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© Bertrand NOËL
Feminism: the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Now, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In fact, in the 21st century, this statement should be common sense. But for some reason, the word ‘feminism’ has become a term that needs to be justified or defended. Anyone who identifies as a feminist, to many, will invoke images of bra-burning, angry, man-hating radicals who will rant to anyone who will listen about how unfair the world is to the female half of this glorious species. Let’s be clear, sexism does exist. This is a fact and, hey, it can go both ways, but let’s face it the brunt of this vice is borne by women. The fight for women’s rights has been going on for decades, and while the feminist movement has brought about significant social and legislative changes that protect women from exploitation and injustice, there is still a long way to go, and a lot more to learn.
It is interesting to observe the developments in feminist movements across the world, from protests in India against rape and other forms of violence against women to Malala advocating girls’ education in Pakistan. Then there is FEMEN. In case you haven’t heard, FEMEN is a feminist group out of Ukraine that strongly believes in ‘sextrimisim’ (a.k.a. getting naked in public and causing a ruckus) as a viable means of promoting women’s rights. You may have heard of them flashing Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel at the Hanover Trade Fair earlier this year, or crashing a number of fashion shows across Europe exposing their bare chests with political slogans in black ink painted across them.
While their methods are quite radical and arguably questionable, I am reluctant to throw stones just yet. Before we direct any judgment towards these ladies, let’s take a look at their ideologies, shall we? Firstly, it may or may not be important to note that this group was started by a man; Viktor Sviatsky. Initially, it is easy for skepticism to build over the legitimacy of a breast-baring feminist group based on the ideologies of a man, but bear with me.
(Officially) FEMEN was founded by Anna Hutsol in Ukraine 2008 after her eyes were opened to the sex trafficking of Ukrainian women. It all started as skimpy-dress protests but things quickly escalated into topless protests. Basically, FEMEN’s ideology is sextremism, atheism and feminism. The mission is ‘complete victory over patriarchy and all its forms which are dictatorship, religion and the sex industry.’ Their main aims are political deposition of governments that enforce political, social and economic environments hostile to women (for example those that promote Sharia law); criminalising prostitution, and banning religion from interfering in the civic, sex and reproductive lives of women. Their rationale behind going topless is that it destroys the patriarchal understanding of the meaning of female sexuality thus benefiting their revolutionary mission. These stances, naturally, will elicit debates which, at their core, pose philosophical questions.
But the more universal issues they aim to highlight are Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Sex trafficking and slavery. According to recent estimates, 66000 women have undergone FGM and an additional 20000 girls under the age of 11 are at risk in the UK alone. Sex slavery is a billion dollar industry and most of the victims are women. These are real issues that need to be addressed, we can all agree on that. It’s easy to lose these important messages in the shock-factor and the media hype. Or maybe this highly aggressive form of provocation is moving people to do their research and understand these issues. Whether this later translates to actual change is up for debate.
It is true: FEMEN branches have staged a number of high-profile ‘sextremist’ acts targeting politicians, prominent religious leaders and fashion shows where they have not only exposed their sharpie-marked breasts but burnt Salafist flags and chain-sawed crucifixes whilst generally screaming at people. After effectively being driven out of Ukraine due to death threats and attacks, the organisation moved to Paris where they are now based and opened branches in 10 countries across Europe. FEMEN is now taking on the UK, calling for a radical feminist revolution on the other side of the English channel and urging British women to join the ‘naked army.’
So will British women answer their call? The British public is generally sensitive to women’s rights, at least officially. Let’s not forget the backlash that ensued from that now infamous ‘calm down dear’ gaffe by the beloved P.M. David Cameron. Due to the nature of the issues highlighted by FEMEN, there may be a number of recruits to this radical ideology but personally, I don’t believe FEMEN will be successful in the UK. Here’s why:
The political culture in the UK is very different to the political culture in Ukraine from which FEMEN was born. The avenues for expression and influencing change on these issues are a lot more accessible in the UK than in Ukraine, therefore the absolute need to take such extreme measures to prove a point is not present. The chances of affecting public opinion on women’s rights whilst topless and screaming at people on the streets of London are also pretty slim. Powerful organisations and government institutions have been set up to deal with FGM, human trafficking, domestic violence against women, and other issues. While these problems are still severe, work is being done. On the philosophical issues that affect the perception of women and their freedoms, the culture is changing, legislations in the UK have been passed to try and balance the scales. It is a matter of enforcement, perhaps law changing society. Social reforms are not going to happen overnight.
The UK is one of the most culturally diverse countries in Europe. FEMEN is not culturally diverse and doesn’t engage women from different cultural backgrounds. This is one of its greatest weaknesses. One moment they are preaching freedom for all women, but then proceed to tell Muslim women that they are oppressed and/or brainwashed if they choose to wear a Hijab. The UK is notorious for valuing political correctness. For better or worse, I seriously doubt such extreme views would ever take root here. FEMEN only recruit women that are willing to show their half-naked bodies to the world. What about those women (out of their own independent choice mind you) who are not? This is the fundamental problem with this movement. They are inadvertently defining the parameters of freedom based on their own subjective ideologies. This is why I think their movement is not going to stick with the UK majority. But hey, if they manage to get people talking about rights and fairness and justice, then that is positive news all round.
Written by Irene Kyomuhangi. © Photo Bertrand NOËL.
To see more photography from Bertrand NOËL, visit the links below.
To find out more about FEMEN visit femen.org
’No Place Like Home’ is a visual commentary on contemporary Jewish identity in the UK. Throughout the photo-book, photographer Judah Passow captures this complex and pluralist community engaging in everyday activities. In doing so he explores the contrast and coexistence of tradition, national identity, religion and 21st century living.
There is little to shock or surprise in this book. At first glance these images portray nothing more than ordinary people doing ordinary things, but look a little closer and you’ll see a multi-faceted community that has finally found its place in UK society. No longer muted and hidden, Jewishness is exclaimed loudly and proudly; lit up on the roof of a car or tattooed on the body.
The book captures young and old, orthodox and liberal, pro-Isreal and anti-Zionist all in stunning black and white. It opens the doors to a section of our society that is often perceived as willingly closed and segregated, exploring the topic of integration by portraying Jewish and Muslim children playing together in a Birmingham school.
Passow challenges the stereotype of a people that is steeped in tradition and the ways of old by introducing topics of gender issues and homosexuality; the ordination of female rabbis and lesbian and gay congregations. The Jews of today are not faced with the choice of traditional or modern, they can be both.
’No Place Like Home’ is one of those photo-books that grows on you. It may not pack much of a punch a first, but the more you look, the more you see… and there is so much to see. The introduction provides a lovely insight into the work but the book would nevertheless benefit from captions throughout. Not only this, but it’s a shame that this collection of heart warming images aren’t displayed full page.
Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Photography © Judah Passow. With thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing.
‘275000 Britons go missing each year’: This is the first thing you see when you look at the ‘Missing’ leaflet that is thrown at you in the street. It’s a horrible statistic and part of you denies it because we don’t get to hear about all these people.
If a 21 year old man goes missing there is a very different response from the media to, for example, that of when Madeleine McCann went missing which sparked a manhunt which is still ongoing today. ‘Missing’ explores how knowing a missing person can affect the family, friends, police officers or anyone who gets involved in a case like this.
This piece establishes that the remaining friends and family could be considered victims of a missing person, with no closure or definitive answers. The play uses verbatim accounts to express the opinions and feelings of people involved in various missing cases.
The Engineer Theatre Group present each case differently in a variety of ways including physical theatre, interviews, monologues, sound collages and much more. This assortment of techniques keep the audience interested and make them think about the huge problem that missing people have become in our country.
The piece is extremely well executed; the actors work perfectly in sync with each other, the voice-overs, and the box props which help set the scene. The script cleverly entwines different testimonies together, resulting in a powerful and memorable performance.
This is a beautiful piece of theatre that causes the audience to question the system set in place to deal with missing people. It raises issues that need to be heard and does so in an eloquent and intriguing way.
Reviewed by Bethann Hastelow. Images courtesy of Underbelly.
On entering the Beneath space at the Pleasance Courtyard I was curious. The house lights came down and we heard a scuffle and a few bumps, then a crouched figure come on stage on his hands and knees. It eventually became obvious that this is how Robert Softley gets around.
When he faced the audience and started talking it became apparent that he had a speech impediment too. He immediately made light of all of these things, putting the audience at ease through humour. Within minutes his bubbly cheeky and refreshing personality had dispelled any preconceptions of disability that people may have had.
Throughout the piece he continued to talk light-heartedly of his condition but also added in poignant and thought provoking moments. He talked of how he couldn’t take his brother to the doctors without being asked questions about his own health, go to the gym without being stared at or even sleep next to someone without having an attack of spasms.
He cleverly conveys his message through images and videos on a projected screen behind him as well as certain important words, which he said throughout his monologue. He also conversed with a voice-over of a doctor asking him questions; a powerful device that demonstrated Softley’s vulnerability to the insensitivity of those he relies on to look after him.
My overall impression of the piece was how brave this man was to (literally) bare all and tell us what it’s like to be different. It is an extremely moving piece that will stay with you longer than most others at the festival this year.
Reviewed by Bethan Hastelow. Image Courtesy of Pleasance.
‘Ali J’ confronts the issue of the partition of British India on the basis of differing religious ideals. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the founder of Pakistan and a major part of the partition, which resulted in over a million people being killed and those who did survive were homeless. On his deathbed he is said to have lamented ‘Pakistan was my greatest blunder’. Pakistan was the new home of the Indian Muslim community.
The play focuses on a Muslim man in the present day , so don’t worry if your Indian history isn’t up to scratch. The protagonist, Ali J is in jail for a crime he did not commit and has been persecuted for being a Muslim in a mainly Hindu community. When we meet him he’s on death row. He talks directly to us as he believes we are a delusion caused by his close proximity to death. Because of this connection, he tells us of his past.
This one-man show takes us on a journey throughout his life and across continents. You do not question the fact that the set does not change; the precise placement of each movement ensures that the audience knows exactly where in his memory Ali J is. The character changes his mood in almost a Jekyll and Hyde fashion; one moment deliriously happy with the love of his life and the next imprisoned and angry at the world that has persecuted him for his religion.
Through a beautifully written script and excellent performance work we are transported to Ali J’s jail cell and can see the struggle within him and India; and it makes us wonder, are either of them ready to change? It’s an interesting and thought provoking show that inspires viewers to take a new interest in Indian history.
Reviewed by Bethan Hastelow.
A lot of words can be used to describe John Hirsch: Controversial, eccentric, original, intimidating, a colossus. However this is only half the story.
He fought through the horrific tragedy of being a Hungarian refugee during the holocaust after losing all his family to the German regime. But despite this terrifying start in life, he became one of the most influential directors of all time and revolutionised the Canadian theatre scene till the day he died in 1989.
This play is a homage to the man who created so many iconic pieces and inspired thousands of directors, including the director of this piece, Paul Thompson. Alon Nashman is fantastically versatile in this play; he almost seems schizophrenic with the amount of multi-roling he uses. A variety of accents, mannerisms and emotions come flooding out of each character, though this does not seem laboured or cumbersome but effortless and unquestionable.
Other than Nashman there is only one other performer, a stage hand, who assists in costume and set changes but can be seen as Hirsch’s whipping boy, something which the protagonist refers to himself near the end of the play.
‘Hirsch’ is an intelligent play that requires concentration the whole way through, though the endearing character of the narrator does make this easier. There are so many characters being performed all at once… at one point there was a conversation between four people (with only one on stage). Despite this being very impressive, it makes for a more challenging watch. Nevertheless, one to certainly go and see.
Reviewed by Bethan Hastelow. Images courtesy of Pleasance.
In the summer of 2011 the London riots shook the UK. This piece focuses on a boy and his mother who are affected by those riots, specifically the ones that occurred around their home in Chalk Farm.
An eerie atmosphere is set up as the audience walk in. Screens show static and pulsating music plays whilst the two actors stare out at the audience. This has an unnerving effect, putting the audience on edge and setting the tone perfectly for the rest of the piece.
There are only two actors but both give superb performances, showing a huge range of emotions and making the audience consider how they would act in the same circumstances. They mainly speak directly to the audience, trying to get them to understand the reasons behind their actions which, in their opinion, are the ‘right thing to do’. We see through the eyes of Jamie, a small child who wants to protect the city like a ‘bat angel’ but then grows up and becomes disillusioned with his life on a Chalk Farm estate. We see him grow further away from his mother and eventually fall into anarchy, but not for the reasons you may think.
As the riots only occurred recently, ‘Chalk Farm’ is current and effective, striking a chord with those of us who watched the chaos unfold from our television screens. It hones in on public opinion during that time; calling the rioters ‘swine’ ‘chavs’ and other names, and challenges your way of thinking. It’s an intelligent piece, which tests the audience’s morality as well as being serious in its depiction of harrowing consequences.
‘Chalk Farm’ is a hard-hitting piece of drama that is thoroughly enjoyable, yet thought provoking, and begs the question; what would you do in that situation?
‘Chalk Farm’ is showing throughout August at Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh Festival.
Reviewed by Bethan Hastelow.