Topless Protests to Pussy Riot: Women Rising Up

Okay, I know I was a bit of a prude at first when it came to the name of the Russian Punk band, Pussy Riot. But somehow, hearing Leslie Stahl say it on 60 Minutes neutralized that angst for me. In case you aren’t familiar the band has been known for some time as a vehicle for protesting the regime of Vladimir Putin, and though the women in the band are highly educated – many of whom have solid white collar careers – they chose the populist medium of punk music and culture to convey their message of resistance.

The band has performed many public protests, but the one that got the most attention was their lip-synched performance on the altar of Moscow’s main orthodox church. During the 51-second stunt, the masked women crossed and supplicated themselves, praying to the Virgin Mary to remove Putin from power. For their efforts, four of the women were arrested and two were sent to labor camps in isolated regions amid hostile climate.

And then there’s Femen, the grassroots feminist protest movement that has spilled over from Ukraine to Turkey and Switzerland in support of women’s rights. What’s unique about this particular movement is that the women involved use their bodies – or more specifically, their nudity – to draw attention to their many causes.

Members of the group have appeared in public topless against everything from Catholic patriarchal oppression to conservative political agendas that deny equality to women. But whereas some feminist movements have sought to de-emphasize the hyper-sexualized female form, Femen seeks to aggressively exploit it.

Consider this description of Inna Shevchenko, the 22-year-old leader of Femen, as she entered a cafe to meet with an Atlantic reporter:

…she strode into the brass-and-mirrors environs of the café where we had agreed to meet, on the central rue Pierre Lescot, one evening in mid-February. Atop the six-inch high heels of her black felt boots, her wavy, strawberry blonde hair spilling out from beneath a black baseball cap, her eyes mint-green and penetrating, she cut an impressive figure.

Welcome to the new face of feminism.

On the one hand, I applaud the women’s employment of what Walter Wink would call a “third way” approach to nonviolent protest and resistance. These are women who, for all intents and purposes, have little power in comparison with the political machines dominating their countries. They are effectively injecting a resounding disruptive force into systems of power without responding in kind with the sort of force such systems employ to maintain power.

On the other hand, I worry that demonstrations like the topless protests simply play into existing tendencies to objectify women as sexual objects. And for some, they will likely never get past the nudity to deeper issues at stake. But it occurred to me, as I looked at this picture of photographers swarming this trio of women, that they are establishing another important point, whether intended or not. The point is that, despite being decades past the western Women’s Liberation Movement, the most direct and potent access to power they have still is through their sexuality.

I’ll be the first to admit that the addition of the word “topless” to a headline about women’s rights protests halfway across the world certainly grabs my attention. It’s always with a mix of morbid, base curiosity and passion for matters of social justice that read on. But I, like so many of us, live in a state of perpetual distraction. there is so much vying for my attention that sometimes it takes something like a topless woman to provide the necessary interrupt to get my attention.

I’m not proud of this. I wish it was different. I wish I was different, for my own sake and the sake of all women. Until it is, I consider both the actions of Pussy Riot and the women of the Femen movement to be brave pioneers in what is shaping up to be a radically engaging new front for feminist activism.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Melanie D.

    A woman in Tunisia was just put in a mental hospital for per participation in Femen. First they were insisting that she be stoned to death for her “crime” of putting topless pictures on the internet, so I suppose involuntary commitment is somewhat of a relief? (Link does contain unaltered photos) http://www.bust.com/tunisian-feminist-sent-to-looney-bin-for-posting-topless-photos.html

    Two of the members of Pussy Riot are still in prison, too.
    http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=20569

    I think the big picture is that these are women who vehemently reject a purity/rape culture that insists that women be responsible for male behavior.

  • j_anson

    Ugh. Every woman has a right to decide her own kind of expression, but then, every woman also has a right to her opinions; and this is definitely not my kind of feminism. I think you’re right that it’s partly intended to comment on how media engages with women – through their sexuality – but I think that point will be lost on anyone whose head wasn’t already in the right place, and for everyone else, I think this reinforces rather than undermines the problem.

    If nothing else, I note that every single topless woman in those pictures is thin, most are blonde, and by conventional Western standards all are extremely attractive. And the way in which they’re on their knees, naked, in front of a crowd of extremely excited black-clad men? This is not an image of female empowerment. It’s an activism-themed Playboy shoot.

    (The Pussy Riot thing I got no quarrel with.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/maha.ghazi.16 Maha Ghazi

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