Project 'One Billion Rising' kicks off next year, with a large alliance of people making a statement of zero tolerance for violence against women

All unjust systems, whether based on caste, class, race, or gender, exploit oppressed people, their resources, their labour. Take the labour of women. In 1995, at the international conference on women in Beijing, China, it was estimated that the entire unpaid work of women is worth 11 trillion dollars per year. Who has benefited from this? Families, communities, society, capitalism – everybody is benefiting from women’s work.

Much of this oppression comes with violence. The dalit community, for instance, could not have been exploited for over 3,000 years without violence. Violence is integral to such oppression. Even women who have never been violated have also never been free of fear. Because fear is so integrated with the oppression of women from time immemorial, fighting violence has been one of the most important issues for women across the world.

In India, the modern women’s movement began with the Mathura rape case and dowry killings. So women have been mobilising on the issue for a long time. Yet the hope that such violence would end has never been realised. On the contrary, it has only increased over the years. Over the past 40 years, pornography, including child-based pornography, has become a multi-billion dollar industry. The cosmetics industry - which continues to tell women that nothing is as important as their faces and bodies - has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

The Indian women’s movement has tried to fight violence in many ways. It has done theatre, sung songs, used the new media in creative ways. But its songs can at best, reach only a few thousand. ‘Munni badnaam hui’, a popular Hindi film song, reaches millions, with that one gyrating woman in the middle, surrounded by 20 men lusting after her. There is a direct link between such portrayals and what happens on the streets of Guwahati, or anywhere else where mass molestation and rape take place.

Scenes like these are probably playing out in the minds of the young men who assault women. The women’s movement does not have the kind of power that would end this violence, because it involves big money, big networks and powerful people. Above all, it involves patriarchy.

So what is patriarchy? It is essentially a social system that considers men to be superior to women, and in which men have more control over resources and decision making. The men who control religion have laid down that the husband is ‘lord and master’. The word in English for husband translates as ‘controller’, ‘domesticator’ or ‘manager’. In Hindi, Bangla and Tamil, the words ‘husband’ and ‘god’ are synonymous – ‘pati-parmeshwar’, ‘swami’. Every day we repeat these words. The moment a woman gets married, according to Hindu rites, she has to touch her husband’s feet and he puts signs on her forehead - of his domination over her. In the Christian marriage, the father ‘gives away’ the bride.

Patriarchy is about hierarchy. If a man is upset with something his wife does, he will beat her, just as a parent thinks it is his or her right to beat their child. This is basically about the powerful lashing out against the powerless in an unequal relationship. It is important to state here that there is nothing biological about it.

As soon as you say men can’t help beating women, you are insulting men, because many men don’t abuse their wives. Perhaps men are being harmed by patriarchy much more than women. Think of the man who decides to rape a woman. What is his relationship with his body? If a man can come home and beat his wife, what is his relationship to his life partner? These are men who are dehumanised.

Today, there are also millions of men all over the world who know what patriarchy is doing to them, how it is undermining them, how it is hollowing out the best that is in them. Which is why, today, the women’s movement also defines itself as a movement, not just of women, but a movement of men, women and children.

People everywhere today need to stand up against violence, including patriarchal violence, using all the imaginative and cultural resources at their command. There are cultural activists like Mallika Sarabhai doing just this, through her one-woman dance drama, ‘Sita’s Daughters’. Globally, there is Eve Ensler, a US-based playwright. Based on her experiences she made the word ‘vagina’ speakable by writing the play, ‘Vagina Monologues’. It became so popular that it has been translated into over 140 languages.

Ensler has supported work in the most difficult and most patriarchal of societies – in places like Sudan – for years. Some months ago she came up with the idea of a global campaign called ‘One Billion Rising’, which will see women and men in 140 countries come together on February 14 next year and rise up together against this civil war between men and women going on in their midst, the violence against women within families, communities and countries.

South Asia will also join this campaign. No matter what the issue is, honour killings in Pakistan, acid throwing in Bangladesh or domestic violence in India, women in this region plan to take on and defeat the forces that make such assaults possible. (Women's Feature Service)

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