Sunday, 20 October 2013

Consuming feminism - Femen, Gucci and the commodified body

Driving through London's Hammersmith this morning, I was confronted by a vast advertisement for Gucci on the side of an office block. It showed the eyes of a woman in a burqa gazing down on the Sunday morning traffic. When I looked more closely, I saw that it was an advertisement for the 2013 'Trust Women' Conference in London. The message seemed to be that 'Trust Women' (or maybe Gucci) aims to liberate women from the oppression of the burqa - metaphorical or real - by inviting an inspirational range of high-powered speakers to celebrate women's achievements and challenge the causes of their oppression. Using more radical methods, Femen seems to share a similar agenda.

This morning's Observer newspaper carries extensive coverage of the activities of Femen, the sensational(ist) feminist movement which (maybe) was started by Ukrainian students in 2008, and has since moved its headquarters to Paris to escape persecution. One of the founding members, Alexandra Shevchenko, is in Britain to promote a new documentary about the group, Ukraine is not a Brothel. She appears on the front page of the newspaper, shown naked from the shoulders up, pouting seductively with a garland of flowers in her hair and slogans painted on her body. The full story is, quite appropriately, on p. 3 of the newspaper, where another beautiful, semi-naked blonde 'feminist' bares her teeth as policemen in leather gloves drag her away. The headline is 'Feminist, fearless ... and topless: activists gear up to bring "sextremism" to the UK'. Not much critical commentary from The Observer then.

These juxtaposed images from the newspaper and the advertising hoarding set me thinking, and I decided to do a little googling when I got home. I was  struck by how Femen's publicity stunts and Gucci's advertisements result in  similar representations of the female body - scantily clad and beautiful, defined by sexuality, and with disturbing connotations of sado-masochism. In the case of Gucci's classy advertising campaigns, this is hinted at in the most sensual and aesthetic way, so that it seems to belong in a different world than the kind of violence meted out by police to Femen women. That, of course, is one of the points Femen's activists are making - that the female body is commodified and exploited by patriarchy everywhere.  But when does a political message become so identified with the oppressive stereotypes it seeks to challenge, that in the end it simply serves to reinforce those stereotypes? Shift the focus slightly, and a similar question could be posed to 'Trust Women'.

'Trust Women' advertises itself under the patronage of Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International New York Times. Its agenda includes tackling issues such as slavery and human trafficking, violence against women, and women's access to healthcare. The  advisory Board is made up of international public figures of impeccable credentials, and I am not casting doubt on their integrity nor on the potential impact of this kind of enterprise. Neither am I denying that corporate sponsorship is  an effective way of raising funds for worthy projects. However, there surely has to be some sense of coherence between an organisation's corporate sponsors and its ethos and aims?

'Trust Women' has two other sponsors - The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and a global American law firm called White and Case - but Gucci is prominently displayed as the headline sponsor in all the advertising. The 'Trust Women' website invites sponsors for its annual conference, saying that it is 'the perfect platform for companies wishing to reach a highly-influential audience of leaders from the world of philanthropy, civil society, government and law firms', and it promises 'worldwide exposure' to sponsors who will be able to 'align with the prestigious brands of the International New York Times and Thomson Reuters Foundation' to 'reach a truly global audience through promotional activities'.  Click on the Gucci link and you will arrive at the Gucci website offering 'laid-back luxury', 'high gloss glamour' and 'understated sophistication'.

Gucci is a corporation that exists for the sole purpose of selling luxury goods to very rich people. Reuters is an international news organisation that mediates much of the news we read in our daily papers, and the New York Times is an influential arbiter of American public opinion in its more informed varieties. When this kind of corporate sponsorship becomes entangled with the promise of global media coverage through high-profile news agencies on the one hand, and the promotion of developmental projects on the other, warning bells should sound. If you want to know what Gucci is about, don't look at hoardings advertising worthy causes with Gucci's name beneath an image of a woman in a burqa. Look instead at the commodified and eroticised women in the Gucci advertisements. That's how Gucci brands itself by branding women.

Advertising intrudes upon our lives in countless ways to trivialise our values and distort our perceptions. It shapes public awareness, values and aspirations through the manipulation of images and the commodification of desire. And corporations that spend vast resources on advertising, product placement and 'branding' are not going to offer sponsorship to any organisation that challenges what they stand for.

Human trafficking, slavery, the exploitation and abuse of women, lack of access to reproductive healthcare, high rates of maternal and infant mortality in the world's poorest countries, these are scandalous injustices that must be tackled by the international community. But it is no less scandalous that there is a growing global elite amassing obscene amounts of wealth to spend on luxury goods, from yachts and penthouses to Gucci handbags, as the gap between the world's richest and the world's poorest grows ever wider. Surely, 'Trust Women' can find a more credible corporate sponsor.

One might  argue that 'money, tainted as it is' (Luke 16), should be used to do good. I would need some persuasion to believe that this makes Gucci an appropriate sponsor for 'Trust Women', but perhaps there is an argument to be made. However, in the case of Femen, the question of funding and sponsorship is much murkier and more problematic.

I recommend Adrienne Joy's  analysis - 'Why Femen should probably just stop. Now.' A new documentary film, Ukraine is Not a Brothel, reveals that  Femen has for some time been promoted and controlled by a mastermind called Viktor Svyatskiy, although Femen has dissociated itself from him since the film was released. Svyatskiy's public profile and his misogynist attitudes have led some to suggest that Femen is a front in which a feminist cause masks just another venture aimed at exploiting the bodies of attractive young women whose gullibility makes them easy targets. Whether or not that is true, a quick internet search reveals worrying questions about an organisation whose methods leave little to the imagination, but whose motives and sources of funding are more difficult to see through. As Persephone Magazine wrote in a blog about Femen ('Femen-Ism') in 2012:
The real problem is that nobody knows from where they get their funding. The average salary in Ukraine is $319/month, but these women, who are otherwise out of work, have enough money to live in the expensive city of Kyiv and to travel all over the world. It is also quite difficult and expensive to obtain a visa from Ukraine to other countries (especially for young women, and for the unemployed), but the women of FEMEN have visas dripping out of their passports. They are being backed by a person or an organization with money and influence, and they aren’t saying who that is.

Which makes the performance aspect take a chilling note. This is a group to protest the fact that women in Ukraine are commodified and sold to foreigners; meanwhile, the FEMEN women themselves have apparently been purchased for their looks and their willingness to bare their chests, and shipped all over the world to perform what can easily be interpreted as a sex act. Oy.
Femen have indulged in some courageous and/or dangerously foolhardy antics in order to attract the attention of the world's press, and they have succeeded. But they are waging a war of ignorance against the forces of ignorance, and that ways lies barbarism. The fact that religion is a key target of their crusade on behalf of women is likely to alienate them from many religious feminists who might otherwise regard them as allies in the struggle against patriarchy. For example, Amina Sboui is a young Tunisian feminist who was briefly associated with Femen, posing topless with a slogan across her chest on Facebook, and being arrested for painting the word 'Femen' on a cemetery wall. After her release from prison, Sboui distanced herself from Femen because of their Islamophobia and the lack of transparency about their funding, although she remains committed to radical feminism. There are rumours that some of Femen's funding comes from Israeli sources, but it is impossible to verify any of these stories when there is so little transparency.

To bring informed criticism to the ways in which religious traditions oppress women is as important as any other aspect of feminist criticism. However, to launch an attack on religion per se, including the desecration and violation of religious places and objects which for women as well as men often have profound spiritual significance, is simply to perpetuate the worst characteristics of violence and intolerance that ethically concerned feminism should seek to eliminate. Beyond the sensationalism of the news headlines, women scholars, community workers and activists are working for change in every religion with far more success than is generally recognized, but our endeavours are not well-served when those claiming to be feminists indulge in the kind of extreme provocation that gives all feminists a bad name. Behind the scenes, religions may prove to be more hospitable and enduring contexts for the development of  ethically informed and socially engaged forms of feminism than the corrupted and commodified circus of the modern marketplace, with its corporate sponsors and its sleazy publicity stunts.

Dear women, cast your lot with Gucci or Femen if you want to, but they will never set you free. They are not in it for you.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Holy See, the United Nations and Women's Rights

'Theology that hears the poor'

This is the text of an article by me published in this week's Tablet. Scroll down to see the published version, but as it's awkward to navigate I'm posting the text here as well.

--> If you are interested in reading more about the issues covered in this article, I highly recommend Half the Sky: How to Change the World by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. You might also appreciate Margaret Atwood's poem, Christmas Carols.

Pope Francis claims that the Church lacks ‘a deep theology of woman’. This is only partially true. Since Vatican II, Catholic women theologians from all continents have been reflecting on women’s lives in the spirit of the Council, but these theologies have yet to find official acceptance. On the other hand, ‘theology of the body’, inspired by Pope John Paul II’s catechesis on the Book of Genesis and his 1988 apostolic letter on women, Mulieris Dignitatem, now forms the basis for all the Church’s official teachings on women and sexuality, as can be seen from the website of the Women’s Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

This year sees the twenty fifth anniversary of Mulieris Dignitatem, and the Women’s Section is organising a symposium to mark the event. The report on the last such symposium, held in 2008, suggests that the participants were selected on the basis of their support for theology of the body and their condemnation of feminism and gender theory. There has been little attempt by the Women’s Section to engage with women theologians who might offer a different perspective.

John Paul II’s teachings on the goodness of the body and the positive significance of married sex were in many ways a transformation in Catholic theology. He also arguably did more than any other Pope to promote women’s rights within the parameters of Catholic teaching. Nevertheless, his understanding of motherhood and femininity was highly romanticised, as was his theology of marriage, based on the principle of sexual complementarity between male and female. This has provided theological inspiration for some heterosexual couples who, by luck, judgement or circumstance marry the right person, find satisfaction in traditional gender roles and are able to practise natural family planning, but theology of the body has little to offer to those whose experience of marriage is wounded by divorce or blighted by violence, abuse or poverty. Theology of the body is also hostile to homosexuality.

As the United Nations and international NGOs have become increasingly focused on issues of gender, sexuality and women’s rights, theology of the body has been promoted by the Vatican as a form of resistance to feminism and gender theory, and to the perceived threat posed by contraception, abortion and homosexuality to marriage and the family. Yet in its romantic sexual stereotypes, in its tendency to misrepresent or silence the voices of those with whom it disagrees, and in its glossing over of complex ethical issues to do with sexuality, reproduction and motherhood, theology of the body is in many ways an obstacle in the way of developing the ‘deep theology of woman’ that Pope Francis invites.

If Catholics are to respond to Francis’s call to become a Church of the poor, then the challenges posed by questions of women’s rights, maternal well-being, reproductive choice and the scandal of maternal and infant mortality have to be addressed by those most qualified to speak with and for poor women. Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 social justice encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, makes no mention of maternal mortality or HIV/AIDS, despite the fact that an estimated 800 of the world’s poorest women die every day through causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth. By contrast, a pastoral letter on the Millennium Development Goals published in June 2013 by the Bishops of Uganda and addressed to that country’s Government dedicates significant space to HIV/AIDS and to questions of justice for women and combatting maternal mortality. Perhaps this is a symptom of how a change in papal style is creating space for different voices to be heard within the Catholic hierarchy.

Next year is Cairo +20 – the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 UN Cairo Conference on Population and Development. This might be the first real test of Francis’s determination to bring about a shift in emphasis, from a Church obsessed with questions of contraception, abortion and homosexuality, to a Church whose identity and mission comes from living the Gospel in radical solidarity with the poor.

The 1994 Cairo Conference was regarded as a diplomatic disaster for the Vatican. The Holy See aligned itself with some Islamic states in opposing resolutions which included terms such as ‘reproductive rights’ and ‘sexual health’, because it perceived these as attempts to promote abortion and population control policies and to undermine marriage and the family. More recently, in March 2013, the Holy See once again attracted widespread condemnation for joining with Russia, Egypt and Iran to oppose a UN declaration against gender violence because it included reference to sexual, reproductive and gay rights.  

Such reports fuel hostility towards the Catholic Church, some of which is based more on prejudice than on informed debate. In an effort to avoid a repeat of the 1994 fiasco, John Paul II went to considerable lengths to ensure that the Vatican was well-represented at the UN Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, with a delegation led by the then Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon. Reporting in The Tablet afterwards, Annabel Miller wrote that the Holy See’s delegates ‘had been chosen not only for their loyalty to the Church, but for their intellectual – and street – credibility’, but she goes on to say that ‘this was not enough to break through the wall of prejudice, even hatred, among some secular feminists’. So there is a need for bridge-building on both sides.

The Vatican is already a significant voice for the poor around issues such as migration and refugees, economic exploitation, human trafficking and war and conflict, and the Catholic Church is a leading provider of female education through its religious orders. However, its credibility will continue to be undermined unless it also engages in more constructive dialogue within the UN and other agencies about maternal mortality, reproductive health, gender-based violence and women’s rights. This includes ensuring that the poor are defended against population control policies directed more at protecting the interests of the rich than the rights of the poor. There is also evidence that female education is more effective in reducing family sizes than campaigns focusing exclusively on contraception, and the Vatican is right to point this out. Yet educated women are able to limit the number of children they have because they can make informed choices about pregnancy, and that requires access to reliable contraception. If the Church’s opposition to abortion is to be seen as a genuine concern for the rights of the unborn and not as simply another attempt to deny women’s rights, and if it is to have credibility in its interventions on the stage of international politics, then the benefits of contraception must be recognized, as must campaigns for gender justice and sexual equality.

Catholic health care providers are often in the forefront of dealing with the realities of these issues, beyond the ideological to-ing and fro-ing between the Holy See and the UN. For example, research currently being undertaken by Dr. Jill Olivier and others at the University of Capetown shows that, in some African countries, post-abortion care makes increasingly heavy demands on Catholic clinics and hospitals. Women and girls who experience heavy bleeding after inducing abortions at home go to Catholic facilities because they know they will not be turned away. For many, help comes too late. Accurate statistics are impossible to come by, but an estimated 68,000 women die every year as a result of unregulated abortion. A woman who would rather risk death than face an unwanted pregnancy is in despair.  Often these are young girls who have been victims of abuse or rape, and sometimes they face rejection by their communities. A Catholic agency I know of in Zimbabwe has set up a home for such girls, and tries to reconcile them with their families when their babies are born.

Such Catholic initiatives constitute the Church of the poor, providing an active daily response to Pope Francis’s call for the Church to be ‘a field hospital’ which responds to the call to ‘Heal the wounds, heal the wounds … And you have to start from the ground up’. Yet there is a blanket of secrecy thrown over some aspects of this work when it concerns reproductive health or providing condoms for people at risk of HIV/AIDS, because of the need not to be seen to contravene official Church teaching. Catholics working in such contexts are usually reluctant to go on the record, because of the well-founded fear that they will be condemned by their bishops and their funding will be withdrawn.

Starting from the ground up means allowing theology to grow out of the grass roots experience of those who put human suffering before moral absolutes. There is far more to women’s theology than questions of reproduction and motherhood, just as there is far more to the Church’s work among the poor than crisis intervention. Yet if a deep theology of woman cannot provide a compassionate response to those women who suffer most acutely because of sexual violence, poverty and the lack of adequate reproductive health care, then it is failing to hear the cry of the poor.

A deep theology of woman must be a theology by and for women, which learns from women’s visions and struggles in terms of justice and ethics, sexuality and motherhood, sacramentality and prayer. There are many who would welcome an opportunity to discuss these issues more openly within the Church. The Women’s Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity would be an ideal forum for such discussions. In this age of reform, might we yet see such a space opening up? This would allow the official Church to engage with the resources it needs to develop that deep theology of woman which Francis says it currently lacks.