THE BLOG

From Topless Protests To Pussy Riot, Women Rise Up

04/05/2013 02:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013
  • Christian Piatt Author of 'postChristian,' host of 'Homebrewed CultureCast'

This post contains NSFW images.

OK, I know I was a bit of a prude at first when it came to the name of the Russian Punk band, Pussy Riot. But somehow, hearing Leslie Stahl say it on "60 Minutes" neutralized that angst for me.

In case you aren't familiar the band has been known for some time as a vehicle for protesting the regime of Vladimir Putin, and though the women in the band are highly educated -- many of whom have solid white collar careers -- they chose the populist medium of punk music and culture to convey their message of resistance.

The band has performed many public protests, but the one that got the most attention was their lip-synched performance on the altar of Moscow's main orthodox church. During the 51-second stunt, the masked women crossed and supplicated themselves, praying to the Virgin Mary to remove Putin from power. For their efforts, four of the women were arrested and two were sent to labor camps in isolated regions amid hostile climate.

And then there's Femen, the grassroots feminist protest movement that has spilled over from Ukraine to Turkey and Switzerland in support of women's rights. What's unique about this particular movement is that the women involved use their bodies -- or more specifically, their nudity -- to draw attention to their many causes.

Members of the group have appeared in public topless against everything from Catholic patriarchal oppression to conservative political agendas that deny equality to women. But whereas some feminist movements have sought to de-emphasize the hyper-sexualized female form, Femen seeks to aggressively exploit it.

Consider this description of Inna Shevchenko, the 22-year-old leader of Femen, as she entered a cafe to meet with an Atlantic reporter:

...she strode into the brass-and-mirrors environs of the café where we had agreed to meet, on the central rue Pierre Lescot, one evening in mid-February. Atop the six-inch high heels of her black felt boots, her wavy, strawberry blonde hair spilling out from beneath a black baseball cap, her eyes mint-green and penetrating, she cut an impressive figure.

Welcome to the new face of feminism.

On the one hand, I applaud the women's employment of what Walter Wink would call a "third way" approach to nonviolent protest and resistance. These are women who, for all intents and purposes, have little power in comparison with the political machines dominating their countries. They are effectively injecting a resounding disruptive force into systems of power without responding in kind with the sort of force such systems employ to maintain power.

On the other hand, I worry that demonstrations like the topless protests simply play into existing tendencies to objectify women as sexual objects. And for some, they will likely never get past the nudity to deeper issues at stake. But it occurred to me, as I looked at this picture of photographers swarming this trio of women, that they are establishing another important point, whether intended or not. The point is that, despite being decades past the western Women's Liberation Movement, the most direct and potent access to power they have still is through their sexuality.

I'll be the first to admit that the addition of the word "topless" to a headline about women's rights protests halfway across the world certainly grabs my attention. It's always with a mix of morbid, base curiosity and passion for matters of social justice that read on. But I, like so many of us, live in a state of perpetual distraction. There is so much vying for my attention that sometimes it takes something like a topless woman to provide the necessary interrupt to get my attention.

I'm not proud of this. I wish it was different. I wish I was different, for my own sake and the sake of all women. Until it is, I consider both the actions of Pussy Riot and the women of the Femen movement to be brave pioneers in what is shaping up to be a radically engaging new front for feminist activism.