With our bodies, we take action

February 15, 2013

Students rise on Thursday in New Delhi, India. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

One billion.

That’s the number of women worldwide who will be raped or beaten at some point in their lifetimes, according to conservative U.N. statistics.

But this Feb. 14, 1 billion wasn’t just the harrowing tally of victims of violence against women and girls. It was the inspiration behind “One Billion Rising,” a global day of action to show solidarity and fight back.

Activist Eve Ensler last year invited 1 billion people to mark this year’s V-Day, the global movement she founded 15 years ago to end gender-based violence, by taking a moment at some point in their day to rise, dance and demand an end to violence.

The response she received was resounding.

Nancy Pelosi rose on Twitter. Rosario Dawson spoke out on MSNBC, and Anne Hathaway cut some rug in West Hollywood. Even the Dalai Lama and the Rio De Janeiro Carnival Queen joined in. (Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but I like to think Ryan Gosling’s alter-feminist-ego rose.)

This V-Day, Ensler says a total of 203 countries, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the United States, rose.

Dozens of risings took place across New York, the birthplace of the international anti-street harassment movement Hollaback!. Crowds gathered to rise in Austin, where more than 1,000 people reported rape and sexual abuse last year. My mouth was agape as I watched uniformed guards and inmates dance together in San Francisco. One man, in his orange jumpsuit, called the experience empowering and emotional. “I lost two sisters to violence,” he said. “I am proud to do this.”

I was a blubbering mess by the end. Clearly, the video touched others as well. In less than one day, it had nearly 10,000 views.

In Germany, where 40 percent of women of at least 16 years of age have faced either sexual or physical violence or both,126 cities rose.

Six hundred Egyptians danced and sang in western Cairo at just one of the five risings in Egypt, where 83 percent of women have been harassed in their lifetimes. In a recent protest in Tahrir Square, 25 women reported being gang assaulted.

Protesters stopped traffic in the Philippines, where the group said violence against indigenous women, hate crimes against lesbians and prostitution have increased. The dancers dressed as flower and lollipop sellers, cooks and waitresses, and joggers to blend in with the crowd before dancing atop vehicles and donning T-shirts protesting violence and discrimination against women.

Now that’s what I call a flash mob.

For some, like protesters in conservative, Muslim-majority Afghanistan, singing and dancing was not an option. But 100 men and women in Kabul did march and chant under the watchful eye of police armed with riot shields and rifles.

In Turkey, where 42 percent of women face some form of violence in their lives, risings in more than 15 provinces brought together hundreds of men and women in song and dance. Risings popped up all over the major metropolis of Istanbul, where the Turkish National Police still are investigating the murder of American tourist Sarai Sierra.

What was particularly heartening was the number of men who showed. As I watched men link arms with women for the traditional Turkish “halay,” they reminded me of the allies we have and how many more we need in this fight. They reminded me of another group of young Turkish men who last year partnered with Hollaback! Istanbul to shoot a video in which they tell the actual stories of harassed women and show solidarity for the cause.

Valentine’s Day aside: Honestly, which woman wants a box of chocolates when she could have a man’s dedication to ending violence against women? Hey, it’s the most original present I’ve heard of yet.

Some have scoffed at protesting violence against women through dance. After all, what tangible change can it bring? And doesn’t it seem, well, a bit stereotypical?

I admittedly was one of those.

“Dance is dangerous, joyous, sexual, holy, disruptive, contagious, it breaks the rules,” Ensler, the author of “Vagina Monologues,” writes on the campaign’s Web site. “One billion women violated is an atrocity. One billion women dancing is a revolution.”

Still, I wasn’t buying it. That is, until I recalled Todd Akin’s atrocious understanding of “legitimate rape” and the proposed New Mexico law that would send rape victims to prison for abortions. Until I thought about the recent gang rapes in India, street harassment in Istanbul and female genital mutilation in the Congo. And how could I forget the cover-up of the sexual assault of a young woman in Steubenville, Ohio?

Jill Filipovic put it perfectly in her column: “It’s our bodies that are violated. It’s our bodies that are politicized and subjected to laws about what we can or can’t cover or how we can or can’t reproduce or what our families should look like…And so it’s with our bodies that we should act.”

I hope you had a revolutionary Valentine’s Day.

Aly Neel is a journalist based in Istanbul. Follow her on Twitter at @AlysonNeel.

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Melinda Henneberger | February 14, 2013