“Deeds not words”: body empowerment in the fight against patriarchy

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For centuries women’s bodies have been considered public property, whether it was said to belong to their father, husband, or brothers, men have always seemed to have a hold on women’s bodies. For instance, young girls in Nepal who aren’t yet married can be sold to traffickers before their teenage years. [1] They are considered objects and thus have no power over their own body. Women’s bodies are regulated in many other forms such as oppressive beauty standards, daily objectification, and unequal regulations.

It appears fitting that women have decided to use their bodies as a political means to defend equality and promote women’s rights around the world. By doing so they reclaim the property of their bodies in a society that had stripped them away. The actions of these feminist groups break free from patriarchal norms.

With the film “Suffragette” out in the cinemas last month, feminists’ actions were put back at the forefront of the public scene. As the movement grew and gained popularity, demonstrations were increasingly common alongside the arrests of women activists thereby putting participants at physical risks, with their bodies on the front line. [2] One method of reappropriation of the body in response to the patriarchal oppression came in hunger strikes during protestors’ incarcerations. The authorities, denying the very right of women to dispose of their bodies as they wished, force fed inmates to prevent death from starvation as a resulting martyr, detained under the ‘care’ of the patriarchal system which would have only promoted the suffragette’s cause.[3] This torturous and barbaric reaction [4] demonstrates perfectly the power of women’s empowerment through personal decisions linked to their body.

The most definitive form of corporal engagement the suffragette movement accomplished resides in Emily Davison’s act for which she gave her life to further a cause she believed in–the act in which, during a rally attended by King George V, Emily willingly stepped in front of the King’s horse while at full gallop in order to draw international attention upon the suffragette’s fight for women’s rights in Great Britain. This militant chose to make the ultimate physical sacrifice: death. .[5]

It is curious to note that the actions of topless women from such modern day movements as Femen are perceived as extreme whereas many people today reflect on Emily Davison’s act as a form of bravery and inspiring commitment. Body protests using nudity, which aims to use the body as a banner in itself, is currently and increasingly known worldwide due to the actions of feminist groups such as Femen, a women’s movement recognisable by the militant’s bare chests.

Femen consider that an action is impossible without an idea, and an idea useless without the action [6]; they believe that reappropriation of the women’s body can be defended through nudity. By deciding to not hide their breasts, they impose themselves in a system where women’s body are objectified and subjected to the rules of men (no one takes offence when men are shirtless). There are many people who see Femen as the utilisation of sexuality as a weapon. However, the movement defends itself from these accusations by highlighting that the women of Femen never take sensual poses during a demonstration. Instead they stand strong and straight as a sign of determination and ownership of their body. They stand by the idea that political nudity isn’t erotic.[7]

Moreover the feminist movement claim that “Female nudity, free of patriarchal system, is a grave-digger of the system, militant manifesto and sacral symbol of women’s liberation”[8]. The militants are well aware that their breasts will be the focus of the public’s attention and following this reasoning they write their provocative messages across their torsos. Knowing the media coverage they receive at each of their appearances centres this point and by so reports those messages inscribed upon themselves, is in fact the very proof that they are being objectified[9]. Femen truly raises the question of how women’s nudity is viewed and judged in today’s society. Moreover because of their numerous, questionable public arrests, Femen is in the process of changing the legislation concerning women’s body that considers women’s breasts and nipples as sexual body parts, unlike men’s nipples.

However the Femen aren’t groundbreakers when it comes to body protest. At the beginning of the last century women in Nigeria used their nudity as a persuasive tool to resist sexism, imperialism and oppression[10]. In 1929, when war broke out between Nigeria and Great Britain, the British colonisers christianly associated nudity with immorality. Through this religious belief, they went against nigerian women’s cultural traditions and made strict clothing laws which became a symbol of their superiority. Nigerian women, and countless African and black women after them, made the bold choice to show disobedience to a repressive system through their naked bodies.   “Topless protest is more than just spectacle. It’s a confrontation of restrictions placed upon the female body.” [11

In today’s feminism it is primordial to remember the fight of all of these women and their understanding of body’s empowerment that lead to the consciousness that our body is one of the most effective tool against patriarchy.

“Never surrender, never give up the fight” [12]

[1]“Ten worst countries for women” Olivia Ward ; http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2008/03/08/ten_worst_countries_for_women.html

[2]. Protesting like a girl ; Embodiment, dissent and feminist agency : Wendy Parkins ; http://fty.sagepub.com/content/1/1/59.full.pdf

[3]“Suffragette”, Sarah Gravon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=056FI2Pq9RY

[4]My own Story, Emmeline Pankhurst http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34856/34856-h/34856-h.htm

[5]“Suffragette”

[6]Manifeste Femen

[7]“Les méthodes des Femen en procès”, Gaëlle Dupont

http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2014/10/15/les-methodes-des-femen-en-proces_4506860_3224.html

[8]http://femen.org/about-us/

[9]. “Naked protest and the revolutionary body”, Barbara Brownie http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/costume-and-culture/2014/jan/15/naked-protest-revolutionary-body

[10]“The 86-Year-Old Story of Topless Protest You Haven’t Heard Yet” Marcie Bianco http://mic.com/articles/119294/the-86-year-old-story-of-topless-protests-you-haven-t-heard-yet

[11]“The 86-Year-Old Story of Topless Protest You Haven’t Heard Yet” Marcie Bianco

[12]“Suffragette”

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About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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