Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Year of the (Woman) Protester

For 2011, Time Magazine selected "The Protester" as it's annual Person of the Year. Illustrated by graffiti artist turned somewhat rebellious but establishment approved graphic designer Shepard Fairey, the cover depicts a stylized, brown eyed person with a knit cap covering their head and hair, and a bandana covering their nose and mouth. Perhaps intentionally, it's hard to tell if it's a man or a woman. 

Of course, we have seen major and important protests occurring all over the world this year, beginning with the Arab Spring movements and spreading to the Occupy Wall Street actions. 

Stories coming from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere have included incredibly inspiring reports of women taking on leadership positions in Tahrir Square, demanding the right to drive in Riyadh, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in Yemen and Liberia. Women around the world are taking their places as leaders of these movements because they know that true democracy and freedom cannot be achieved without women's full and equal engagement and participation in public life. 

Unfortunately, the encouraging stories from springtime in Tahrir Square have more recently been supplanted by reports of extreme violence by the military regime against protesters demanding civilian rule, and especially against the women protesters. This violence crossed the red line, as many Egyptian activists put it, when images were broadcast of a woman, clothes torn off and blue bra revealed, being dragged and beaten by soldiers.

In addition to this violence, it's been well documented that since the revolution began, women protesters who had been detained by the military were subjected to sexual harassment while in custody, including bogus "virginity tests." Why are we seeing an increase in violence against women under the military regime that's replaced Mubarak? In an op-ed piece for Al-Jazeera, UC Irvine professor Mark LeVine notes that: 

"once the general public loses fear of state violence, the state must press even harder by specifically attacking the repository of honour and values - female citizens - as a way of attempting to break down the resistance of society as a whole."

Of course, women are not inherently more honourable than men; the perception that they are is an example of benevolent sexism. Unfortunately, the misguided elevation of women to pillars of honour and morals often make them the targets of violence during conflicts. Could the Egyptian military regime be targeting women because of the demoralizing effect they expect the degradation of women to have on the population as a whole? 

Egyptian women are standing up to this violence and oppression and demanding that the revolution that they've been working for side by side with men will deliver justice and equality for themselves as full members of Egyptian civil society. 

After being subjected to a virginity test while held in military custody for her role in the Tahrir Square demonstrations, 25 year old activist Samira Ibrahim brought a court case against the military to challenge their use of this harassment. On December 27, 2011, the court ruled that the virginity tests were illegal and must not continue. Upon learning of her victory, Ibrahim stated:

"Thank you to the people, thank you to Tahrir Square that taught me to challenge, thank you to the revolution that taught me perseverance."

Here at the Wall of Femmes, we are incredibly encouraged to learn of more and more women like Samira, and we stand in solidarity with women in Egypt and elsewhere as they take their places as leaders and participants of the worldwide movements towards full democracy and justice for all people. 

Photo of stencilled "Wanted" poster in Cairo, by photojournalist Themba Lewis, from a collection titled "Women to the Front." From the collection notes: "Images taken from video stills of soldiers responsible for blinding protesters with buckshot and rubber bullets have been stencilled across downtown Cairo." 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Vandana Shiva on the 99%

"Freedom in our times has been sold as "free market democracy". "Free markets" mean freedom for corporations to exploit whom and what they want, where they want, how they want. It means the end of freedom for people and nature everywhere. "Free market democracy" is in fact an oxymoron which has deluded us into believing that deregulation of corporations means freedom for us.

Just as the illusion of growth and the fiction of finance has made the economy volatile and unpredictable, the fiction of the corporation as a legal person has replaced citizens and made society unstable and non-sustainable. Humans as earth citizens, with duties and rights, have been replaced by corporations, with no duties to either the earth or society, only limitless rights to exploit both the earth and people. Corporations have been assigned legal personhood, and corporate rights, premised on maximisation of profits, are now extinguishing the rights of the earth, and the rights of people to the earth's gifts and resources.

The new movements understand this. And that is why they are indignant and are occupying the political and economic spaces to create a living democracy with people and the earth at the centre instead of corporations and greed."

-Nov 15, 2011, Al-Jazeera

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pumping up Sexism with the NDP in Toronto

As mentioned by Wonder below, the Wall of Femmes descended upon Toronto last weekend. Since Ontario recently held a provincial election, the streets were still filled with election signage. We were quite dismayed to see this sign for the usually more enlightened NDP.

As you can see, the sign depicts an NDP orange platform stiletto, with the slogan "Pump up the vote." Here, the sign was placed underneath a more traditional sign showing the smiling face of Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath.

Clearly the Ontario NDP is trying to capitalize on the gender of their leader. The actual message they're trying to send with this sign is less clear. Are they saying one should vote for Ms. Horwath because she's a chick? With sexy shoes?

Considering that women in politics must face the additional challenge of having their every wardrobe choice analyzed by the media and even by their colleagues in a way that men do not (see this recent story about BC Premier Christy Clark's cleavage), the Ontario NDP and its leader should understand that posters that link female politicians to sexually charged footwear only exacerbates this problem. Posters like this encourage us to pay more attention to women politicians' gender identity and sexuality than their politics, and reduces their candidacy to the novelty of being "the chick."

On another level, the use of a stiletto heel to represent Horwath's "femaleness" is problematic on it's own. Using a sexualized symbol like this to illustrate femaleness suggests that sexiness is the defining characteristic of femaleness, and in order to be recognized as female you must be sexy. Further, the use of one symbol (whether sexualized or not) to represent the idea of "femaleness" ignores the enormous variety of qualities, skills, experience and lifestyles that are spread across half the population, and instead reinforces to the viewer that there is only one way to be female in our society.

Why is the Ontario NDP objectifying their leader and diminishing women in general in this way? Why focus on her gender at all? After all, we don't go out of our way to point out that male politicians are men.

In honour of Sarah, Toronto resident and Friend of the Wall, who suggested a more gender neutral way for the Ontario NDP to keep their slogan of "Pump up the vote," I submit this new poster. There ya go, NDP, FIXED IT FOR YOU!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Wall of Femmes hits Toronto!!!

The femmes were out last weekend in Toronto, at the pedestrian overpass at Roncesvalles & Queensway with new recruits to boot. We painted some classic women who are already on walls around Montreal, but we also added the imitable Montreal unionist and general amazing woman, Lea Roback, among others. Go check it out and be inspired!

It was rad introducing our world to our Toronto feminist buddies, so watch out, they are sure to extend the message further around T.Dot.

Thanks all!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Getting Noticed

Exciting news! The Wall of Femmes has been attracting attention from both within Montreal and beyond. 3,000 kilometres away in Regina, Saskatchewan, Martin Gourlie had this to say about the Wall of Femmes on his Urban Ecology blog

"The stencils represent a critique of streets covered in advertising exploiting images of women.  A grass-roots response with images of women who, through their actions, words and rich lives, challenged the patriarchal levers of control in society.  The graffiti is also an educational opportunity, a way to put names and faces into the public realm to engage the public."

Engaging with the public is one of the most important reasons we do what we do. Illustrating our public spaces is a way of communicating with our neighbours, and since the best kind of communication goes two ways, we love to see in kind responses to our visual statements. 

This rather ambiguous reply was left underneath a series of stencils on rue Saint Denis: "La Feminisme, C'est Punk." Though harder to interpret than the previously seen "Holy Fuck I Love You," we like to think that in this case, Punk is a good thing. After all, a punk is someone who doesn't follow the rules and does things their own way, right? A person who's disillusioned with the status quo and is frustrated by the unequal distribution of power in mainstream society, right? Sounds a lot like the women highlighted on the Wall. This statement, "La Feminisme, C'est Punk," reminds me of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's now famous observation: "Well behaved women seldom make history!"

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011

Gendered Rioting

The extent of the rioting in Vancouver following their loss to Boston in game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals on June 15 surprised everybody. Perhaps a little rioting was expected, especially for those of us used to living in Montreal, but what ended up happening in Vancouver was enough to make international headlines.

The best comment about the riot I've seen so far comes from Harsha Walia via The Nation. Reflecting on why a riot would occur over a hockey game but not over political or social justice issues, she says:

“There is a sense that people rioted over a ‘stupid apolitical hockey game.’ While I too wish people were motivated by social justice issues, the hockey game is not apolitical by any means. The riots were a fundamentalist defense of a type of nationalism, most evident in the beatings of Bruins fans in Vancouver last night. NHL hockey is not simply a game, it is representative of obedience to consumerism and is part of the state’s attempt to forge a false identity—despite vast differences and inequalities across race, class and gender, through the spectacle of sport.”

Her point about NHL hockey serving to reinforce the status quo is particularly interesting and could be extrapolated beyond "obedience to consumerism" and applied to other areas as well, namely obedience to gender norms and expectations. It comes as no surprise that the vast majority of rioters were young men. This piece from the Vancouver Sun examines the role that gender norms played in creating the riot and argues that it's the social expectation and valorization of masculine aggression that accounts for the prevalence of young men rather than women participating in the riots. 

Of course, a major factor in any riot is the phenomenon where individuals feel anonymous in a large crowd and lose their inhibitions, believing they'll never be personally identified and associated with behaviours that are unusual or out of character for them normally. Clearly the rioters didn't notice that their every move was being photographed, videotaped, and tagged on Facebook! In any case, when the men in the crowd lost their inhibitions, they carried out acts of masculine aggression such as burning cars, smashing windows and throwing punches. But what did the women do?

The above YouTube video shows two women standing on top of police cars that would soon be completely destroyed. The first one is greeted with loud chants of "Take It Off" until a man jumps up on the car beside her. When the man appears, the crowd quickly stops chanting. The second woman, in the background, decides to give the crowd what it wants and shows her breasts to the mob. This is only one example of women in the riot, but it struck me that while the men rioted in ways that reinforced the social expectations of men as aggressors, at least one woman rioted by reinforcing the social expectation of women as objects for sexual display. Perhaps the rioters of both genders are less concerned with letting loose and engaging in their true desires than they are in seeking acceptance and approval from the crowd around them. 

Luckily, the woman in the video does not appear to have been subjected to any "unleashed male aggression" herself. However, the photo at the top of this post, depicting a man carrying a bloodied and disembodied mannequin leg, is more disturbing. Obviously a mannequin is not a real woman, but certainly serves to represent women, and the idea that these facsimiles of women's bodies were stripped, torn apart, fought over and kept as trophies frankly makes me feel a little ill. Let's remember that encouraging and reinforcing expectations of male aggression does not only contribute to hockey riots, but also to violence against women and rape culture. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Lois Long (1901-1974)

"We women had been emancipated and we weren't sure what we were supposed to do with all the freedom and equal rights, so we were going to hell laughing and singing…."
-Lois Long

The 1920s must have been an exciting time to be a young woman. Thousands of organized feminists worked tirelessly for decades before voting rights were finally exercised by Canadian women in 1919 and by American women in 1920. Demographic, technological and economic changes were resulting in more and more women entering the workforce, living away from their families, practicing birth control, and directing their own lives. The youth of the 20s were the first generation in a hundred years to never wear corsets that crushed their organs and wasted their muscles. If I didn't have to wear that shit anymore I'd laugh and sing for a while too. 

Lois Long was the archetypal flapper: Intelligent, beautiful and daring, she wrote insightful and witty commentary about fashion and NYC nightlife in the speakeasies as a writer for the brand new magazine The New Yorker. While Victorian suffragists found the "new woman" frivolous and apolitical, the flappers voted, worked, drank, smoked, and made love not just like men, but with men. For the first time, women and men were not cloistered among their own gender most of the time, but were beginning to occupy the same social, professional, and political space. In rejecting the old social order that expected women to be virginal and morally elevated, the flappers took ownership of what had been denied their mothers: the right to be sexy. 

The idea of using one's sexuality as a tool of empowerment may have been liberating in the 20's following the sexually repressed Victorian era, but eighty years later western culture bestows upon women not just the freedom to be sexy, but the obligation to be sexy. Would Lois Long and her contemporaries still feel rebellious and emancipated if they were making up their faces and heading to a nightclub today? Or would they point out that the culture that values only the youngest and sexiest of women is just as oppressive as the culture of enforced female modesty that they so passionately rejected? 

ref: Zeitz, Joshua, 2006: Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern