Eve’s monologues undermine women’s movementby Farida Akhter
WE READ or hear about rape and also killing after rape occurring in different areas of the country every day. Rape and killing are direct physical attack on a woman’s body but violence against women is more than just rape and killing. Others forms of violence caused by social, economic and cultural factors and different development policies are often ignored — not because these are not directly physical or invisible but must be made so, to justify systemic violence. Injecting Depo-Provera into poor women’s bodies or implanting Norplant under her skin for population control and keeping garment workers under lock and key and burning them to ashes or burying them alive as ‘accidents’ are some of the examples. Dowry is a major social violence against women in all of South Asia. Trafficking in women for various purposes is happening at national, regional and international levels. Women’s right to livelihood, seed keeping and food production is threatened by so-called development interventions and introduction of technologies. Violence against women, therefore, is not only, or necessarily, limited to women’s body; it is affecting her entire life. Even when her whole body is targeted for systemic violence, it is made invisible.
Women’s movement in Bangladesh has been very strong, although it has slowed down a bit in recent years. There are always protests against incidents of violence at local levels or among groups closer to victims. However, nothing much is happening in the national-level women’s movement. This was not the case before. We have seen in the past how the rape of the 14-year-old Yasmeen by the police on August 25, 1995 sparked outrage among general people and women’s organisations all over the country. Seven men were killed by the police during protests in Dinajpur where the incident occurred. In Dhaka, Sammilita Nari Samaj was formed to work together and termed it state violence against women. Begum Sufia Kamal led the movement and brought all the people together. Sammilita Nari Samaj had followed the issue for months and years till the perpetrators were brought to justice. Nothing like that is happening now, although much more incidents like gang rape and killing after rape are taking place. Yasmeen movement needs to be revisited and revived again.
At the regional and global level, the movement to stop violence against women is taking different shapes along with the rise in the incidents of rape and killing of women. To stop this, very limited actions are being taken. Recently, the gang rape of Jyoti in Delhi has sparked outrage among all the people, including women’s organisations. In Bangladesh incidents of gang rape occurred before and after the Delhi incident, but big human chains were organised only after the Delhi protests. In this context, American playwright and performer Eve Ensler’s visit to Bangladesh has come to the forefront in the name of global action against violence against women. On the occasion of her visit in January, there were stage performances of Vagina Monologue and also performances by Bangladeshi theatre groups. I found it a very untimely celebration of a western and culturally alien perspective imposed on Bangladesh as universal women’s issue. I also see in such intervention another form of cultural violence to silence the systemic issues relevant to women’s movements in Bangladesh. Women activists are trying hard to address and sharing with their sisters around the world to make an indent in the global women’s movement. In the era of globalisation, war and multiple forms of state violence around the world, women are the main victims of these masculine adventures.
If Eve Ensler’s main contribution is theatre performances to break silence, it must not be assumed that Bangladesh did not have such a practice before. For Bangladesh, it is not new at all. Let me remind all that in the late 1980s, theatre groups in Bangladesh felt the need to enquire into the notions of hegemonic masculinity, gender, and sexuality. In 1989, a Group Theatre ensemble named Theatre produced Kokilara, a monodrama in three, parts written and directed by a man (Abdullah al Mamun) but performed by one of the most popular and versatile women performers in Bangladesh — Ferdousi Majumdar. The play showed how a univocal and domineering ideology of gender, articulated through the institutions of marriage and divorce in the social field of Bangladesh, attempts to control and silence all women irrespective of classes. [www.departmag.com/archive/6th_issue/seeking_lines_of_flight_2.html].
Kokilara earned appreciation at home and abroad. The monodrama had hundreds of shows in different parts of Bangladesh and abroad. The play was over two hours long and divided into three phases. Ferdousi performed 16 different characters in the full-length play. This was an extraordinary achievement. As a humble activist, I always cherish her contribution not only to the theatres but also addressing the women’s question in Bangladesh within the limits of urban paradigm.
Yet for Bangladesh, such stage performances generally remained confined to the Bailey Road theatre halls in the capital Dhaka and could not reach the women who were suffering from such violence. If Kokilara [played in Bangla] could not reach the general women, how can we think that Eve Ensler’s book The Vagina Monologues is going to be relevant to women here in our country? The Vagina Monologues has now turned into an international movement, featured as a film Until the Violence Stops. This is a documentation of how The Vagina Monologues grew into an international ‘grassroots’ movement called V-Day to stop violence against women and girls. In 2002, eight hundred cities around the world participated in V-Day by staging performances of The Vagina Monologues. These are performances and there is no reason for me to undermine the personal achievement of Eve Ensler. But can it be an international movement? That’s too much to claim for a theatrical performance and directly undermines the achievements and the unique contributions of many other performers around the world and Bangladeshi women such as Ferdousi Majumdar and others.
Eve Ensler is now known as the founder of V-Day in 2002, the global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. Later V-Day’s ‘One Billion Rising campaign’ was launched in early 2012 and has been announced to culminate in the one-year long action on February 14 —Valentine’s Day. It is also V-Day’s 15th anniversary and therefore activists, writers, thinkers, celebrities and women and men across the world will come together to express their outrage, strike, dance, and RISE in defiance of the injustices women suffer, demanding an end at last to violence against women. Are we celebrating the book or expressing our outrage against violence against women?
Eve Ensler has toured to raise awareness about V-Day’s ONE BILLION RISING campaign (www.onebillionrising.org) since last year in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Croatia, Serbia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Guatemala, Peru, Mexico, and the Philippines. Ensler visited Trivandrum, Mumbai, and Delhi, India, and Dhaka, Bangladesh in January 2013.
It looks like that in Bangladesh this campaign of One Billion Rising will be celebrated with the same slogan of ‘strike, dance and rise’. Nevertheless, if some women of Bangladesh think they should be part of it, that’s fine. But when it is set to culminate on Valentine Day – February 14, it becomes a cultural and political statement. There are class issues and cultural resistance against Valentine Day in Bangladesh, may be for both bad and good reasons, from women’s perspective. Nevertheless, it is necessary for women’s movements to engage in these debates rather than impose or accept it uncritically. I am not a multi-culturalist and do not intend to play on western versus Bangladeshi culture, but I engage with women who complain that V-Day celebration is an insult to their culture and equally oppressive for women since commodification of human relations such as love is repugnant and has nothing to contribute to achieving women’s dignity. Such resistance complicates cultural politics in a post-colonial society and state which has also violently going through development interventions and experiments. It is said in various announcements of One Billion Rising that the goal is to have one billion women and men ‘dancing, striking, rising’ across borders to demonstrate their demand to end the global violence against women. The number one billion is also arbitrary and based on a computation from the United Nations statistic that one out of three women on earth will be beaten or raped in their lifetime. Deliberately or not, it excludes systemic and developmental violence we spoke earlier as well as war, commercial and technological manipulation and control of women’s reproductive biology and mutilation of bodies. The net political and cultural effect is to make other violence, no matter the degree of their brutality and virulence, invisible and thus provide a justification for the status quo.
In Bangladesh, Valentine Day is celebrated on February 14 as Bishwa Bhalobasha Dibash with lovers greeting each other with roses, heart-shaped cards and other gifts. Mostly celebrated in the capital Dhaka and some urban areas, the majority of people, especially women, have absolutely no idea about this day. Globally, Saint Valentine’s Day, commonly known as Valentine’s Day and also called Feast of Saint Valentine, a Christian event, is observed on February 14 each year. According to Wikipedia, the day was first associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished. By the 15th century, it had evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards (known as ‘valentines’). Valentine’s Day symbols that are used today include the heart-shaped outline, doves, and the figure of the winged Cupid. Since the 19th century, handwritten valentines have given way to mass-produced greeting cards. In Bangladesh, it is essentially commercialisation of love. Women become a ‘victim’ of love expressions by men and are commodified in advertisements and commercials. One has to remember women become the victims of ‘eve-teasing’ or acid throwing if they reject love proposals as happened recently with an Eden Girls college student. How Bishwa Bhalobasha dibosh can be safe for women when it allows commodification of love and creates the condition to express love offer and thereby potentially lead to sexual violence to women? It is really an insult to injury to have the One Billion Rising against violence against women on this so-called bhalobasha dibosh.
Lastly, I would like to mention that I was watching a talk show on a private TV channel with Eve Ensler and few theatre personalities and women’s rights activists in a programme called ‘Jaitu’ conducted by a man asking question to those women from male perspectives curious about women’s sexuality. It appeared in the discussions as if the cause of violence against women in Bangladesh is due to silence over sexuality issues, taboo of not uttering some words, etc. This show represented a highly elite perspective. The show was essentially a promotion of The Vagina Monologues and Eve Ensler, as if she was going to show us the path with performances as to how should we act against violence in Bangladesh.
It’s utterly wrong to assume that women’s movement of Bangladesh does not address women’s sexuality but has always argued that it should be included within the resistance against systemic violence. We cannot afford to remain silent on the ground realities and ‘dance’ only to single-focus issues.
Farida Akhter is executive director of UBINIG.
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