Femen Canada: Women and their bodies, a right, a fight

Laurine Benjebria, translated by Solweig Ogereau
24 Août 2015

It has been three years now since the sextremist group Femen established itself in Quebec. At each of their actions, the militants accuse the country of limiting women’s rights. Femen’s fight, in Canada, as in every other country, aims at the patriarchy, religion and the exploitation of women’s bodies, which cause the deaths of thousands of women each year, including in the Western world. Meeting with Neda Topaloski, activist for Femen-Canada for a year and a half.

Credits : Yannick Fornacciari
Credits : Yannick Fornacciari
Femen, the group which claims to be sextremist, wants to destroy the patriarchal symbols by making women’s bodies a battle instead of a sexual object. Born in Ukraine, the feminist movement defends women’s rights, democracy and fights against prostitution, human trafficking, corruption and monotheistic religions. According to Neda Topaloski, Femen aims at “destroying the patriarchy by changing the signified from the signifiers that the patriarchy uses, such as women’s bodies. It’s a political movement of women specially trained to evade the codes imposed on us.” Femen’s battle involves women’s bodies, revealing naked busts on which slogans are painted.

The birth of Femen-Canada dates back to 2013, when some militants entered the Quebec National Assembly chanting “Crucifix get the fuck out”, therefore accusing the presence of ostentatious religious signs at the core of political institutions. Although the movement is still young in Canada, many feminist demonstrations take over the streets every year to contest provincial and federal policies. Indeed, since 2011, a demonstration called Slutwalk protests against the banalisation of the excuse according to which the clothes a woman chose to wear would be the cause for her rape. Additionally, during the student protests of the Maple Spring in 2012 and again in 2015, evening protests strictly aimed at women were led.

Femen’s battle is not only taking place in the street however. It involves the re-appropriation of women’s bodies by themselves. According to Neda Topaloski, “the speech we hear about women comes from a patriarchal system, it comes from men speaking about women. We’re always the object of the look, of the speech, of the desire. We, Femen, become the subjects of our speech. Our body, it’s our ideas. My body is a subject, it’s not an object anymore. Becoming that subject, it’s what I wish for all women. Women starting to talk about themselves, instead of internalising the fact of being looked at by others’ eyes.”

Credits : Yannick Fornacciari
Credits : Yannick Fornacciari
It seems therefore that there is a real work to do to instill self-esteem to women and fight against the feeling of guilt implanted in them by the media, including adverts. By making topless actions, Femen’s militants want to re-appropriate their body, their identity to transform their body in political tools. “Women detach themselves from their body from a very young age. They’re taught to be ashamed of it. Since I’m part of Femen, I’m not ashamed of my body anymore. I’m like those men who’ve never needed to detach themselves from their body. And that’s normal! My body, it’s me, it’s my identity,” reveals Neda Topaloski. Femen-Canada’s battle has three main concerns: the right of women to abortion, the place occupied by religion in society and in political life and the treatment of women.

Abortion is the government’s target

On 28th November 2014, the bill called “Act to enact the Act to promote access to family medicine and specialised medicine services and to amend various legislative provisions relating to assisted procreation” was brought to the Quebec Minister of Health Gaétan Barrette. The text plans on taking away the Priority Activity Status abortion benefited from. Quebec doctors will still be limited to 12 hours of Priority Activity practices however. Since abortion is not one anymore, Quebec doctors will not have to perform them any longer. This measure will therefore limit the access to abortion. Bill n° 20 also wants to diminish the number of terminations of pregnancy to be practiced by doctors. All of this would lead, not only to a limited access to abortion for women, but also to the shutting down of centres and clinics for women.

In Quebec, 24.000 abortions are practiced every year. Other services and care, offered in family planning centres, are the target of the Minister of Health. Services of sexually transmitted diseases screening tests or contraception are not recognised by Bill n°20, whereas medically assisted reproduction programmes will be limited. In vitro fertilization activities will be forbidden to women younger than 18 years old and older than 42 years old. They will not be free anymore, except in the case of artificial insemination.

The establishment of quotas for abortion provoked very heated reactions amongst feminist movements, Femen but also the Women’s Centre. Indeed, on 30th April, Neda Topaloski interrupted a press conference given by the Quebec Minister Hélène David, by shouting “No to Bill n°20”, “My uterus, my priority”. This action by Femen wants to highlight a bill which goes against the right of women to abort. If the Health Minister Gaétan Barrette and the Prime Minister Philippe Couillard assured that they did not intend to restrict the free and open access to terminate their pregnancy for women, the fact is that the quotas will not be suppressed. Doctors who do not wish to respect the 1008 quotas of voluntary termination of pregnancy a year will see their salary reduced by up to 30% of their overall remuneration.

“The March for Life”

Every year, the Canadian clergy and the Quebec Life coalition organise a large anti-abortion gathering on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, called “the March for Life”. The Quebec Life coalition aims at interfering with governmental laws in order to impose their values and morals. On their website, the group claims to recommend “the education of the government and the citizens on abortion, the research led on stem cells, assisted suicide, euthanasia and other threats to human rights and human dignity”, as well as “the request of the government so that it decrees laws coherent with its aim of protecting Canadians of all ages and abilities.”

Let us not forget that every year, some Members of Parliament join the members of the clergy to support the demonstrators of the “March for Life”. Femen is fighting for the right to abortion – a right which is still refused to women in certain countries such as Ireland, Belgium (except in case of distress) and Chile. The right of women to abort is also limited in Turkey, and now in Quebec. Those limits are due to the number of practices authorised for each doctor or to the number of clinics and hospitals able to practise this operation. On 14th May 2015, several Femen activists managed to disrupt the “March for Life”. This intervention also blamed, among other things, a collusion between religion and the government.

According to Neda Topaloski, “Canadian MPs and senators who position themselves against abortion are obviously linked to Christian lobbies. They put pressure, through those MPs, to pass laws in their favour. Honestly, in which democratic country in the world can you imagine the clergy getting together inside of the Parliament with senators and other members, only men, dressed traditionally, following a protocol (…), without any woman either in the clergy or at Parliament. And they discuss issues that concern women’s lives, it makes no sense.”

Credits : Yannick Fornacciari
Credits : Yannick Fornacciari
In Canada, religion plays a key role. It is part of many pressure groups. It should be recalled that between 2008 and 2010, Christian lobby Family Action Coalition met ministers and deputies of the Harper government six times. Stephen Harper was part of the deputies who voted in favour of a bill in 2007, aiming at making the aggression or the murder of a pregnant woman a double aggression or a double homicide. In 2012, Stephen Woodworth, a Conservative deputy, also brought forward a motion to Parliament Hill, encouraging the creation of a parliamentary committee on the legal definition of a human being.

The Grand Prix Montreal accused of participating in sexual tourism

In Canada, numerous feminist movements are fighting prostitution and women trafficking. Thus, in 2013, Montreal was the setting of more than 420 businesses linked to the sex industry. Those many topless dance bars, massage parlours and escorts established in Montreal contribute to making the metropole a popular touristic destination. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, around 1.500 individuals are victims of human trafficking in Canada.

The death rate is forty times higher than the average Canadian one for women linked to prostitution. They are twenty times as likely to be assassinated. For Femen-Canada, this high concentration of sex businesses in Montreal is symptomatic of our Western societies.

According to Neda Topaloski, “consumption economy is fuelled by women’s bodies, everywhere and all the time. What is really specific to the North-American world, is the fact that everyone pretends it’s okay, like it’s absolutely normal. When there are acts of violence, such as excision or forbidding women to show their hair, people are much more likely to see the violence and injustice because it’s very material and performance-based, with exterior signs which act as evidence and are easy to spot. This consumption economy, its some psychological manipulation, the crumbling of women’s self-esteem. It proves that women are only sexual objects, things to sell, simply just because it’s the prevailing culture. There are so many consequences to that, illnesses to begin with, such as food disorders and psychological problems, intimidation at school… Here, the sloppiness to the environmental culture, which is of an extraordinary violence, is dominating.”

The Grand Prix of the Automobile of Montreal exacerbates all those demands of the sextremists group. During three days, the afflux of sex workers is such that the amount a tourist can give to a dancer who offers him the Girlfriend experience is estimated between $1.000 and $2.000. Femen-Canada’s actions during the Grand Prix Montreal aim more particularly at “the sex industry in Montreal, sexual tourism and the Grand Prix itself, which publicises women as sexual objects, either as waitresses or prostitutes.” Last year, Femen-Canada militants revealed their bodies to accuse the Grand Prix of contributing to women trafficking and the hyper-sexualisation of their bodies.

Video: Meeting with Neda Topaloski