Radical women in frontline against authoritarianism
March 15, 2014 00:00
By Markos Kounalakis
Topless demonstrators in Ukraine are part of the self-defined "sextremist" Femen group - radical women protesting the Russian invasion of Crimea. Femen is a stark example of frontline femmes who use their bodies and their voices to fight status-quo corr
Russian aggression has driven women to exhibit the latest extreme manifestation of a long protest tradition dating back to ancient Greece and the play “Lysistrata”, in which radical gals 2,400 years ago used sex as a weapon for peace. Observe contemporary mass protest movements, and it is noteworthy that women are again leading many of the most effective and jarring campaigns. Whether Ukraine’s Femen or a provocative punk rock band in Russia, women are in the lead squaring off against authoritarianism in bully states.
Coinciding with the run-up to the recent International Women’s Day, one Femen protester was violently dragged along the street in front of the Crimean parliament by burly male fur-hatted pro-Russian militias. The near-naked woman in body paint resisted while screaming “stop Putin’s war!” It was shocking street theatre and effective messaging.
In Russia, the punk musicians with a name that gives pause – Pussy Riot – have served prison time, been subjected to physical abuse and remain a thorn in President Vladimir Putin’s side. Originally sentenced in 2012 for their irreverent and confrontational performance in the main Moscow cathedral, the masked group continues to protest Putin’s power with aggressive performances even after he handed them a Sochi Olympics-timed pardon.
Reminiscent of bra burning in 1960s America, feminist political protest is not for the timid. Both Russian and Ukrainian feminist groups, however, believe they are living in extreme times calling for extreme measures. When Putin’s doublespeak tries to justify Russia’s military actions and gross violations of international law, these women’s visceral protests cut through the palaver and propaganda.
My own experience with Russian women protesters is vivid. As a correspondent in the USSR, I knew that the KGB headquarters in downtown Moscow was a feared building where people who went in seldom came out the same. I visited the ominous Lubyanka with a group of mothers of missing, killed or mentally scarred Soviet soldiers who occupied Afghanistan – a country Russians called the “giant mincer”.
These mothers fearlessly marched into KGB headquarters to demand information about their sons. They confronted atypically deferential KGB agents – many of whom likely saw their own mothers in the faces of the agitated, but otherwise powerless group. The women had nothing left to lose. The mothers’ movement should be widely credited for organising public opposition to a war they helped to end.
The prevalence and prominence of effective modern female protest is not limited to extremists and mothers, or to Slavic states. Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai dared to seek an education and was rewarded with a Taleban bullet in the head. Having survived the assassination attempt, the recovered 16-year-old continues to promote the right of girls everywhere to have access to a schoolroom. To the world, she has become the face of hope and change in Pakistan.
Elsewhere in the Islamic world, women in Bagdad recently dared to march in protest against a proposed religious-based law that permits nine-year-old girls to marry and which always grants fathers child custody. In Saudi Arabia, defiance is a woman in the driver’s seat of a car.
Radical women may be the most visible protest class these days. But it was a mostly peaceful, broad-based protest movement made up of men and women who collected in Kiev’s Maidan and caused Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia. Whether leaning in or speaking up, women are noticeably standing out in the current battles against war and corruption and the current Ukraine crisis. I’m a guy and I’ve noticed.