Stella Creasy: One Billion Rising and boldy going were no woman has gone before

Dancing in the streets, a despondent David Cameron and the final frontier for women.

Paris is burning

A politician in a nightclub is usually a Private Eye anecdote-in-waiting rather than a wise move. Yet on 4 February at Café de Paris in Soho, London, I find myself onstage, following the sitar player Anoushka Shankar and a woman who can suspend herself from a wooden ring in the air.

The “London Rising” concert is the culmination of months of working with activists across the UK for One Billion Rising (OBR), a campaign started by Eve Ensler, the writer of The Vagina Monologues, which aims to make ending violence against women a priority for all governments. A billion women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime; Ensler wants the same number of people involved in raising awareness by dancing in public on 14 February.

OBR is a volunteer-led movement with minimal organisation, yet millions are signing up around the world. Videos are popping up daily on YouTube of activists practising their dancing in places as far apart as Peru, Bangladesh, San Francisco and Lebanon. You know something special is going on when people in hotbeds of radical activism as different and distinctive as Bute, Wat-ford, Peterborough and Kirklees are joining the revolution.

That evening at Café de Paris, Ensler addressed the crowd along with the actress Thandie Newton (who is impossibly beautiful, kind and clever). I’d always promised not to dance in public, knowing that the sight of a parliamentarian shuffling awkwardly can be the biggest turn-off for anyone, but by the end of the evening we were all part of one slightly sweaty and excited mass on the dance floor, determined to change the world.

Head over heels

Following the euphoria of that night, I am struck by vanity and horror the morning after. What do you wear to meet with the great and the good – the playwrights, actors, campaigners or baronesses – of the OBR campaign? Flustered from running in unsuitable shoes around Trafalgar Square, I spend ten minutes trying to break into the back of a building, only to realise I’m at the wrong address – I am two doors down from where I need to be. At the event, Eve speaks of visiting the City of Joy refuge for survivors of sexual abuse and violence in conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which her campaigning helped to build.

Suddenly, the ungainliness of wearing stupid heels is immaterial. In a beautiful, sun-strewn room along the Mall, we all stand proud, united by Eve’s enthusiasm.

Down in the lobby

Ahead of the same-sex marriage bill, the ugly underbelly of homophobia in British society comes spilling out of my in-box, complete with graphic descriptions and threats of retribution. I’m relieved that, on the whole, emails from actual constituents about the bill, whether for or against it, are polite and temperate, although one expresses equal fury about my support for gay marriage and how the writer’s recycling bin has not been collected and demands a response to both within three days. Later that night, as I walk through the lobby to vote, I pass a familiar face skulking in the corner looking despondent. I’m about to go over to ask what is wrong, when I suddenly realise it is David Cameron and know it needs no further explanation.

Divide and rule

Parliament is full of excitement and it has nothing to do with that photo of David Mili­band dozing on the Tube. Something that hasn’t happened in 20 years is apparently afoot. The whips shuffle us into the chamber where the topic is the thrills and spills of the Canterbury City Council Bill, which regulates trading on the street. It has been rumbling around parliament since 2008. Word goes round that to stop the four MPs intent on dragging out the matter further, we will have a division in the chamber where everyone stands up to vote. On days like this, the sense that parliament is Hogwarts gone wrong gets stronger with every point of order or intervention. It seems clear to me that the deputy speaker would quite like to be able to cast the Avada Kedavra spell on several MPs.

Timing is everything

With a week to go until One Billion Rising, we are delighted when Thandie Newton confirms that she will lead the London flash mob outside parliament. Delicate negotiations between dance troupes and campaigners about timings ensue. In the end, 11am wins, though the vexed question of the playlist and provision of the sound system remains. Resolution of such matters is well above my pay grade.

Strange new worlds

Although we are making progress with One Billion Rising, misogyny still seeks to ground us all. Following a television interview about the initiative, a Tory student activist tweets that I am “quite bummable for a Labour MP”. On Twitter, stories of segregation in British life – with boys getting to play football while girls are taught about their contraceptive choices – pour in through the Everyday Sexism Project.

Such views are the reason why our OBR-themed debate in parliament will demand that sex and relationship lessons are made mandatory for everyone. When 80 per cent of 11-year-olds in one study by Edinburgh University say it is OK to hit a woman if she’s late with the dinner, we know we have to ensure that every young person wants a partnership based on mutual respect.

Meanwhile, a local resident and space fanatic alerts me that Unilever is running a competition to send people into space – but it is being marketed at men only. It seems we have a new final frontier for feminism. After all, if One Billion Rising accomplishes anything, I hope it is to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civili­sations and to boldly go where no woman has gone before . . .

Stella Creasy is the MP for Walthamstow (Labour and Co-Operative). For more details on One Billion Rising visit: onebillionrising.org

Activists as far apart as Peru, Bangladesh, San Francisco and Lebanon have been practising their dancing. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia