Rarely, in recent memory, has something I read crawled so under my skin. I chanced upon Natalie Gyte's vitriolic and irrational diatribe against Eve Ensler and her recently launched One Billion Rising (OBR) campaign right before I was about to go to bed. The factual, philosophical and logical craters in Gyte's essay 'Why I Won't Support One Billion Rising' swallowed my sleep for the night. But what truly kept me awake were the unnecessary personal attacks against a brave woman and her path-breaking work.
For the sake of full disclosure, I am a friend of Eve's and have worked with her on many occasions, including helping launch OBR in India.
The first problem comes when Gyte claims that "reservations about this campaign are being expressed quietly amongst grassroots activists" - she includes herself as one - and that "mainstream feminists, mainstream press, politicians, and large organizations don't tend to be so interested in those of us lacking considerable PR power". Other than herself, Gyte doesn't mention any other names of grassroots activists who have expressed these reservations about the campaign or are being silenced by the mainstream feminists et al. If she had named others it might have given more credibility to her claim. Other than that, this just comes across as sour grapes, pouting at not having as much media exposure and presence as Gyte would like herself and her organization to have.
Moreover, what she fails to mention is that OBR, like V-Day, and all of Ensler's work, is composed almost entirely of grassroots groups all over the world. Our experience in India with V-Day over the last 15 years, and more specifically with OBR this year (and this was seen globally in the over 200 countries that participated in the campaign) is that the grassroots organizations took the bulls by the horn with this new initiative because it fit within a global umbrella and gave their voices a worldwide echo and solidarity. Women in the poorest parts of India and Bangladesh (certainly this is grassroots) organized and came out in numbers not seen before and they put ending violence against themselves and their daughters front and centre of the local, regional and even national debate. What these women, and a billion others realized which Gyte has failed to, is that One Billion Rising is not about furthering one organizations method of ending violence, rather it is about giving local activists in every corner of the world the tools, platform, and most of all support to address the violence in their communities by using methods that they know work within their social, political, religious environment.
The second huge pothole in Gyte's piece is when she so boldly proclaims that "the primary problem with One Billion Rising is its refusal to name the root cause of women's inequality; its outright refusal to point the finger at a patriarchal system which cultivates masculinity and which uses the control and subjugation of women's bodies as an outlet for that masochism." This is this lazy research on Gyte's part. I could point to numerous articles and speeches where this very issue has been addressed by Eve and V-Day. Most recently, when Eve was in India for the launch of OBR this past January, she spoke at length to people across all sectors and everywhere she went about how the dismantling of patriarchy is central to ending violence against women and girls. Ensler has dedicated her life to ending violence against women and in doing so has spent the last 18 years pointing out the ways in which patriarchy subjugates women's bodies and turns them into battlegrounds where policy and philosophy, where politics and economics, and where doctrine and dogma are brutally negotiated. Eve speaks tirelessly about dismantling patriarchy and she speaks eloquently about how so much of how we live in the modern world has subjugated women's bodies even further and deeper into violence.
Gyte however didn't research this, and in doing so digs herself deeper by using a quote from Stella Creasy to further her false point about OBR not acknowledging or attacking patriarchy. Creasy, in support of OBR, gave a speech in which she included men in the campaign, saying that "violence is not a gender issue; this affects our societies as a whole". While Creasy's articulation of this might have bordered on politically correct, (and we are not given the entire speech or context by Gyte) nothing in that quote is problematic or wrong. OBR has unabashedly asked men to join the fight to end violence against women and girls. Through damning Creasy's quote Gyte implies that patriarchy cannot be destroyed with men fighting alongside women. More idiotically still, she seems to see violence as only a woman's issue.
Statistics tell us that the majority of violence against women is perpetrated by men, but to say that this does not affect men is detrimental to the larger efforts to destroy the patriarchy that has caused this plague of violence against women and girls around the world. What Gyte seems to want is a utopian, idealistic feminism of the past, sanitized of any presence of men, to be the only one attacking patriarchy. Unlike the billion who rose on February 14, Gyte doesn't seem to have the vision to understand that men too can help dismantle patriarchy, nor does she seem to have the intellectual honesty to admit that dismantling this patriarchy is not about gender, but rather of the mindset of those involved.
Gyte also misses the boat widely on the issue of dance and OBR. She claims that Eve is being patronizing in "asking survivors of rape to dance for 20 minutes on Valentine's Day" thus "completely divert[ing] the world's attention away from the real issue of gender based violence and rape with a pleasing-to-the-eye coordinated dance". This is such garbage. Neither Eve nor OBR ever claimed that dancing on 14 February would be the everlasting salve for survivors of violence or for the pandemic itself. Dance has been used as a form of protest for centuries. Dance as used in OBR was a symbol of sharing and unity, of expression and solidarity, of raising awareness and engendering future action. And incidentally, in the run-up to the launch, people have not just danced - they have written songs and poems, painted canvases and thrown clay, drafted new legislation, started grassroots programmes and raised funds. Eve's genius all along has been in using the arts to create awareness and raise funds to help in combating and ending this violence. No one, including Eve, for a moment believes that dancing on 14 February would cure it all and end all the pain and suffering, individual or collective. In fact, if Gyte did any research and fact finding, she would know that 14 February was not conceived as the end, but rather as the beginning of a new consciousness and awareness that hopefully will be followed up in the ensuing years with concrete actions to end this scourge. None of us who have thrown our bodies and sinew into OBR believed that this pandemic would disappear on 15 February, we know it's an ongoing struggle. In fact, Gyte insults us all in her reductive half- and un-truths, when we have collectively decided to roll up our sleeves and take on the fight no matter how long it takes.
So when Gyte attacks OBR, and Eve by extension, of not taking on patriarchy and diverting attention away from the root causes of violence, she is at best a badly researched writer and at worst gratuitously and disingenuously trying to damage the reputation of a movement and its founder.
Another 'pothole' in her piece that I find interesting, is that Gyte seems to have a huge problem with the PR campaign aspects of OBR. She says that "news footage does not equal awareness, educational programmes do". As head of communications, of any organization, let alone a Women's Resource Centre, does Gyte seriously not understand the power of the media? Moreover, she seems to want to have it both ways - she starts the article by blaming the mainstream press, feminists, etc. of stifling the voices of the so-called grassroots folk implying that the grassroots folks would also like to be heard, and yet she cuts OBR, a campaign made up of local grassroots activists, to pieces precisely for being heard globally and at decibel levels hereto unimaginable or unheard.
Done with her love-hate cognitive dissonance about PR and its use in the fight to end gender-based violence, Gyte then turns her blunt intellect on what she calls OBR's "world domination international influence". She erroneously refers to the Democratic Republic of Congo as "one of the main hubs for the campaign". Again, what she would have learned with even the most rudimentary of fact checking is that OBR has no hubs. OBR is inherently democratic and grassroots - people everywhere signed on to do whatever they could do in their communities, tackling local issues to spread awareness and create the movement on a global scale. This is not just a matter of getting facts wrong, Gyte exposes herself as someone with so many personal axes to grind, that the facts be damned.
Not only does this lack of research on Gyte's part lead to falsities about the campaign, but also to make claims against the campaigns founder. In another personal attack on Eve, Gyte questions her presence in the DRC, asking " Does she think that her shared experiences of abuse make her a kindred spirit to Congolese women? That her presence will bring about comfort? Change? Does she really have such an inflated sense of ego that she simply must jet set around, visiting One Billion Rising hubs?" Had Gyte dared to do some research she would know that for the last seven years Eve, through a global V-Day campaign has spent a large portion of time in the Congo working with local activists on the ground to build the City of Joy, a grassroots-created centre and transformational community for Congolese women survivors of sexual violence. Eve didn't just show up with her "inflated sense of ego" in the "build-up to Valentines Day" 2013 to show the Congolese some neo-colonial feminist dance therapy.
Gyte then seems to take glee in asserting that: "Thus, a campaign with unprecedented media fire-power has failed to achieve anything other than to create a façade which will have no effect whatsoever upon the global pandemic which is gender based violence". Apart from her delusional aspiration of being the instant oracle of historical assessment, Gyte seems to think that if an event happens on 14 February, 2013, on the same day (her article appeared then) she is qualified to give us history's only and unequivocal assessment of OBR. More interestingly, Gyte's premature dismissal of OBR is evidence of a very patriarchal way of thinking and assessing. The beauty, and to an extent the built-in humility of OBR is that we will never truly know the full and actual impact of what the campaign launched on 14 February. No one will be able to document all the real changes, individual or institutional, personal or collective, that OBR initiated. Who will truly be able to assess the violence that DID NOT happen because OBR created awareness and future action? Patriarchy wants these to be hard facts and numbers, or else it pronounces it a failure, a facade. The rest of us are confident in a more amorphous, intuitive understanding that OBR has and will continue to change lives that won't be reflected in statistics only, nor even fully accurately in the history books.
Towards the end of the article, except for insinuating not so subtly that Eve has a "white saviour complex" Gyte makes some interesting points about some of the problems with some branches of white academic feminism. But then she should have written that as a separate piece. To use OBR as the jumping-off point to attack certain forms of "mainstream feminism" makes her essay at best grotesquely misinformed and intellectually dissonant, and at worst a series of personal attacks and lies bordering on slander. Eve is not an academic mainstream feminist. She is an artist who has inimitably used the power of the written and spoken word to create personal and collective seismic plate-shifts of personal and collective change wherever her works have found their way. I have personally seen the transformative power of her work, literary or otherwise. In fact, my life has been changed by her work and friendship. I have been proud to know Eve for over a decade now. I have been privileged to have been trusted to be part of her work. I have been humbled and awed by the way her work touches people. I know her to be everything but what Gyte claims she is. I know her work to be infinitely more valuable than Gyte would have the courage to admit.
But my personal anecdotes and love for Eve are not what fuel my response to Gyte; it is her blatant character assassination that kept me from 'rising' above (getting over) Gyte's spiteful piece.
I also want to state two painfully obvious things. Firstly, no one from Eve's side asked me to write this. Secondly, there is no compulsion, mandate or proclamation emanating from any hub or any place else for anyone, including Ms. Gyte, to support One Billion Rising. But my humble advice to Gyte is to take a few moments out to just dance - if nothing else it will help reduce the unnecessary bile you are swimming in. And most importantly, it will help build the stamina required to finally tear down patriarchy!