How do feminists protest and is it for attention or for power?
Whilst it is heartening to see young women being active for women’s rights, and embracing feminism, the means of the Slutwalk protest begs some questions.
Any one feminist protest can’t be all things to everybody. All feminists support the main message; ‘no-one deserves to be raped’, while some feminists question the attempt to embrace the word ‘slut’. However, it is likely the protest would not have garnered the attention it has without the use of the word. This isn’t a problem specific to Slutwalk.
There is a group in the Ukraine called Femen which initially formed to protest against the growth of prostitution and sex tourism in their country. They protest by being topless. They have since campaigned about other issues, using other means, such as mud-wrestling. Most of the members of the group are young; the average age is 22. They are the most known feminist group in the Ukraine, where one in eight sex workers are university or school students. The problem could be looked at as funding for students, or availability of work, but the message is muddled by the means of protest.
Although some feminists believe the means of protest does a disservice to women, that is, reinforce sexualised stereotypes, a spokesperson for the Femen group says “We don’t want to be traditional feminists. Women’s organisations and groups here only write papers and nothing more. We need activists who will scream and leave their clothes in the street.”
Fair enough. They don’t see the point of writing papers, but don’t they see that they need to be more creative? Protesting about the sexualisation, stereotyping and sale of women by taking off your clothes might get attention, but not serious attention. It doesn't get you power. It plays by the rules of the game that you are objecting to. Time for a new game with new rules.
There are many other ways feminists are taking action.
France is considering joining other European countries such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland, in making the buying of sex illegal. This means the client will be charged, fined and/or imprisoned. Some object to the move, saying it will simply make prostitution more dangerous for sex workers. Iceland has also banned sex clubs and profits from nudity, so, no lapdancing and no topless waitressing. The prime minister is a lesbian woman. She has married her female partner, because same sex marriage is legal there. Almost half the parliamentarians are female. Iceland ranks fourth, behind Norway, Finland and Sweden, on the international gender gap index. The message is clear: women are not for sale.
As a younger woman I may have marched at Slutwalk. But as a mother, I have to run these things through a daughter test. Would I want my daughters walking with me? Do I defend the right for my daughters to identify as sluts? No and no. The answer would be the same if I had sons. Calling a woman a slut is an attempt to denigrate her. Identifying as one is more problematic. How about saying a person’s sexual preference or history is nobody’s business? How about sticking to the slogan that no-one deserves to be raped? Slutwalk runs counter to the good work feminist mothers have been doing to change society for their children.
Maternal feminists, along with child health experts, are campaigning against a range of gendered issues: child beauty pageants, violent video games that denigrate women, gender stereotyped clothing and toys marketed to children, sexualised gender stereotyped advertisements on billboards, magazines with pornographic images displayed in public places, language in public discourse that denigrates women, music and costumes in dance schools that are too sexualised for children. Feminists are talking back to businesses and advertisers. These issues come together in forums such as the Right2Childhood conferences. Mothers are directing their children to toys, clothes, performers, musicians and artists who do not play the slut card to get attention.
We need more of them. We need more female designers, writers, directors, musicians. And many more women in advertising and business who can take their feminism to the places of power where decisions about our culture are made. Without taking off their clothes.
Many women around the world are working in advocacy and agency, that is, investing in women and girls in developing countries to assist their family’s and community’s move out of poverty and into dignity. The newly appointed head of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, has real power to make change. Women working as health workers in rural communities are making change happen. Women who insist on being part of peace talks are making change happen. Women working to help the 1100 women a day who are raped in the Congo identify as feminists. Women who help women and girls escape the sex trade are feminists. Women who work with infant and maternal health in developing countries are feminists. And women who give money to charities and NGOs who work for change are taking feminist action. None of them are campaigning to identify as sluts.
There is much more work to be done. We need more action. Surely there are better ways to claim power and make change happen than take off your clothes and take to the streets.