Prof. Joanne St. Lewis on FEMEN's Bil C-51 protest

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Top 10 Reasons FEMEN protest on C51 is not radical or particularly feminist

It is tempting to ignore the 15 minutes of fame provided to FEMEN’s un/strategic nudity but for the thought that “coverage” of further attempts will always sell papers. Women lawyers, activist and academics opposing C51 who are appearing or seeking to make their voices heard at the hearings are not assisted by a flash of bromides written on naked breasts. This tactic diminishes our voices in the resistance to C51. It is an uncritical privilege to chose to sexualize oneself as part of political speech. Women have resisted being inappropriately sexualized in their workplaces and professional lives. For some of us, Parliament is a space where we wish to be taken seriously - it is where we do our work. Gratuitous sexuality also trivializes the dehumanizing reality of sexualized violence currently affecting many women in Canada.

 Here are my Top 10 reasons why FEMEN’s tactics are far from radical or particularly feminist:

1.     Looking at women's naked breasts is the end not the beginning of conversation in our highly sexualized society. It is naive to think otherwise.

2.      Political debate is not being catalyzed by the shock tactic of partial female nudity.  Canadians have already taken to the streets to protest the anti-terror law. Opposition grows daily.

3.      Exposing women's breasts contradicts the experience of Muslim women activists whose constitutional right to wear the hijab and niqab has been challenged in courtrooms and by our Prime Minister.

4.      FEMEN activists distract from meaningful criticism of C51 by centring attention on their breasts/bodies. The medium (their bodies) cloaks their message (harms of C51).

5.      C51 is not primarily about female agency or sexual freedom creating a further disconnect with the tactic of partial nudity. C51 fundamentally erodes the democratic rights of both Canadian men and women.

6.      C51 reinforces ongoing surveillance and detention faced by environmental, Aboriginal and other activists. Stripping partially nude in a public place is not equivalent in risk, consequence or meaning to the activism that will be targeted by C51.

7.      National security is a highly masculinized debate which needs to be disrupted. However, anchoring a strategy of resistance in female nudity weakens women’s voices.

8.      FEMEN’s activists, while not supermodels or celebrities, emphasize the nakedness of women fitting an erotic stereotype in a manner similar to PETA. Contributing to the pornographic gaze in North American society does not empower women.

9.      FEMEN is entitled to advance a strategy using their bodies as speech. However, sexualizing C51 is not an advance sought by those fighting the anti-terror law.

10.     FEMEN has confused women’s breasts with blackboards and placards. A scrawled missive across naked breasts is distraction not content.

Joanne St. Lewis is a Black feminist law professor teaching in the area of social justice at the University of Ottawa. She is the former Executive Director of LEAF (the Women’s Legal Education & Action Fund).
Designed by Rachel Gold.