Absurd ways for absurd times

Image from dmitry_shakin on Flickr

Topless, performance feminism for Vancouver?

By Carleigh Baker, Contributor

What’s a girl got to do to get noticed around here?

Whether it’s nip slips at the Super Bowl, or boobies for beads at Mardi Gras, the obvious answer to this age-old question remains: show us your tits. Yes sir, boobs turn heads—which may make FEMEN, a Ukrainian-born feminist movement that has turned topless protest into a performance art, the best idea ever.

“There is an ideology behind protesting topless, but we quickly realised that if we took our tops off and screamed loudly it was a good way to get attention,” says Alexandra Shevchenko, one of FEMEN’s founders. “It works. Of course, people talk about our nakedness, but they are also listening to our message.”

Are they? I’m not so sure.

The FEMEN movement was created in 2008 to raise awareness for women’s rights in the Ukraine, particularly to combat prostitution and sex trafficking. Since then, they’ve broadened their scope, opening an office (and a topless protest boot camp) in Paris, and participating in worldwide demonstrations for women’s and gay rights. If their Vimeo page is any indicator, FEMEN’s modus operandi is: show up, get naked, and scream blue murder when the mortified cops show up. And bring your chainsaw.

One clip shows Inna—a statuesque blonde—using a chainsaw she can barely control to fell a large Orthodox cross in Kiev, a move that garnered media attention. The actual cutting down of the cross takes an awkwardly long time, and then, because there are only a few FEMEN supporters and a camera on hand, there is nothing for Inna to do afterwards but fist bump, and put her top back on. Another clip seems to be an appearance on a Ukrainian television show. Several members perform a choreographed song and dance number, exposing themselves in time to the music. Sure, FEMEN gets attention because boobs get attention. But it may be their weird behaviour that ultimately captures the hearts of the Gangnam style-loving masses. Nudity is pretty commonplace these days, but the Internet still loves a good gong show.

Although it’s debateable whether FEMEN’s presence has had any actual effect on women’s rights in the Ukraine, conditions for sex trade workers in the country have certainly changed—though not necessarily for the better. According to a report by Time magazine in 2010, the days of shady men luring women out of villages with the promise of dancing or waitressing jobs and then forcing them into prostitution are over. Now, it’s a soft sell. A local girl simply returns to her village covered in diamonds and furs, flaunting the money she’s made turning tricks in Dubai, or Istanbul.

“Reporters always come here demanding to see the victims,” says Olga Kostyuk, deputy head of the charity Faith, Hope, Love, which provides assistance to Odessa’s sex workers. “They want to see the men, the pimps, the manipulators behind all of this. But things are not so simple now.”

Many of the pimps are women, and they enjoy a friendly relationship with the local law enforcement, so police intervention is uncommon. Not to say prostitution is the good life, but to many women from the poor villages of East Ukraine and nearby countries, it certainly appears to be an attractive option. And it’s harder than ever for organizations that are trying to end sex trafficking to convince women otherwise. According the Ukrainian Institute of Social Studies in 2011 there were 50,000 women working as prostitutes. Looks like FEMEN has their work cut out for them.

So, could Vancouver benefit from FEMEN’s absurd brand of performance feminism? Certainly, with an underwear run for Cancer, a naked bike ride, and countless semi-nude marches for everything from animal testing to climate change, Vancouver has seen its share of politicized skin. FEMEN brings the nudity, but it may actually be their shrill behaviour that’s increasing their visibility. And one does not have to look any further than the recent inquiry into the Robert Pickton investigation to see that our sex trade workers are suffering from a lack of visibility. Wally Oppal, head of Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, reported that the Vancouver Police Department’s refusal to see the missing woman as individuals severely hindered the investigation.

“… [T]he missing women investigations were shaped, in large part, by the police failure to get to know the women—an essential step in any investigation of this type is to learn as much as possible about the victim or potential victim. This failure to get to know the victim group meant that inaccurate information about the women, and in particular the belief in the likelihood that they would ‘turn up,’ infiltrated all aspects of the missing and murdered women investigations.”

Police received the first tips about Pickton’s involvement in the murder of Downtown Eastside sex workers in 1998. Over the course of several years, families and friends of the missing women could not convince police that they had a serial killer on their hands. Women’s advocacy groups marched in protest, and the community held drum circles, support gatherings, even press conferences, but to no avail. Pickton was not arrested until February 2002, when RCMP officers armed with a search warrant related to illegal firearms raided his farm. He was convicted in 2007 of six counts of murder, but once bragged to an undercover police officer that he killed 49 women.

And the punch line? Several members of Oppal’s inquiry team are now under investigation for harassment of female team members, and for their use of sexist language when referring to the victims.

Maybe we could use some FEMEN-style feminism here in Vancouver. Maybe some nude, shrieking, chainsaw wielding performance art is just the ticket, since asking politely for justice doesn’t seem to be getting adequate results. Pickton isn’t the first serial killer to prey on sex trade workers, and he won’t be the last. So what exactly do these women need to do to get noticed?


British Columbia: getting naked for politics way before it was cool

BC is the location of one of the first nude protests ever recorded 

The Doukhobors were a sect of Russian dissenters who considered themselves Christians, yet rejected the bible, secular government, church ritual, and the divinity of Jesus. As pacifists, they didn’t buy into militaristic institutions, and when the Russian government was unable to make the Doukhobors comply with the conscription laws, they were given permission to immigrate to Canada. Half of their immigration expenses were paid by none other than Leo Tolstoy himself.

Never ones for following the rules, the Doukhobors soon clashed with Canadian politics over land ownership and communal living. They had settled in Northern Saskatchewan at this time, and due to disputes with the government and unhappiness with the climate, many Doukhobors found themselves on the move again, this time to Southern BC. If you’ve ever had the delicious borscht in Grand Forks, you can thank a Doukhobor.

If you ever find yourself getting busted for showing your pink bits in public, you can also thank a Doukhobor. They are actually the reason why Parliament passed a law in 1932 criminalizing public nudity. A particularly zealous group, The Sons of Freedom, responded to the Doukhobor conflict with Canadian policy with massive nude marches. This led to countless confrontations with the Canadian government and the RCMP, continuing well into the ‘70s. The government established a penal colony at Piers Island, on the boundary of the Discovery passage, specifically for these badasses. Over 300 Doukhobor men and women were arrested for nude protest and detained there, serving up to three years.