The ladies of Femen Quebec. via Facebook.
Quebec’s mind-numbingly boring legislative National Assembly was recently treated to a lot more toplessness than the usual Jesus Christ—who is known for hanging out on the cross at the front of the room with his shirt off—when three women stormed the parliamentry proceedings, ripped off their shirts and yelled out “Crucifix, décalisse” or “Crucifix, get the fuck out,” for those of you not familiar with sacrilegious Quebecois slang.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, the three women are members of the controversial feminist movement Femen. This time, the women went topless to protest the presence of the crucifix inside the National Assembly in contrast to the supposed “religious neutrality” of the controversial Quebec Charter of Values.
One of the spokespeople for Femen Quebec, which is the first active Femen branch in all of North America, is Ukrainian-born, Northern-Quebec-raised Xenia Chernyshova.This event marked the first time in the history of Femen where members were able to enter and protest inside a parliament building, but this isn’t Xenia’s first time making history with her politically involved breasts.
Xenia was part of a small group of women, alongside Inna Shevchenko, who chainsawed a four-meter high wooden crucifix in Kiev, as the Moscow court was about to release the verdict on the Pussy Riot case.
I decided to call up this topless protester to talk about this week’s action at the National Assembly and her take on the Quebec Charter of Values.
Praying topless is all the rage. via Facebook.
VICE: Hi Xenia. First off, I want to ask you what consequences are you and the other girls facing right now?
We were charged with nudity, indecent exposure and disrupting public order. According to the criminal code, I don’t think we are going to be formally accused of anything because we can contest that our body can be used as a political tribune. When we were there, even the security agents seemed to understand our action better than anybody else. You could see it in their eyes.
What has been the impact so far of your action at the National Assembly?
Politicians have reacted saying people should completely dismiss it. They want to keep their eyes shut. There’s been a media storm surrounding this story and now people are talking about it. That’s the goal of Femen, to get people’s attention. We use methods that are extremely crude. Nowadays, to get a message across and break through the constant flow of information, we need to go hard. Then we have to work to explain the meaning behind our performance.
Let’s get to that. Why did you choose to show up and protest bare-chested at the National Assembly?
We decided to focus on the crucifix. Ever since the debate over the Quebec Charter of Values has sprung, there seems to have been a great lack of coherence. The crucifix is inside the parliament, a place synonymous with neutrality. The government wants the state to be neutral. If the government is not willing to compromise, there is no reason why individuals from different religions should be willing to compromise on their religious affiliations. The charter brings along a complete incomprehension between “old stock” Quebecers and immigrants.
Would you say the government is being hypocritical by saying that the crucifix inside the Assembly is part of our “cultural heritage”?
In previous demonstrations, we have criticized the fact that the crucifix was put in place by Maurice Duplessis in 1936. It represents a seal between the state and the Roman Catholic Church. This seems a bit ridiculous. The National Assembly existed before 1936, which means that it was able to operate without the crucifix. It seems like they’re trying really hard to justify this so-called “cultural heritage.” Why would this symbol dominate all the other ones? This is the question we are asking. Femen is against religious institutions, we are basically fighting religions. Feminism and religion don’t quite seem to get along. Every religion has oppressed at one point or another and continues to oppress women.
The topless Madonna. Photo by Chichi. via Facebook.
So, would you say you are for complete secularism?
Of the state, yes. What I find completely ridiculous is that, in other places in the world, women are persecuted for not wearing a veil while here they’re being persecuted for wearing one. Secularism in Quebec is already pretty entrenched in our society. But the main thing that bothers me is that I don’t know anyone with strong visible religious affiliations that are affecting their public jobs. Where are they? Has there ever been a major instance where someone’s faith has disrupted the neutrality of the state?
You don’t think there are any concrete examples to justify the charter?
No, because when you exercise a public function whether you’re a police officer or a judge, there’s already a uniform. But then, when you go a little further into school and daycares, people say it sets a bad example. This seems very bizarre to me. Witnessing diversity can only bring us closer together. To be able to discuss with someone wearing a veil and become friends, it means we are able to take away from the menace and the fear of the other. I think it’s good that that the government is trying to put in place clear notions, but now that the debate has started, we need to make some modifications. Femen decided to act at the National Assembly in front of Pauline Marois and the other deputies because it seems like they want to ignore the public’s opinion. They think that the population will complain for a bit and then slowly become used to it. The situation is now more alarming than before. Newspapers are already talking about a spike in violence against veiled women in Quebec.
Do you think the Charter is going to hold up?
The charter will not pass, I guarantee it. However, it might be too bad. One of the government’s ad says “Bible. Torah. Koran. Sacred. Religious neutrality of the state. Equality of men and women. These are sacred too.” It’s a great. It’s a good idea, it might even be visionary.
Some people have been speculating that the charter is part of a political strategy for the PQ, what do you think about that?
Pauline Marois said during an interview that “to debate is not to divide.” Perhaps she’s right. Maybe we’re just debating this as a society and it’s legitimate. It might not have been planned that way, but that’s the way it now looks. I grew up in Northern Quebec. We were the first immigrants to move to Sept-Iles and I can tell from experience that there are not a lot of immigrants living in Quebec’s regions. People seem to be ignorant. It’s not their fault, they just haven’t had the chance to get to know immigrants. They only see them as a cultural menace and not as an opportunity for collaboration and alliance that could help us move forward as a society and become a role model for other countries. If we manage to live together in Quebec with all our differences, we’ll have won a battle. But it’s going to be a long battle with a lot of hurdles along the way.
Follow Steph on Twitter: @smvoyer