I made this for a print exchange: [Baren] Exchange #64. The image is 5" x 7", full bleed. It is a 2-layer reduction woodcut, oil-based ink on Stonehenge paper.
The theme of the exchange is "Freedom of Expression," which was decided after the Charlie Hebdo shooting. I spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of freedom of expression, modern verses so-called traditional values, the tensions between the West and Arab civilizations, and what sort of image to create in response.
I ended up reflecting mostly on women, and specifically, looking at images of both Western and Arab women expressing their ideas regarding the political oppression of women in places that are not merely Muslim, but under the heavy influence of Islamism. The European group FEMEN has gained a lot of publicity for their political protests of women going topless or in skimpy and erotic clothing. While I admit FEMEN holds a certain appeal for me, when I viewed images of their protests and read articles about then, something always struck me as off. The women are almost always young, beautiful women of European descent. And when they get in serious trouble with the law, it is typically for things such as vandalism. The thing about female nudity in the West is that women are not only free to go about scantily clad in public, but images of scantily clad women, not only walking around, but in ads and entertainment, are ubiquitous. The message and goals of FEMEN are not clear. The protests strike me to be more like a scream of rage and frustration over assorted women's issues such as abuses in the prostitution industry. And while it can be argued that the protests at least draw public attention to those issues, the targeting of specific issues is often unclear. As a result, when FEMEN has protested against the oppression of women in the Mulim world, many women in the Muslim world have taken offense.
FEMEN fighting against Islamism is in stark contrast to activists such as Egyptian Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, famous for the nude blogging which got her into trouble. She has collaborated with FEMEN, but is much more direct and clear in her messaging. Two years after Aliaa Elmahdy caused a stir with her nude photos, a Tunisian woman Amina Sboui (now Amina Tyler) began posting her own nude selfies with messages protesting Islamism scrawled across her body.
Women like Aliaa Elmahdy and Amina Tyler risk a lot more when they take their tops off. Aliaa has sought political asylum in Sweden. Amina spent time in jail and a fatwa has been issued calling for her to be punished with 100 lashes and stoning. Also, they aren't outsiders telling women in the Muslim world what they should value and what battles they should take on. The much harsher backlash they have received for their naked protests prove the point that women in the Muslim world do not have the same kinds of freedoms as their Western counterparts.
So that brings me to the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, where the women of Athens and Sparta, lead by the title character, protest the Peloponnesian War by refusing to have sex with their husbands. It is rather astounding to me that a play from the year 441 BC features such a premise considering that marital rape has often been socially accepted, and until modern times it has gone ignored and unpunishable by law.
The play is a comedy, and originally the costumes for male characters included giant phalluses. Aubrey Beardsley illustrations of the play included a number of ridiculously oversized, erect penises. In Norman Lindsay's illustrations the men appear desperate and pathetic in their desire for the naked, youthful-looking and voluptuous women who tempt, but refuse them. Pablo Picasso's illustrations are the most humanizing of the characters. Instead of oversexed, the men seem to plead and seduce before falling into discouragement. The women don't flaunt their enticing bodies, but appear more thoughtful and sophisticated.
I find great value in all these interpretations of Lysistrata, and also see that they all point to one constant: in order for women to employ our sexuality as a tool of political protest, we must first possess a certain amount of respect and autonomy in the eyes of men. Refusing a husband sex until he agrees to stop risking his life in war is ineffective if he does not respect her feelings, acknowledge her autonomy, and can force sex on her without social or legal consequences. What is so beautiful about the story of Lysistrata is that the women are motivated to protest by their love and concern for the men, and their protest is effective because the men love them in return.
In her nude protest photographs, Amina Tyler often appears tough, overtly provocative not only in her nakedness, but in the bluntness of her scrawled messages, her glaring facial expressions and disdainful postures. None-the-less, what she and women like her are doing with these protests is an act of trust. They pose the question to the societies in which they live, even though what I do upsets you, do you love me enough to not hurt me for it?