Dec 11 2013

One Billion Rising, Eve Ensler and the Contradictions of Carceral Feminism(s)

Note: This post was written fast and while tired. It’s a work in process but I felt compelled to offer some thoughts because I have been growing increasingly pissed off over the past few days. Consider these preliminary notes. In addition, I mean the terms women & girls to include anyone who identifies with these categories. I want to take into account the ways that transgender women and girls experience violence (interpersonally and from the state).

photo of Eve Ensler from the Guardian.

photo of Eve Ensler from the Guardian.

Eve Ensler seems to have discovered state violence…in much the same way as Columbus ‘discovered’ America. She has announced herself ready to discuss and address the negative consequences of increased criminalization. Yet just a few months ago, One Billion Rising, Ensler’s global ‘anti-violence’ campaign, was primarily encouraging survivors of interpersonal violence to report their rapes & assaults to law enforcement. This, according to the campaign, was the way to hold perpetrators of violence ‘accountable’ for their actions.

Ensler and her collaborators were either unaware or didn’t care that the state itself is a major purveyor of gender violence. In fact, as suggested by advocates like Lauren Chief Elk, many women who come into contact with the criminal legal system seeking recourse find themselves becoming victims of that system. In addition, as Andy Smith has remarked: “…this approach actually disempowers women by locating the state as the solution to gender violence rather than actual political organizing by those impacted by gender violence.”

Ensler et. al’s strategy of increasing state control over the lives of survivors of violence now appears to be in direct contradiction with a newly announced initiative that they are calling ‘One Billion Rising For Justice U.S. Prisons Project‘. I learned about this project a couple of days ago. The website describes the new campaign as:

“…a recognition that we cannot end violence against women without ending all intersecting forms of oppression and injustice: poverty, racism, homophobia, war, the plunder of the environment, capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy.”

If this language sounds familiar, it’s because for years now, women of color activists, organizers, and scholars around the world have been making the case that state & structural violence are constitutive of violence against women and girls (see: Incite! among many others). That it’s all of a piece and that the interlocking oppressions manifest themselves in the daily lives of women & girls across the globe.

In a column published in the Guardian, Ensler elaborates on her new project:

This year we are escalating and deepening the campaign with One Billion Rising for Justice. Justice is about restoring the primacy of connection so that we understand that violence against women is not a personal problem, but connected to other systemic injustices whether they be patriarchal, economic, racial, gender, or environmental.

Here, Ensler seems to be responding to unattributed criticism which has suggested that the anti-violence movement has relied too heavily on individualistic forms of interventions rather than on more community-based solutions. Ensler adds:

“Many questions have arisen. How do we create justice when the state is paralysed or against us? What does justice look like? How do we address root causes of violence? How do we join our struggles? How do we distinguish between justice and revenge?”

Once again, Ensler’s readers are left to wonder how such questions “have arisen.” Who has been agitating to include these questions in mainstream anti-violence considerations and interventions? Just as the criticisms of the collusion between mainstream anti-violence advocates and the state are unattributed by Ensler so too does she erase the collective action that has forced the insertion of a transformative justice lens for addressing harm and violence. In addition, the “we” of whom Ensler speaks is undefined. This it seems is intentional because Ensler has positioned herself at the center of global anti-violence organizing where she gets to ‘learn’ from indigenous women through world traveling. For example, Ensler mentions her insipiration for launching One Billion Rising as being Congolese women:

On February 14, 2013 millions of people rose up and danced in 207 countries with our campaign One Billion Rising. It turns out that dancing, as the women of Congo taught me, is a most formidable, liberating and transformative energy.

It’s instructive that Ensler chose to be inspired by Congolese women’s dancing rather than their years of painstaking and dangerous community and political organizing against violence and for economic justice. Congolese women have been annexed to Ensler’s One Billion Rising campaign. One has to ask, how this happens? How does one become subsumed under the One Billion Rising campaign umbrella? If one Congolese woman dances, must all Congolese women dance too? Unsurprisingly not all women in the Congo are on board with Ensler’s campaign. Natalie Gyte relayed an anecdote about a Congolese woman’s perceptions of Ensler in a Huffington Post article earlier this year:

I recently listened to a Congolese woman talk in a speak-easy setting of radical grassroots feminists. She was radiantly and beautifully powerful in her unfiltered anger towards the One Billion Rising movement, as she used the words “insulting” and “neo-colonial”. She used the analogy of past crimes against humanity, asking us if we could imagine people turning up at the scenes of atrocities and taking pictures or filming for the purposes of “telling their story to the rest of the world”. Take it one step further and try to imagine a white, middle class, educated, American women turning up on the scene to tell survivors to ‘rise’ above the violence they have seen and experienced by…wait for it…dancing. “Imagine someone doing that to holocaust survivors”, she said.

Ensler is not unique in what Bell Hooks has called “eating the other” though. She is also not unique in centering herself within other people’s struggles. Quoting Andy Smith again:

Ensler’s language basically masks a Western Liberal project of “giving voice” to the oppressed. But as Arundhati Roy has said, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Millions of women across the Globe are and have been organizing for their own liberation. They’ve used their voices for that. Even if the formulation of ‘giving voice’ wasn’t problematic on its face, we should be troubled that Ensler et al. seek to ‘give voice’ to incarcerated women, for example, without offering a substantive critique of the prison itself as violence.

Even within a supposed critique of prisons as sites of sexual and physical violence, the prison is still positioned by Ensler as inevitable and immutable. There is no acknowledgement that prisons are violence in and of themselves. There’s no mention in the campaign recently promoted that women who use violence against their perpetrators often find themselves trapped within these same prisons. It’s as if they are invisible in the campaign. Are they not prisoners too then? Are they not survivors of violence too? What this underscores is that One Billion Rising’s analysis of the sources of violence in people’s lives is too uncomplicated.

This leads me to be very concerned about One Billion Rising for Justice’s U.S. Prison Project. With its inability to radically interrogate prison as violence, the campaign can only dedicate itself to making prison a little more bearable. And I guess that while real bodies are locked in those cages, there is some value in that. But the danger is that this project employs a language of “transformation” and of “justice” that makes it appear much more radical than it actually is or can be. This is tepid reform masquerading as something else..

I’m a feminist and a prison abolitionist. I have previously mentioned that there was actually a time when prison abolition was a feminist concern. Times have changed and it’s more likely that you’ll find feminists calling for more & longer prison sentences than for an end to them. One Billion Rising for Justice seems to want to hew to some feminists’ histories of resisting the carceral state. Unfortunately, it falls way, way short.

  • By Shannon W., December 11, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

    Slamming “white women” (this group includes me) for being self-centered is neither accurate, nor does it help stop violence against women (actually it works against that). People should not lend credibility to bigoted statements like Adam’s by quoting them, except to criticize them. Ensler’s viewpoint is certainly self-centered and ignorant, but but why must one also turn every white woman into Eve Ensler? I must tell you and Adam both, I don’t appreciate it, and I unequivocally reject his statement. A feminist should reject any attempt at creating divisiveness among women.

  • By Fred Sharp, December 13, 2013 @ 10:08 am

    Trying very, very hard not to spew vile language at Ms. Ensler. Has this woman been living under a rock for the past 30 years? I think it more likely that she is simply looking to be the “Great White She Hope” and is totally blind to the damage she will do with this One Billion Rising ego trip.

  • By Poe, December 13, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

    @Shannon W., uh White women. “I don’t exist within a political sphere”… “We’re all pink on the inside ladies”. Deep sigh. Way not to get it.

  • By Jo, December 14, 2013 @ 9:40 am

    I applaud her enthusiasm for new (to her) ideas; I know what it’s like to be excited about new concepts which empower us. I think it’s terrible that she then tries to claim ownership and origination for those ideas, mistaking the symbol for the thing, and decides against the more logical route of joining with (and learning from) those who have actually forged the path she has “discovered.” As a side note; bell hooks’ name is not capitalized by her own choice of identity. This is an easy one for editors to miss and for autocorrect to lose its mind over :-)

  • By maryinga, December 14, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    Gosh! After years of being too busy teaching and raising kids to catch any of the Vagina monologues, I just read Eve’s “In the Body of the World” and was very moved by it.

    Yes. She is a white woman, and obviously privileged. Her fight against cancer would have been far worse…and with less positive results most likely, were she American and poor. In that however, neither colour nor sexual preference figures. That’s about Capitalism and the worship of money that plaques much of the globe.

    I am also educated, with Ph.D work in Educational Theory, Post Modernism, Cultural theory, etc. etc. etc. There is so much theory out there….and much of it is in keeping with the critique of Ensler above.

    It may be justified. But then again, we are all situated somewhere, we all begin with partial awareness, partial perspective and individual strengths and weaknesses. Moreover….we are all born into ‘this’ world, and not some future place where all is made clear to us, history dissolves and everyone agrees about everything.

    And I think this is my sense of discomfort with the above critique. It is a common formulation for the many disagreements and disapprovals that proliferate on the left. There’s always someone who knows better, and who has to point out what a movement is not. But here’s the catch, at least for me.

    Ensler has tried to do something…and given her positioning, she’s had some success. Patriarchy, state violence, imperialism, white conscience and guilt aren’t going to disappear in a day. We have to begin from where we are, loaded down as we often are, by a lot of this sh…t. Inevitably it seems, part of that baggage is the need for lateral violence….and damning criticisms that seem based on some vision of purity that the victim of the attack has not perceived.

    I think its counter productive. Even though I agree with the analysis about ‘giving voice’ and celebrating dance as a solution….white people do have a tendency to want it simpler and more pretty than reality allows. Still it would be more hopeful if dialogue and respect for all differences could replace intellectual put downs…because for sure: The psychology that tortures women and girls in the belief that acts of rape protect the perpetrator from death in battle… not going to be changed in a generation. Hell! WE’ve only just begun to admit that the abusers have a psychology….and perhaps a story as well.

    Demonizing, hating the other,wanting to trash or destroy what we are not….and what threatens us…is surely part of the problem. I have a hard time figuring out how it can be the solution to anything important.

    Solidarity….I’m from the working class. And believe me, being in solidarity with my labouring brothers hasn’t been a cake walk. Hahahahha

  • By Jessica, December 18, 2013 @ 12:35 am

    This is hardly a new project for Eve Ensler. She wrote the play “Any One of Us” based on her experience teaching writing courses in Bedford Prison and had a POV special air about this experience as well. All of these projects show the same pattern of making invisible the organizing and resistance of prisoners, activists and scholars against the Prison Industrial Complex, and failing to attribute ideas and agency to anyone but Eve Ensler. They also leave the structural violence of the prison intact while reducing the view of violence in the prison to the acts of individuals. Thanks for posting this. I’ve been told to leave the One Billion Rising campaign alone because it is getting people excited to take action, but I think it does more harm than good to not critique it’s major faults.

  • By Another Slime, December 19, 2013 @ 3:17 pm

    While I agree with you over the white saviour complex thing, as someone who works at a domestic violence service, the reporting violence to the state thing is real tricky. Ive no love for the police, more so than ever working in this kind of service. ive seen the sharp end of the patriarchy embodied in the fuzz, ive seen structural violence enacted in stomach turning reports and brutal understandings. The thing is, some guys are fucking murderous. they will murder their wives and girlfriends. I would love there to be an anarchist solution to this. I would love there to be a way of keeping women safe from these fuckheads without resorting to state, abusive and violent as it is in itself. But in my job, i think, if we’re paying for the police and the judcial system the least they could so is prevent our husbands and boyfriends from murdering us. so i do tell women to call police, i tell them all the time.

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