Violence against women and girls is one of the world’s gravest problems: what’s more, in the cruellest possible breach of trust, it is most often perpetrated by men under the same roof. As noted by the UN and the World Health Organisation, “the most common form of violence experienced by women globally is physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner. On average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime.” Fortunately, there is a global movement which has arisen with the aim to end this state of affairs. Unfortunately, in order to achieve its vital goals, its leadership may need to change.
Early this morning, a series of tweets from @Karnythia appeared on my timeline, which she subsequently and helpfully compiled as a Storify. One of those tweets contained an article by Eve Ensler, the founder of the One Billion Rising movement to end violence against women. I should note here that the article, “Congo Stigmata”, carries a trigger warning, as its content may be deeply distressing to any women who have suffered violence. The article, which you can read here, is worrying for several reasons: it is difficult to provide a summary without briefly being graphic, for which I apologise.
The facts are these. Ensler, in an extract from her new book, relates her discovery of a form of cancer, which leads to the appearance of a fistula, or a hole, between her vagina and her bowel. Ensler notes “the cancer had done exactly what rape had done to so many thousands of women in the Congo. I ended up having the same surgery as many of them.” The inference we are supposed to draw is that Ensler has spent so long campaigning on behalf of these women that she has somehow been both spiritually and physically raped in solidarity with them. As noted by of one of her friends, “It doesn’t surprise me, Eve, of course. All those stories of rape over all these years. The women have entered you.”
Ensler spends a paragraph describing her fixation with holes – “Black holes. Infinite holes. Impossible holes. Absences. Gaps, tears in membranes. Fistulas.” – which she concludes with the sentence “So many thousands of women in eastern Congo have suffered fistulas from rape that the injury is considered a crime of combat.” The suggestion that Ensler has, by proxy, become a victim of a crime of combat.
Ensler then goes to the Congo, where she asks to view an operation on a woman whose genitalia are being repaired after sustaining an act of sexual violence. She writes that “she needed to see a fistula”. It is unclear whether the woman herself, tied up in stirrups, consented to Ensler’s visit. What we do know is that Ensler has a “need to know the shape of this hole, the size of this hole. I needed to know what a woman’s insides looked like when her most essential cellular tissue had been punctured by a stick or penis or penises.” Ensler continues, moving towards a conclusion that feels alarmingly voyeuristic: “As I stood there in mask and gown, I realised I had stopped breathing. This woman’s vagina was a map of the future, and I could feel myself falling, falling through the hole in the world, the hole in myself, the hole that was made when my father invaded me and I lost my way. The hole that was made when the social membrane was torn by incest. Falling through the hole in this woman. I was falling. I have always been falling. But this time was different.”
It is clear from these closing quotes that Ensler has experienced and survived profound horror of her own. Unfortunately, she has overreached with her analogy: she has objectified a woman of colour in a fashion so gruesome as to conjure colonialist undertones. As @Karnythia states in her tweets, “Eve Ensler is displaying the kind of “progressive” racism that hurts so deeply because it is supposed to be helpful…”the sheer gall of Eve Ensler to describe staring into this woman’s body while she was restrained to satisfy her curiosity.”
Where does this leave #OneBillionRising? Well, the organisation has brought exceptional visibility to a range of issues, but three problems immediately present themselves. First, the movement has been previously been accused of trading upon the experiences of women of colour. Secondly, it must be said that #OneBillionRising shares one highly problematic feature with the ill-fated #Kony2012 campaign. As with #Kony2012, the organisation is led by a charismatic leader in pursuit of a socially beneficial aim – for the arrest of Joseph Kony, read the eradication of violence against women and girls – who has grossly oversimplified and appropriated the issues. Thirdly, having seen the appalled reaction from so many women on my Twitter timeline this morning, many of whom have significant and sympathetic followings, I wonder whether Ensler will increasingly be seen as lacking the legitimacy to lead this organisation. The danger is that her status as a figurehead may undermine or overshadow the movement’s essential mission. An even greater worry is how much of her objectification of women of colour affects the day-to-day strategy of the organisation.
We shall see. The next stage of #OneBillionRising takes place in January 2014, and many of its achievements to date have been highly impressive, as Ensler notes in the Guardian this week. For example, she writes that “in Guatemala, Marsha Lopez, part of the V-Day movement since 2001, says the most important result of OBR was the creation of a law for the criminalisation of perpetrators who impregnate girls under 14 years old. The law also includes penalties for forced marriage of girls under 18.” In 2014, the goals of #OneBillionRising are thankfully more ambitious than ever, given the UN’s description of violence against women as “a global pandemic”. A pressing question is whether, in the pursuit of those goals, Ensler is better off not on the One Billion Rising podium, but cheering on its work from the nearby crowd.
NOTE: Thank you to @Karnythia, @irevolt, @dreamhampton, @ChiefElk, and @babywasu for their excellent tweets on this subject.