AT A PACKED auditorium in New Delhi last week, Eve Ensler, the author of The Vagina Monologues got onto the stage. “I’m tired of data porn.” It was time to move conversations about women out of the space of victimhood and into the space of celebration. “I am an emotional creature,” she said, reading from another of her plays. “Don’t tell me not to cry. / To calm it down / Not to be so extreme / To be reasonable. / I am an emotional creature. / It’s how the Earth got made. / How the wind continues to pollinate. / You don’t tell the Atlantic Ocean to behave.”
The call to celebrate being a woman has, since July last year, become an international movement called One Billion Rising. One in every three women in the world is raped or beaten each year, which adds up to a billion. Ensler reasoned, if women across the world rise as a collective, patriarchy can, and will, be smashed. Women and quite a few men across the world have been paying attention and 182 countries have signed up. From the Philippines to Cancun, Congo and the Caribbean. Jane Fonda to Robert Redford, Alice Walker and the Dalai Lama. To celebrate womanhood, vaginahood as potent, sexy and cerebral and the source of all creation. Of pleasure. And orgasms.
Now, with the spontaneous rising in India following the Delhi gangrape, India has become the movement’s main fulcrum. The call is to strike, dance, rise and reclaim Valentine’s Day as Vagina-Day or Victory-Day to combat violence against women.
In India, and indeed across all of South Asia, the One Billion Rising (OBR) campaign is being spearheaded by the feisty feminist Kamla Bhasin, who says it will be the unleashing of a feminist tsunami. She described the event with characteristic wit and candour as she sat with one leg set rigidly in a cast from a recent accident in Kabul. “This cast nearly reaches my vagina and is having its own dialogue with it,” she remarked, knowing full well how that would go down. “As someone in the last century said, you can’t be dead serious all the time. You have to lighten up and have a good laugh.” Which is why, apart from her books on Exploring Masculinity and several on gender education, she’s written songs that are now being used by groups across the country to dance as they prepare for V-Day. One song — a rewrite of a feudal folk song from Punjab — sends a terse message to all those who think of women as the second sex: “The weaker sex that we women are, can’t take no heavy housework too far; not alone can households run, being weaker, meeker second rung.” (Balley balley bhai aurat toh kamzor cheez hai, ghar ke bojh voh sahegi na akele, aurat toh kamzor cheez hai). A campaign placard on the One Billion Rising website sums up the movement poignantly — ‘Hard Times Require Furious Dancing.’
Women across the subcontinent are now using V-Day as an opportunity to rachet up already existing campaigns for real change — on the law and on governance. And social change from the inside out. Rukmini Panda, of the National Alliance of Women in Odisha, proudly declared that “this is a war.” It’s made students in Hyderabad make their own One Billion Rising video that opens with a man. And a young man from Delhi University say — “Let’s stop men from venturing out after dark. That will keep all genders safe.” It’s made the womens’ group Ekta, in Tamil Nadu, conduct a safety audit for the city of Madurai to map what is unsafe for women so that it can be changed. It’s made the Young Womens’ Christian Association, or the YWCA, in Mizoram’s capital Aizawl plan a walk with sex workers, where all women dress like sex workers in solidarity. In Delhi, the YWCA is working towards an allnight concert of, by and for women in Delhi on V-Day. And in Madhya Pradesh, the movement has made thousands of women and men turn out for a ‘one million hands’ solidarity meeting in Bhopal, where Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was forced to accept two demands. That the dysfunctional helpline, 1081, would be resuscitated; and a special womens’ cell would be set up to do a budgetary analysis of what proportion of the state’s finances are being spent on the upliftment of women.
On V-Day, people from grassroots movements have planned special panchayats across all districts of Madhya Pradesh on the issue of violence against women, where a resolution will be passed. And 10,000 people will block the road set aside for VIPs in Bhopal where women will speak of violence committed against them. Far bolder, however, are the strident steps 50,000 women from Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh have pledged to take on that day. A pledge to step out of their homes and talk of rape. These are women from villages where patriarchal men have forbidden them from even mentioning the R word. In this setting, where upper caste women have been raped repeatedly, there is now a rising from the Dalit women.
IN GUJARAT, Indian classical dancer and staunch activist Mallika Sarabhai has fused One Billion Rising with a feminism that is her own. A travelling performance called Women With Broken Wings that is a collaboration with Swiss pianist Elizabeth Sombart. The performance takes you through 12 stages of womanhood, from birth to the discovery of the body, its violation, death and the hope for a resurrection. At a conversation on violence against women at Delhi University’s Miranda House, she shook her captive student audience out of their comfort zone by showing them the patriarchy in their midst. A beautiful woman was in a meditative trance in the forest, and a one-eyed monkey was watching as he did some yoga of his own. Lord Indra descended from sky and was struck by her beauty. She was oblivious of him, occupied as she was with her pranayam. An incensed Indra raped her. The monkey was shocked. And the woman’s husband was outraged because his honour as an upper caste man had been sullied. He asked Vishnu to make Indra pay. Indra was summoned and made to perform an animal sacrifice as penance for which a horse was killed. He was thereby absolved of his sin. As was the Brahmin man. The woman wasn’t worthy of consideration. The performance ended with Sarabhai turning to her audience with the last thoughts of the one-eyed monkey — “Humans have a very strange system of justice.”
For many women and men who have now pledged to participate in One Billion Rising, celebrating sexuality is a secondary goal. For them, V-Day is the victory over silence and an opportunity to convert outrage into concrete action. In this pledge alone, women across the country have caused the ground beneath our feet as a nation, to shift. Wherever things go from here, they will, most likely, not be as they were before. The gates are now being pried open. The gatekeepers forced to leave.
“…to speak of them out loud, to speak of their hunger and pain and loneliness and humour, to make them visible so they cannot be ravaged in the dark without great consequence.”
―Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.