Feminism is often a difficult thing to understand let alone define. Like any movement, feminism employs a wide array of methods in spreading its message. Despite the differences in scope and treatment of women’s issues, at its core, feminism seeks to address the injustices that disrupt women’s freedom and fruition. In advocating for women’s rights, inciting social awareness to gain support is crucial to creating active changes in the social and governmental systems that restrict women’s power and negate equality.
How to voice the mission when educational materials, speeches, or conferences aren’t enough? What’s the most effective means of getting the message across? While some feminist organizations systematically influence policy making through countless political campaign initiatives, smaller more radical groups seek to provide a shocking awakening to the reality of the marginalization and suppression of women around the world.
Protesting to incite social awareness of women’s issues may be violent, obscene, and might even sometimes be a naked display of raw aggression, but it’s important to consider why some feminists groups consider this the most effective route at spreading their message. If failing to communicate the real injustices that feminism stands to fight against, radical acts of feminist activism at the very least express the outrage and indignation of a suppressed group.
Feminism has come a long way from the initial women’s suffrage movements and now surpassed the idea of unity and sisterhood inspired during the 1960 ‘second wave’ of feminism in a new and revolutionary way. These days, despite all the advancements, women are still underrepresented in the media and in politics, and the wage gap between men and women is still significant even in the most developed countries. Perhaps this reality is what’s driven some feminist activist to do the unthinkable.
The following list ranks the 5 most shocking feminist protests that have not only attracted significant media attention that has served to highlight women’s issues and the fight for equality, but have also successfully shocked the masses.
5. Feminist Protest Driving Ban in Saudi Arabia
In October 2013, about 60 Saudi women, in an act of civil disobedience, drove a car. What began as a campaign for change aimed at loosening the country’s restrictions on women’s rights resulted manifested itself as protest where women took a drive, un-chaperoned. Saudi Arabia has a strict law mandating women to have a male relative give them permission to do such things as travel, pursue higher education, or get married. That means taking the car out for a drive is strictly prohibited. Women in Saudi Arabia are not issued licenses but the driving ban is not a traffic law. The Islamic religion reasons that it’s somehow detrimental to a woman if she drives and this is generally believed to be true by clerics. This may help in understanding how something that may not seem shocking to the rest of the world was in this country interpreted by many as a complete affront to the social structure. The women caught driving (with licenses they received abroad) were not arrested but were detained in the vehicle until their male guardians could drive them back. They were also forced to sign a pledge stating that they would never drive again.
Despite the feminist flame being prematurely put out, the message got through after the protest went viral. Several of the driving women posted footage of their escapade online, inciting press coverage worldwide. And although it’s comparably a minor effort towards advancing women’s rights through the defiance of an arbitrary restriction to a woman’s freedom to drive, it demonstrates that Saudi women are driving a brighter future of equality for women forward.
4. Over 100 Women Arrested In Immigration Protest in Washington, DC
On September 12, 2013, over 100 women stood outside of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC to protest against the House’s failure to issue inclusive immigration reform that secures the well being of immigrant women and children. Women make up 51 percent of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and only one third of employment visas are awarded to these women each year. The women who gathered in Washington wanted to urge Congress to pass immigration reform that prioritizes immigrant women and children, secures that families stay together, and protects victims of violence and workplace abuse. 200 supporters stood by while 104 women were arrested on Capitol Hill, 20 of which were immigrant women who willingly submitted to arrest despite risking deportation.
3. Pussy Riot Perform ‘Punk Prayer’ in Moscow, Russia
On Feb 21, 2012, a group of women clad in tights, short skirts, and colorful burglar masks protested at a service in a cathedral in Moscow, Russia. They were Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk rock group comprised of about 11 members founded in 2011 that fights for the advancement of women’s rights in the battle against patriarchy. Their short-lived performance was a ‘prayer’ to the Virgin Mary to “put Putin away”, a protest against both the country’s religious intolerance and Vladimir Putin’s close ties with the Orthodox church. The Christ the Savior cathedral is considered by many Russians to be a symbol of government corruption, since it was built using money raised through organized crime. Pussy Riot raided the joint, blasting music on speakers while dancing and yelling across the altar. Three of the eleven members were sentenced to two years in prison for the reckless stunt. The performance was caught on video and stirred so much public interest that up to 40,000 Russians signed a petitioned to have the three released from prison. In February 2014, Pussy Riot struck again in Sochi during the Winter Olympics. The group gathered outside of a restaurant in downtown Sochi and sang, “Putin will teach you to love the motherland!” but were quickly cut short by Cossack militia that proceeded to beat, pepper spray, and detain them. The event caused much public outrage since footage was caught of the women being horsewhipped by officials. Two of the members are currently detained and facing prison time. But if anything is learned by their reckless display it’s that these women are willing to face the risks of their outrageous actions in advocating women’s rights. What the cruel treatment of these stunts says about the Russian government is perhaps the loudest message Pussy Riot has exposed us to.
2. Femen Activist Flashes Vladimir Putin in Hanover, Germany
In April 2013, Femen member Alexandra Shevchenko appeared topless yelling “f*** the dictator” before German chancellor Angela Merkel and the president of Russia himself. The outrageous feat made headlines around the world. Alexandra, along with her four topless companions were immediately tackled and then detained by Putin’s bodyguards.
The Femen feminist group was founded in 2006 and is based in Kiev, Ukraine. It has since branched out to form nine chapters in four countries, fighting to stand against patriarchy and advocate for women’s rights. The hundreds of loyal members call themselves “shock troops” and their main method of protest is their topless revolts. The Femen women call their attention-grabbing tactic “sextremism”, for obvious reasons. The act of protesting topless at religious and political institutions has inspired criticism and incited much controversy. Alexandra, who is also a co-founder of the feminist group, argues that Femen’s shock-inducing method is not an exploitation of feminine sexuality as some may argue, but instead, transforms “female sexual suppression into aggression”.
Whether we agree with it or not, Femen’s defiance is a force to be reckoned with. The radical group has made topless appearances at the Vatican, setting off red smoke during the papal conclave as a herald to the Catholic church’s bloody history, at the European Parliament in Brussels advocating for gay rights, and a number of different countries, making headlines worldwide. These stunts have been costly, however, as Femen members have endured beatings, jail time, and have even received death threats. Nonetheless, these raging women continue in their topless mission to unclothe, so to speak, the injustice and cruelty of patriarchal systems in support of feminist ideals.
Their most recent protest disrupted a church service on Christmas day in 2013 when a topless shock troop entered a mass held in a cathedral in Cologne, Germany and stood at the altar with the words “I am God” written across her bare chest. The event caused great controversy and while many don’t condone Femen’s method of inciting social awareness of feminist issues, we can all agree that they definitely grab our attention.
1. Feminist Pro-abortion Protest in San Juan, Argentina
On Nov 24, 2013 a crowd of some 7 thousand feminist marched to the city’s main cathedral in San Juan, Argentina. The large crowd had gathered for the National Women’s Encounter, an annual conference held every year in Argentina that brings together Argentinean feminists sponsored by the Argentine Department of Culture. The group of, by then, half-clothed women chanted pro-abortion slogans as they attempted to break into the cathedral. Some 1,000 men who had gathered to protect the cathedral from vandalism locked arms to block the entrance. The women (accompanied by some male participants) demanded “legal abortion in every hospital” as they accosted the praying men. The women shouted obscenities at them, beat them, and even fondled them while drawing swastikas on their chests and faces with red spray paint. Some of the women reportedly rubbed their naked breasts in the men’s faces and also placed their underwear around their necks. The men did not fight back and the police did not intervene, claiming that they did not want to harm women.
After failing to break in, the women burned an effigy of Pope Francis, chanting that if the Pope were a female, abortion would be legal. The crowd later dismantled, leaving behind a trail of vandalism and graffiti.The event successfully shocked the entire country and was widely considered a barbaric display of violence and debasement. Needless to say, this protest is an example of how wrong shock tactics can go, and perhaps a guide to how not to protest.
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