By AMELIA GENTLEMAN
LONDON — Anyone who happens to be passing through Westminster at 11 o’clock on Valentine’s Day may — if things go as planned — catch an unusual glimpse of a few members of Parliament gathered somewhere in the shadow of Big Ben, dancing along the footpath.
The actress Thandie Newton will be leading members of the public and a few politicians in a flash mob dance on Thursday to mark the One Billion Rising day of action, highlighting violence against women. Rossana Abueva, the British event’s organizer, says she hopes a couple of baronesses from the House of Lords will also take part.
Some participants have been rehearsing moves for the newly composed anthem, “Break the Chain,” for weeks, but the occasion is meant to be inclusive. “People who don’t know the moves can sway,” Ms. Abueva said. Demonstrators will release 109 red balloons in memory of the 109 women killed in Britain last year as a result of male violence.
Elsewhere in London, volunteer dance troupes will be popping up in museums, at a spot near the London Eye, at theaters and at train stations, performing bursts of flamenco and contemporary dance, wearing One Billion Rising T-shirts, and trying to educate passers-by about the scale of domestic violence in Britain and abroad. Dancers aim to draw attention to the United Nations’ assessment that one in three women in the world suffers some kind of violence at the hands of men during her lifetime (a figure they have loosely rounded down to a billion).
While supermarket shelves bend beneath the weight of heart-shaped, praline-filled chocolates, campaigners internationally have co-opted Feb. 14 to highlight the global problem of violence against women. If the link between Valentine’s Day and violence seems somewhat puzzling, organizers explain that campaigning against violence toward women is a good way of showing women you like them.
The initiative comes from Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” and aims to be a “feminist tsunami.” There will be events all over Britain, as well as 190 countries across the world, places as varied as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines and the United States. In India, the raw anger over the gang rape of a 23-year-old physical therapy student has given extra energy to the campaign. In Los Angeles, Jane Fonda will be dancing; Yoko Ono is also on board.
Ms. Ensler describes dancing as “a way of being very powerful and a little dangerous without being violent.” Promotional material promises that by participating in the Valentine’s Day dance, women “will join in solidarity, purpose and energy and shake the world into a new consciousness,” adding that dance is “contagious, and it spreads quickly.”
It is easy to feel dubious about whether this optimistic vision of the transformative power of dance will take off in London, which remains at heart reserved and staid in character. It is possible that, rather than making the not-totally-obvious connection between flash mobs and the complex issue of violence against women, most bystanders here will not be shaken into a new consciousness but will simply be bemused by the spectacle.
Organizers have thought about this. While they are cheerfully enthusiastic about the impact of celebratory dancing, there is also a drive to make sure the occasion ends up being more than an ephemeral day of protest, and a determination to combine the event with something practical and more enduring. Campaigners in most participating countries are also attempting to improve legislation protecting women against violence.
A Labour member of Parliament, Stella Creasy, who will be dancing outside the House of Commons on Thursday morning, has joined colleagues from all parties to organize a debate in Parliament later that day, calling for compulsory sex and relationship education in British schools.
“We need to do more than simply wring our hands and say violence against women is wrong. We need to do something about it,” Ms. Creasy said. After workshops held here in the autumn by the One Billion Rising campaign, there was agreement that a concerted effort to improve and expand sex education in Britain would be a pragmatic step toward preventing future violence.
The motion calls on the British government to “make personal, social and health education, including a zero-tolerance approach to violence and abuse in relationships, a requirement in schools.”
Currently, sex education does not embrace any discussion of relationships, and parents are at liberty to request that their children opt out of classes. Campaigners are proposing that lessons should include mandatory discussion not only of biology, but of relationships, discussing with children what kind of behavior is and is not acceptable, spelling out that there should be zero tolerance of violence in relationships.
Explaining why the vote matters, the campaign Web site says recent academic research has uncovered “worrying trends of increased sexual exploitation of young people by their peers.” It cites a 2010 YouGov poll that found that almost a third, or 29 percent, of 16- to 18-year-old girls said they had been “subjected to unwanted sexual touching at school,” as well as a finding by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that a third of girls in relationships ages 13 to 17 had “experienced physical or sexual violence in relationships.”
The debate will not have the power to bring about legislation, but campaigners hope it will help focus politicians’ minds on a part of the curriculum that is due to be reviewed.
Will dance protests and the global day of action make a difference? The answer may be clearer on Friday. But as a romantic gesture, 10 minutes’ participation in a flash mob is certainly more original than a dozen roses.
Amelia Gentleman is a journalist with The Guardian. Katrin Bennhold is on sabbatical leave.