Commentary

Fight For Women's Rights Goes From Social Media To Frontiers Of Foreign Policy

I haven’t made much mention of feminism in this column. The last time I tried was three years ago, and it was actually a decidedly imperfect attempt at a conversation beyond feminism.

But it’s been a rough couple of weeks for women on the Internet -- so much so, that I feel compelled to wade back into the fray with a wild and dangerous opinion of my own.

First, the backstory, or rather, stories. It started, as these things do, with National Cleavage Day. Yes, it’s a thing, inasmuch as a Wikipedia entry and a corporate sponsorship make a thing a thing.

Surprisingly, some women aren’t as excited about the idea of National Cleavage Day as you might expect. Ellen Stewart, from Metro.co.uk, is one such woman. She tweeted a picture of the bottom half of her face and the upper half of her torso; she’s wearing a fully buttoned up blue shirt with a black sweater over it. The caption: “Happy #NationalCleavageDay douchebags.”d

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Stewart might as well have hung up a sign saying, “Please troll me.” Soon after her tweet, the puerile responses began, ranging from the frustrated (“Show your tits you boring skank”) to the pitying (“don’t hate because you’ve got boy tits”) to the table-turning (“Jokes on you, this is ample fap material”).

Yes, I confess: I laughed at the last one. And I don’t think that I should lose my woman card as a result. Stewart is the assistant social media editor for Metro. While I’m not in any way condoning comments like, “What a dyke,” she called people douchebags in a tweet that was guaranteed to get douchebaggy responses and give her a good story.

It was, however, compounded by a second news item: that Instagram had twice removed an image by Toronto-based artist Rupi Kaur. The photo depicted a fully clothed woman in bed, lying on her side so we can only see her back, with a menstrual blood stain on her sweatpants.

On my local mainstream, family-friendly radio show that morning, the announcers picked up the story -- and got it completely, utterly wrong. They posed the question, “Is this art?” and their conservative middle-class listeners responded, resoundingly, no.

Whether or not it’s art, of course, is entirely immaterial. The radio hosts and their listeners neither get to nor need to decide what is art. Instagram doesn’t have any kind of artistic requirement for photos uploaded to the site. Its community guidelines only forbid nudity, illegal activity, and photos that glorify self-harm. Everything else, art or not, is fair game -- except, evidently, an image suggesting that women menstruate.

Still, both of these incidents were designed explicitly to provoke a reaction. In an open letter to Instagram after the photo was taken down a second time, Kaur said, “Thank you @instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique.”

And then I heard about Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who dared to publicly criticize Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women. She was called anti-Muslim and labeled unwilling to respect the world’s “rich and varied ethical standards.” As a result, the Saudi ambassador was withdrawn from Sweden (although he’s back now, after a Swedish envoy apologized to the Saudi King). Sweden also canceled its arms agreement with Saudi Arabia, causing Wallstrom to be criticized by business leaders in her own country.

The events in Sweden show that today’s feminism is about more than Instagram and Twitter. But, ironically enough, Wallstrom summed it up best in a tweet: “Leadership = not just sailing downwind! Most questions require courage and patience. Proud to be clear on democracy and human rights.”

Were we all as brave as Wallstrom, the world would be a better place. Until then, there is work to be done.

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