Vagina Power: Fighting Gender Inequality Through Performance Art

In 2012, several members of the Russian band Pussy Riot were convicted of hooliganism and imprisoned for criticizing Russian president Vladimir Putin. Their chosen method of protest was to sing an anti-Putin anthem in the Christ Savior Cathedral, the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church, in Moscow. Their performance and arrest garnered global attention and, as a result, their battle against corruption in the government and in the legal system became a worldwide movement.  

It wasn’t just their song, “A Punk Prayer,” nor the provocative choice of venue that made people sit up and take notice. What made their act of defiance a challenge to the social order was, as band member Maria Alyokhina stated at a recent event in Phoenix, the fact that they were girls. According to Alyokhina: “The social and the sexual is patriarchal” and Pussy Riot challenges that patriarchy.

As courageous as this performance was, these women are not the first to use the power of shock and awe, fueled largely by the presumptions underlying feminine social norms, to advance their cause and work to bring about major social change. They join a long line of women who have stood up to fight the man and use their art to rage against the regime.

Here are just a few examples from the last several decades:

In 1977, artist Suzanne Lacy staged a three-week performance piece calling out rape culture in Los Angeles. The piece was comprised of more than 30 gallery installations and public performances, one of which involved marking the sites of sexual assaults on a map of Los Angeles and spray painting the sidewalks near those sites as a reminder of what happened. In a speech given a near the end of the three weeks, Lacy explained her message:

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“What this map is about, what the whole project is about, is women speaking out to each other, sharing the reality of their experience. By exposing the facts of our rapes, the number of them, the events surrounding them, and the men who commit them, we begin to break down the myths that support rape culture.”

In the Ukraine, a group of women known as Femen are using their bodies to challenge, and destroy, the patriarchy. These women, dubbed Topless Jihadis, utilize a brand of protest they have labeled sextremism, which they describe as:  

“A non-violent but highly aggressive form of provocation; it is an all-powerful demoralizing weapon undermining the foundations of the old political ethics and rotten patriarchal culture.”

Femen chapters have protested around the world, and despite arrests, harassment, and death threats, they continue to expose their breasts, and compromise their safety, for the cause.

For the last 30 years or so, Guerrilla Girls, a collective of female artists and activists, have used their voices to protest the scarcity of women and people of color in the established art world. Their mediums are posters and stickers which they plaster around the cities in which they protest, and their message is simple: “How can you really tell the story of a culture, when you don’t include all of the voices within the culture. Otherwise it’s just the history and the story of power.”

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In Afghanistan, Shamsia Hassani, her country’s first female street artist, uses concrete and spray paint to protest societal norms and challenge what it means to be a woman in a culture that labels her as “less than” simply because she has a vagina. She joins a growing number of voices calling for the end of structural inequality and a recognition of the power of being female.

There are many other such stories throughout history and these voices need to be heard. Whether it’s a group of masked women protesting through song,  a college student carrying her mattress around campus to force the establishment to recognize her assault, a group in London dyeing the fountains in Trafalgar Square red in protest of government policies toward domestic violence, or one of the many other examples of female empowerment through performance that have worked their way into the global discussion, these stories force the world to take notice.

And this awareness matters. Discourse matters. People will not change what they cannot see, and these women make sure they see it.

Image Credits: Igor Muhkin, Suzanne Lacy, Guerrilla Girls
Kendra Bell

Kendra Bell

Kendra Bell is a writer, instructor, and roving sociologist whose research interests include rape culture, gender inequality, and global injustice. She is the founder of WithoutShame.org, an avid photographer, and an unapologetic geek.

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