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.