As Spike Lee’s satirical, Lysistrata-inspired film Chiraq opens, it’s important to recognize the real work women are doing to address violence.

Spike Lee’s Chiraq, which hits theaters Friday, is a farcical story about black women in Chicago banding together to put an embargo on sex until men in the local gangs stop inflicting violence on the community. The story and settings in the movie are fictional, based on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, but the problem of gun violence in Chicago is very real. Though it’s satire, Chiraq asks its audience to indulge the idea that women withholding their bodies from men could be the ultimate solution to urban bloodshed.

In response to The Washington Post’s Soraya Nadia McDonald’s question about the “very common feminist critique … that it’s unfair to sort of put this weight on women,” Spike Lee said:

This feminist thing. So let me ask a question, are you going to stand behind that feminist stance and say why should we women do it? Or are you going to save your children? You don’t want your child to get shot. … As a feminist, you should want, I think correctly, that you should want for murders to stop. As a feminist, you don’t want your daughter, or your son, or any mother to have their children murdered. That’s not part of feminism? I would like to hear the argument from feminists why they should not be asked to do that.

But we don’t have to fantasize (nor sexualize) the role women are playing in helping stop violence. There are real women doing real things in this arena, both in real-life Chicago, like Ameena Matthews of The Interrupters, and in actual Iraq, where Yannar Mohammed’s Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq helps shelter women from war and sexual violence. And there are more like her in Iraq.

A group of women leading campaigns against police- and state-sponsored violence are gathering at Columbia Law School on December 5 to bring more visibility to these efforts. Many of them hail from present-day war zones, including Suad Amiry, the Palestinian architect who founded the organization RIWAQ, which preserves historical buildings in the West Bank and Gaza for community centers where impoverished women can seek safety and also entrepreneurial training. Others speaking at the event include:
  • Fartuun Adan, who in 2011 helped build the first rape crisis center in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia.
  • Nimmi Gowrinathan, an expert on gender and violence who created the blog deviarchy to explore the unique challenges placed upon women when it comes to violence.
  • Zoya, founder of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, helping refugee women secure human rights and safety in war-torn nations.  

Their work doesn’t grab headlines like the phrase “sex strike.” But even the Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, who Lee has referenced, has only invoked such strikes symbolically, as a ploy to bring media attention to her real anti-violence work. The thread and underlying threat amongst all these women’s work, however, is that sex is often at the heart of the violence they’re fighting. Meaning that, as they struggle to stop gun violence among gangs and militias, women are also consistently faced with sexual violence in those efforts, even as they help millions who are constantly subjected to rape and sexual assault as a regular byproduct of war.

Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues and founder of the V-Day movement to end violence against women, helped bring the voices listed above together for a gathering at Columbia Law School, called Bodies of Revolution. It was planned as part of her global anti-violence campaign One Billion Rising, in partnership with the African American Policy Forum, led by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who helped launch the #SayHerName movement, which chronicles police violence against black women.

Ensler tells CityLab that it was important to bring these figures together because women are too often “disappeared from the global imagination” in discussions about violence, especially as agents working to stop it.

“What we see in every war zone, for example, is mad escalation of sexual violence and domestic violence in war and after war when people are traumatized, says Ensler. “So making parallels and bringing visibility is political, because women on the front lines are holding their communities together, while faced with unbearable situations that rarely gets talked about. This conversation we’re having at Columbia is to look at how black women who are living in contexts that are quasi-war zones and women living in actual war zones are facing the same kinds of abuses that typically are seen as just domestic.”

Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia, has been working to bring more visibility to the alarming number of women who’ve been killed by police, whose names haven’t become hashtagged like Trayvon Martin’s or Mike Brown’s. Her report, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” tells the story of dozens of black women killed in recent months by police, as direct targets and even as collateral damage in the police war on drugs.

If we don’t know the names and stories of these women, Crenshaw tells Citylab, then we “don’t know all the ways that people are subjected to police violence, and consequently the [anti-violence] movement is limited in what it can call for and what it addresses.”

(“Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women”)

Crenshaw has been tracking recent recommendations for reforming police and has noticed that much of them don’t include provisions that deal specifically with the unique violence posed towards women. In her “Say Her Name” report, she offers a number of gender-specific reform policies including a ban on gender profiling, zero-tolerance for sexual harassment from police, a ban on cops using condoms as a pretext for assuming prostitution-related offenses, and the prohibition of Tasers or excessive force on pregnant women and children.

But the bigger problem, says Crenshaw is that police violence is still viewed as an issue among “a few bad apples” as opposed to something more deeply embedded in the culture of how these institutions operate. She brings up criminal justice systems, like those found in Ferguson and beyond, where cities draw revenue from court fines and fees disproportionately levied upon poor, black defendants as evidence of a “plantation” setting. Reform proposals for more training for police don’t address the root problem, Crenshaw says.

“It’s kinda like, the [plantation] overseers are killing us, so let’s give the overseers an implicit-bias training instead of just getting rid of the plantation,” Crenshaw says. “It’s the entire system that built racial disempowerment, and until we can talk about that, these intermediate kinds of strategies won’t really shift the needle very much.”

Says Ensler, “Sometimes I think we need a huge overhaul in the whole story if we’re really going to address the kind of sexual violence that police and militaries are doing. Wherever we see militarized zones, doesn’t matter if we’re talking about militias or police, where men are clustered in those kinds of militaristic situations, sex violence always escalates.”

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