After anti-abortion lobbyists proposed a motion to criminalize abortion last week, topless FEMEN protesters met Stephen Harper and the Archbishop of Quebec aggressively, leading to a series of arrests and detainments. We interviewed one of the...
The protester who screamed, "Fuck your morals!" into the microphone. Photo via FEMEN.
Two topless protesters from the Quebec branch of FEMEN jumped on the stage at Parliament Hill last Thursday while the archbishop of Quebec was reading a letter from the Pope. The event was an annual anti-abortion walk, whose main theme was hopeful prevention, or, legalizing a morning after pill called RU-486. The pill allows a woman to abort a pregnancy up to seven weeks after conception.
Most people have probably heard of the feminist group, which started in the Ukraine in 2008, and has now received international recognition for their topless protests.
The Quebec branch has been operating for one year and have protested for indigenous women's rights, against anti-abortion lobbyists, and against the Canadian sex trade. After seeing the photos of what happened, I had to reach out to these women to find out how it all went down. I talked to Neda Topaloski, a Canadian representative of FEMEN, about the genesis of their protest, the motion to reopen the abortion debate by the Consevative government in 2012, and demonstrating in front of a member of the clergy with "My Pussy My Body" scrawled across her torso.
VICE: So, what exactly was the protest about on Thursday?
Neda Topaloski: We were protesting for every Canadian woman to have free access to abortion, in a medical and safe way. We were also protesting against the powerful lobbyists that work all year long to try to make abortion illegal. We want them to stop organizing these events and doing such massive propaganda against women. In a democracy like Canada, people should be stopped and denounced when they make anti-human lobbies. We want to drag the attention to the alliance of church and state on this abortion debate. It is extremely dangerous.
So you believe that church and state are working together here?
Yes, exactly. On Thursday the Archbishop of Quebec was on stage. He was speaking when we intervened. There were a couple members of parliament from Stephen Harper’s Conservative party, as well as senators, all together on one side. Church and state are supposed to be separate. When you have political and religious leaders organizing these types of things, with history and money and power backing them, it worries FEMEN. Religion is way too close with the government. Together they are trying to achieve legislation against women’s rights in general.
Abortion is legal in Canada, do you believe there is a real threat of that changing?
There could be. In 2012, a motion to reopen the abortion debate and make it criminal was proposed by a deputy of the Conservative government. Many voted in favor, including Rona Ambrose, who was the Minister of Women's Status in Canada at the time. This is what religious lobbyists achieve when they work against women's rights.
What was happening when you protested topless?
The archbishop was reading a letter from the pope and we came in and started screaming "Fuck Your Morals" into the microphone, and on us was written: "My Pussy,My Rules" and, "God Out Of My Vagina." We function with very clear and direct messages.
Yes, you really do. And the goal of FEMEN is to give women’s voices to women’s issues, correct?
Yes. I don’t think that all the white men dressed with traditions of misogyny should be talking about women’s issues in general. For example, on that stage on Thursday, you only had white men giving speeches. There was no women at all. Not in the church and not in the state, and they were addressing an issue that is about women’s bodies. They are actually telling us women what to do with our bodies and our lives and there was not a single woman to speak for us, except for the naked girl that was screaming and not recognizing the authority of those old men. Everybody says Canada is a democracy and that we live in justice compared to other places in the world. Then you see the people who actually have power decide to turn it against half the population, against women. They control it in a very archaic way.
Delphine Bergeron, mid-arrest. Photo via Yannick Fornacciari.
How do you think Canada compares to the rest of the world in terms of women’s rights and equality?
You know, it’s all the same thing over and over. Of course, when you compare us to countries where religion is still making the law of the state it can appear that Canada is better. But, overall, it’s the same here because those forms of patriarchy are still effective. The main forms of patriarchy through history have been religion, the sex industry, and politics. Those three things have always been controlled by men and that is still happening now. But of course, you know, here we say we live in a democracy and a free world where everybody can speak freely. In practice this system—this consumerist system—is a new modern form of patriarchy in the free world. It fuels women’s bodies, women’s objectivity, and representation of women as submissive.
Do you think that even when a woman is in a professional setting that she is still judged based on her appearance?
Of course. Here in Canada you can be whatever you want. You can be a famous lawyer or doctor, but it doesn’t mean we encourage girls that way. In Canadian politics, women are perpetually judged on how they dress and the way they look. We don’t have the same treatment. We are always reduced to looks.
Do you think your form of protest is effective?
Yes. Even the images that come out after the protest have the ability to simplify the issue and bring it attention. It’s a little bit sad when I think the last time I saw a women fight—like really fight for her rights—was Joan of Arc. Is she the only example of a female role model we have who will fight? Lara Croft is a sexualized version of a woman who fights. When you see FEMEN in pictures, nobody has changed it and nobody has arranged it and especially even if they tried to make me shut up, the fact that I scream more and more and more, it shows for once that no matter what happens is a woman that doesn’t give up on her own voice.
Being topless is part of the protest, can you explain that?
We see nudity all the time. The only difference is that mine is not in a sexualized context and mine is not controllable—this is what bothers people. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with my body or with my breasts. The only thing that is wrong is how people see it. It’s not supposed to be that outrageous, especially not in a free country. It’s not supposed to get people so mad and so violent against us. After all, I’m just a woman speaking for myself and I use my body because everybody else uses it. The capitalist economy uses it, the church uses it, and the sex industry uses it. But when I use it, it becomes a crime and everybody talks about it.
Neda, left. Delphine, right. Photo via Yannick Fornacciari.
Do you get scared before you do this type of protest?
We’re always nervous, but we prepare. We know what we’re going for. The most important part is to stay strong and aggressive on stage. You know this is the part for me to learn while doing a few protests: Nobody in life teaches us to be strong and to scream our voice. We are not used to doing that and it might often appear weak unless you really, really insist. So, of course we’re nervous but when it happens it has to appear as anything but weak. You’re a naked girl in the most fragile position in the world and everybody criticizes you. it’s really easy to be hurt or to have violence done against you. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will.
Do you ever experience violence towards you at these types of protests?
Yes. People were very violent towards us. I was barely on the stage and I was pulled back and there was a lady there who opened her pen and put it in the other FEMEN protestor’s arm and pulled it down and made a big scratch. There was also an older woman in a wheelchair who had an umbrella and was hitting us and the photographer. They were extremely mad that the police didn’t take us quicker.
What happened after the RCMP stepped in?
Right. We were not actually arrested. We were just carried away and we can’t go back to Parliament Hill for six months. We ended up getting lost in Ottawa, without our cellphones and water. But they had given us our shirt backs so we weren’t naked.
Do you believe your protest was a success?
I think it was relatively successful. 90 percent of Canadians support abortion rights and I really wanted to draw their attention to what was happening at home with lobbyists. When you put a Member of Parliament and a Bishop together, these two people have more power than all of the popular vote. I think that some people that are lobbying are doing a very good job and—because the popular vote is still for abortion—we don’t tend to look at it. But I think that FEMEN drew a little attention to that.
Would you like to see more women protesting like this?
The ultimate goal for FEMEN is to have more activists and more women rebel. We call for other girls all over the country and the world to get naked and win—because we believe one girl can and will change the world.