement.
If she cares and loves the world’s women, as she does, and if this movement is truly revolutionary ,then we call on her to open up this space to many more diverse women to decide on the way forward.
A revolution cannot be manufactured – it cannot be choreographed or staged or managed or controlled. It cannot be the brainchild of one person with a committee of worker bees to do her bidding. Though there are feminists involved in the organizing committee from around the world – it is not a big enough input to run a democratic global campaign. There does need to be much more public participation in the decision-making processes in all countries and the international office should consider using its resources to facilitate this process.
A revolution is organic – it truly belongs to the people – it is based on ideology of freedom and equity for the oppressed – not the oppressor deciding on or for the oppressed.
While I do not deny that One Billion Rising was a great success in many respects and it highlighted the issue of VAW on an international scale – it has also highlighted problematics in feminist and womens’s rights movements and these need to be dealt with in an open and non-defensive, non-oppressive manner. They need to be embraced and listened to and learned from. This is a valuable opportunity for solidarity. In places where it was owned by the grassroots women’s movements it worked well – the problematics showed up in Settler countries – postcolonial racially divided countries, where the issues are far more complex and open to a neocolonial interpretation of a movement that claims to be egalitarian.
Lauren Chief Elk’s open letter is a vital disruption and challenge to this issue and ought to be celebrated as such.
I hope that more women will feel comfortable about voicing their own concerns and feelings and join this global conversation.