One Billion Rising: Progress for Women Worldwide, But Still Much to Do

On February 14 2013, a large-scale feminist media event took place, One Billion Rising [en], which was followed closely on Twitter using the hashtag #1BillionRising. The website of this campaign made an appeal to women worldwide :

On the 15th anniversary of V-Day (Violence against Women Day), 14 February 2013, we are inviting one billion women, and those who love them, to walk out, dance, rise up, and demand an end to this violence. “One Billion Rising” will move the earth, activating women and men across every country. V-Day wants the world to see our collective strength, our numbers, and our solidarity across borders.


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Poster advertising “One Billion Rising” in France

The “One Billion Rising” project set a goal of “shaking the world into a new consciousness”, through quasi-ritual self-expression in the form of walking and dancing.

A new consciousness of violence

In her 2010 book J'ai tué Schéhérazade : Confessions d'une femme arabe en colère (“I killed Schéhérazade : Confessions of an angry arab woman”), which describes her development as a woman activist, author Joumana Haddad wrote:

A friend asked me one day: “What is your favorite place in the world ?” . . . “Inside my head.”

Here is a very simple answer, which to many may seem too easy, but which nevertheless describes an unresolved conflict.

In Egypt, for example, women refuse to be complacent, and recently – two years after the popular uprising against the political regime – women protested in Tahrir Square against the harassment to which they have been subjected. Laurie Penny, a columnist for The Independent newspaper, shared a picture on her blog of Egyptian women marching against sexual harassment.

In India, although events have been held regularly to denounce the normalization of daily attacks, it was a gang-rape in New Delhi in December 2012 which ignited the crowds, and attracted the attention of media.

In France, the public is enthralled by FEMEN, a group of Ukrainian women activists who protest topless across Europe, as well as about the issue of marriage for all and laws concerning prostitution.

On Twitter, opinions differ.  Information is shared, sometimes anonymously: marches are tweeted live, and users report, protest, ask questions, and share their feelings and personal experiences.
These voices have carried so far that some media have described it as a visible phenomenon, radical movement, or revolution in progress.

“Women still don't know how to take their space”

Meanwhile, women gathered for the art performance Silver Action, by Suzanne Lacy, at the Tate Modern Gallery in United Kingdom on February 3, 2013, did not seem to share this opinion. During the event, hundreds of British women, over 60 years old, described their feelings in a verbal performance, which was relayed on Twitter by invited listeners. They described their active roles in feminist demonstrations between the 1950s and 1980s, revealing advances in human rights, but also similarities between yesterday and today.

Listeners reacted on Twitter, for example, self-described feminist Lee Webster (@leepster) wrote:

@leepster: “My son has friendships with women that aren't sexual. That used to be unheard of” #silveraction making me realise what I take for granted.

Alice Haworth-Booth (@ahaworthbooth) said:

@ahaworthbooth: “Men have changed, and we must continue to empower men to ask the same questions we are asking” – of power & status quo #SilverAction

Journalist Julie Tomlin (@JulieTomlin) wrote:

@JulieTomlin: ‘Young women may have mobile phones but they seem just as ignorant as we were…’ #SilverAction

Joanna Sawkins (@JoannaSawkins) said:

@JoannaSawkins: Women still don't know how to take their own space. That fact is scary #silveraction

A question of intergenerational transmission between activists has also arisen, because, while over the years, women have gained more freedom, the fundamental problem which they face remains the same: what role should they take? 

Reappropriation of the body

Illustration by Chili Con Cacahuete, used with permission.

Illustration by Chili Con Cacahuete, used with permission.

To take possession of one's space, for a woman, is first to reappropriate her own body, such as in matters like abortion, prostitution, and sexuality. To exist as a human being requires first “to be present as me“, to quote Joumana Haddad. In France, a man controlled his land, his property, his children, and his wife until 1793, the year in which the equality of women in marriage was proclaimed. Prior to 1793, the body of a woman thus was an object which belonged legally to a man, like an item of furniture. After 1793, although equality in marriage recognized a woman's value, her status as a full-fledged human being was nevertheless conditioned by her attachments to men. This mentality changed only very slowly – for example, in the Civil Code of 1802, a woman was still defined as “an unable citizen”. This “disability” would not be abolished until 1938.

The concept of a woman's body as an object belonging to a man is not restricted only to French society. Martine Costes-Peplinski [fr], a sexologist, liked to begin her lectures with a reference to a folktale:

Schéhérazade, voilà des années que je raconte cette histoire pour introduire mes exposés sur la violence conjugale : comment les femmes ont dû – faute de pouvoir civil, civique et économique – développer ce savoir-faire conjugal que les hommes ont longtemps nommé : « le pouvoir sur l’oreiller ». Utiliser les quelques heures partagées pour obtenir par mille habiletés et stratagèmes ce que le droit vous refuse.

Schéhérazade, many years ago I told this story to introduce my lectures on domestic violence: how women, lacking civil, civic and economic power – had to develop this conjugal expertise, which men have long called “the power of the pillow.” Using a few shared hours to obtain, using a thousand skills and tricks, that which is denied to you by law.

Schéhérazade, in the collection of stories One Thousand and One Nights, volunteers to stop the massacre perpetrated by the king of Persia, Shâhriar, who, convinced of the infidelity of all women, marries a virgin every day, whom he kills on the morning after the wedding night. For one thousand and one nights, Schéhérazade tells him a story each night, captivating him, and thereby forestalling her execution.

The task of this woman was to preserve the integrity of her body, which is to say, the control of her life. Although the king in this story must be considered a tyrant and a lunatic, the text nevertheless shows a form of daily imagination employed by Schéhérazade, and which must still be used today by women trapped in an abusive relationship. This could include all types of avoidance mechanisms, from submission, to indignation, or rage.

A global revolution 

The fight to stop violence against women has always taken place on two fronts: that of bodily and spatial reappropriation, and that of global human revolution. This is because men are not the only ones to commit violence, and equally because, conversely, women are not the only ones to suffer it.

This is the viewpoint of Joumana Haddad in her article entitled “Boys Against Men”:

What is required now, alongside the female revolution, is no less than a male revolution: a radical, structural, non-violent, non-sloganistic revolution, which can promote a more mature and fulfilling relationship between the two sexes. And while doing so, gentlemen, simply remember this: Machismo is not about men against women. It is about boys against men.

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