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It’s been a media roll for anti-violence activists since December 2012. A whole generation seems to have suddenly woken up to the alarming realities of living in highly sexualized, violent socio-cultural contexts, be it in India or here in the U.S.
It is definitely heartening to see mainstream media and the public engage in these issues with a concern and criticality that is quite unprecedented. In the light of the heinous gang rape and the subsequent death of Jyoti Singh Pandey, there has been amplified outrage and a genuine concern in our communities about these ongoing trends of violence.
Eve Ensler (of Vagina Monologues fame), tapped into this vein of outrage when she floated her idea of “One Billion Rising” on Valentine’s Day, Feb 14. She sent out a call for a movement to protest the incidence of violence against one out of every three women in the world. In Ensler’s words, “We believed we could change human consciousness and make the world a place where women were safe, free, equal, with agency over their bodies and futures.” In a passionate denouncement of violence against women, she urged people to rise and engage publicly, to walk out of their homes, to express their fury and rage and validate their strength through the creative energy of dance. It was no surprise that her call was answered.
Men and women rose across 190 countries and participated in this movement. And when the world floods with waves of empowerment, can those of us in the heart of the liberal world in California remain dry and untouched?
In San Ramon, California, a group of women, calling themselves the Rewire Community came together and took up the cry for One Billion Rising. Initially the event was conceptualized as a house party to express solidarity with the One Billion Rising movement. However, as internal discussions grew it became clear that there were powerful thoughts to express and spirited conversations to share. The group decided to make their Rising movement a fundraiser for Narika, a women’s shelter serving and representing domestic violence survivors from the South Asian countries and diasporas of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Fiji, Trinidad, Mauritius, and Maldives.
Women’s groups have been working on the ground for years, challenging various forms of violence amidst growing backlash and resistance—from the flippantly coined “eve-teasing,” (which is street sexual harassment really) to raising awareness about child sexual abuse, marital rape and reversing the stigma and blame on women who are raped or molested. The work and indeed anger of several decades of activism found a voice that was picked up by a media that suddenly woke up to the reality of how overarching an issue sexual violence has always been in our societies. But there is a more silent and sadly, pernicious form of violence that does not get much media attention. It is not the one that happens out on the streets, in public spaces but closer at home. Indeed domestic violence incidents occur even in South Asian homes. The stigma of divorce, anguish over child custody issues, complications with immigration status all make it additionally complicated for immigrant South Asian women in the U.S. to overcome or end abusive relationships.
It should be no surprise to realize how pervasive violence against women is: spanning communities and age groups and income levels. In a moving tribute to the Rising movement, sitarist Anoushka Shankar admits that she too faced sexual and emotional abuse as a child “from a man that my parents trusted.”
There is no quick fix to a crisis of this magnitude where women’s bodies have been coded as objects of control, as dispensable commodities to exploit and abuse. The only systemic change that we can work towards to truly end these disturbing patterns of violence and to begin imaging a violence-free society is to begin with ourselves and our loved ones. We need to break the silence around violence —a dictum of the domestic violence movement, and indeed the feminist movement. We need to acknowledge that how we are in our personal, private, intimate lives, is actually quite political. The personal is indeed the political as the women’s movement teaches us.
But is one day, one movement enough? A year down the road, will people remember that we as a race, as a community, as a people protested? That we danced for the cause? I think the way to look at these answers is to ask the question how would it have been to not have had the rising. Any steps taken, dance or otherwise, is a step in the right direction.
But now the onus rests on us to continue the conversation; those difficult, uncomfortable conversations on sex and sexuality, rights and responsibilities, choice and freedom, with our daughters and sons, our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, our in-laws, extended family and friends. Awkward and inappropriate as they maybe, that is definitely the key starting place for us to be the change we want to see in the world.
Eleanor Roosevelt said it so eloquently about human rights but she might as well have said it about ending sexual violence: Change happens in small places. So small that they cannot be seen on a map.
Preeti Shekar is a feminist journalist and activist. She is currently the Executive Director of Narika, a non profit organization working to end domestic violence in the South Asian communities in the bay area. Preeti is also a freelance radio producer with KPFA 94.1 FM.
Shailaja Dixit has a Masters in Mass Communication. She stays busy juggling freelance market research, volunteering, home making, moderating online communities and Rewiring!