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|Volume 12 |Issue 03| January 18, 2013 ||
THE WORLD IS RISING
A week ago, a young woman got out of a car on a main road in Dhaka. It was broad daylight and she was just about to cross a footbridge to reach her place of work. She walked this short distance once a day, five days a week, for more than a year. She had gotten used to men and boys glancing at her, occasionally stopping in their tracks to stare, mumbling something or whistling at her and even deliberately brushing against her. She dealt with it by ignoring all pedestrians, keeping her eyes on the ground ahead of her and treating the short walk like an obstacle course. This young woman who faces eve teasing every day is like millions of other working women in Bangladesh. She is also me.
With the recent brutal rapes and murders of young girls and women in South Asia featured heavily in the news, violence against women and girls has become a topical issue. But for Eve Ensler, an award-winning playwright and prominent activist who visited Dhaka last weekend, violence against women and girls has been an issue the world has been facing since time immemorial and while the news reports suggest a bleak situation, she believes there is change around the corner.
“I don't like to think of it as a fashion. I think we've been working for years and years in the feminist movement to bring us to this moment,” says the celebrated writer and activist in an exclusive interview with the Star. “I think what happened in Delhi, that horrible story, ignited something that has been underlining everything, which is this rage, exasperation and frustration of women that this is still going on and the numbers that it's going on. I think it's the beginning of women's strength around the world.”
Ensler, who has worked for an end to violence against women and girls with her global activist movement, V-Day, was visiting Bangladesh as part of a tour of countries that have embraced her movement's biggest campaign, One Billion Rising (OBR). The campaign initiated last year on the 15th anniversary of V-Day, calls for at least one billion people (to represent the one billion women thought to be subjected to violence across the globe according to the United Nations) to walk out, rise up, dance and demand an end to violence against women and girls worldwide on February 14, 2013.
“We're seeing in V-Day and One Billion Rising more people and more countries participating than we could have ever dreamed,” says Ensler proudly of the 182 countries that have pledged to participate in OBR's protest on what is also known as Valentine's Day. Well known faces such as the Dalai Lama and Bangladesh's own Dr Yunus along with local activists in places such as Siberia, Iran and Antarctica have pledged to rise up for the cause next month. “There are more places that we never thought would rise so I think it is actually the beginning of a new consciousness.”
So not to let the movement die out after V-Day, Ensler says “On the 14th, we are going to ask people to pledge to one thing they're going to do for the next year to end violence against women and girls. It can be personal or it can be political. It's so that the rising is in fact a pledge and commitment to really take this issue and make it the central issue of our time.”
Eve Ensler, who is famous for authoring the ground-breaking play The Vagina Monologues after interviewing more than 200 women, says she never intended for her life to go this way or to be known as a 'Vagina Woman'. When asked what the main inspiration for her play was, she says, “Curiosity. I was talking to a woman going through menopause and we got on to the subject of her vagina and she was saying how it was dried up and finished – and I was shocked to hear something like that about vaginas so I started asking other friends, 'what do you think about your vagina?'” Ensler insists, “I was just taking notes because I was curious. I wasn't planning to write a play about it. I was already like a radical playwright.” Ensler performed the first monologue in a cafe one night in New York and she says, “The reaction was so immediate and so intense. Women were lining up to see the show, like you couldn't get in. I was like 'oh god' – it was like cracking open the magic secret.”
“As I would tour with the show, so many women would come up to me to talk and at first I thought they really want to talk to me about their great sex lives, and their wonderful pleasure, but in fact most women wanted to tell me how they'd been abused, how they'd been beaten, raped and incested,” says Ensler, who is open and honest about the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. “It was as if the play had catalysed those stories and allowed them to tell because I was telling stories.”
Ensler says V-Day was born because she'd listen to other women's stories. “Many of those women had never told anyone their stories before. It was a very daunting experience and I felt very overwhelmed. I was like 'I cannot continue to do this unless I do something to end violence against women and girls. I can't just witness this.' And that really was the beginning.” Ensler and friends began putting on the show in New York and raising money for local groups and organisations working with women. The plan grew and they began inviting big names like Whoopi Goldberg, Glenn Close and Susan Sarandon to perform the play. “That production was so huge and catalytic that it just launched the movement. And in 15 years, it's been an unbelievable phenomenon. Everything's happened organically and because women are amazing and they make things happen and get things done and they spread it around the world.” Ensler says V-Day is currently working in 140 countries and grassroots activists have raised $100 million that has stayed in local groups. “We've seen the breaking down on taboos, women becoming activists, changing of laws, and the invigorating of other laws but we haven't seen the end of violence. The idea this year was how do we take our efforts and really escalate them so that we can amp up everything we're doing and break through human consciousness? And that's what One Billion Rising has been.”
Speaking eloquently with conviction, Ensler has a natural ability to impress and inspire the hearts of many women and men. At a performance organised by OBR Bangladesh at Shilpakala Academy, Eve spoke movingly to an audience about how universal the stories of abuse by Bengali women are and how impressed she was with the sensitive and loving men she had met in Bangladesh. Ironically, during the same evening programme, a man was caught attempting to molest a woman by her daughter and dragged outside, slapped and kicked out of Shilpakala Academy's venue. Ensler however commented, “Go her! That's the change we want to see, daughters rising up.”
Despite the fight against violence against women and girls being her life, Ensler sees her role in the global movement as supporting. “Oh my god, it has nothing to do with me anymore. I just feel like my job is to fan the coals, fan that fire, and be there to support the amazing women everywhere who are doing unbelievable work in every country.”
“I feel like I've been witnessing miracles everywhere I go,” the celebrated author of The Vagina Monologues says. “When I got to the Philippines they passed the reproductive health bill for the first time in 13 years, when I got to Delhi there were protests for the rapes, in America, we won the elections and pushed out the anti-women conservatives, so I've been seeing really great things everywhere I go.” She adds however, “And very bad things, in different ways.”
When asked what could be done by the state, Ensler explains, “Laws will be great, but they're not going to change this. What's going to change this is how we bring up boys and how we understand women and girls, how we change our consciousness towards them and how we bring up our boys to respect, cherish and honour women.”
Considering the turmoil Bangladeshi women face when deciding whether to let an instance of eve teasing slide for the sake of safety or not, Ensler believes there is too much blame and responsibility being placed on women and girls. “Rape and eve teasing has nothing to do with dress. I think that's absurd. I think we know women in chadors and burkas get raped. I think what we have to stop doing is putting the onus on women and start putting the onus on men. It's what men are doing that matters.” She asks, “Why aren't we putting cow bells on men who are eve teasing and sexually harassing so we know to stay away from them? It's important that we start opening our mouths and making noise. I just say to women 'scream on a bus if someone's eve teasing you and make a scene, embarrass that person and get all the other women on the bus to scream'. All of us have to stop being polite and giving licence and stop giving permission to this incredibly humiliating and invasive violating behaviour.”
A few days after my interview and inspiring time with Eve Ensler, I decide to begin my personal pledge to One Billion Rising early. I pledge not to ignore the eve teasing that happens to me if I can help it. And the young man who said something demeaning to me as I crossed the footbridge yesterday was the first of many to get an earful about it.
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