If your Christmas and New Year break was spent doing things other than following the news, you might have missed a story about Sara Fernanda Giromin which made it even to the mainstream Australian press.
Sara is the founder of the Brazilian branch of Femen, the group made famous (or infamous) for its protests involving topless women with expletive-laden slogans painted across their bodies.
For those unfamiliar with Femen, there is not much to the group. Its protests often do not attract many people (some estimates put their number at just 300 people), but the extreme nature of the protests ensures media attention.
Femen’s stated ideologies of feminism, “sextremism” and atheism mean that the Catholic Church is seen as an enemy, and her representatives have been subject to some vulgar Femen attacks.
One memorable example was the assault against the Archbishop of Brussels, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard. In response to a media interview given by Archbishop Leonard where he had suggested chastity for homosexual persons, four topless women stormed a university lecture he was giving and doused him with water from bottles in the shape of the Virgin Mary.
The archbishop closed his eyes and bowed his head in prayer while they attacked him, and venerated the empty water bottles with a kiss after the protesters were removed. Another incident was the removal of the Baby Jesus figurine from the nativity scene in St Peter’s Square by a topless protester on Christmas Day 2014.
There are countless others.
However, Sara has issued a YouTube video in which she denounces feminism, declares herself to be pro-life and asks forgiveness from Christians for her offensive behaviour. She has also reported that she has been welcomed by people of faith who, she was surprised to find, took their obligation to forgive seriously and exercised it generously.
While her turnaround in itself is positive news, as is the warm reception from Christians who are obviously practising what they preach, what I found much more interesting were her comments about the Femen-brand of feminism more generally.
In a subsequent interview, Sara said that “the feminist movement can harm women in an irreversible way”.
In a forthcoming book, she speaks of the pressure to take drugs, abort babies, be sexually promiscuous with strangers, and engage in bisexual acts.
She says that lesbian and bisexual women have more respect within this brand of “feminism”, leading her to substitute her heterosexuality with “an artificial bisexuality”.
She also writes of the tendency for sexual abuse to occur as part of the increasing sexual licence expected of members.
Sara argues that Femen-styled feminism actually results in the objectification of women, using them as “convenient objects” to inflame hatred.
It’s a serious accusation, but one which seems to have some merit if her stories of sexual coercion, abuse and abortion are true. It’s also somewhat apparent when you consider that the presence of bare-breasted women is the only reason that Femen gets any attention at all, and that women are often arrested and sometimes injured during these protests.
It seems that women are being used as a means, and not an end.
If one of Femen’s stated goals is the advancement of women, then it should be concerned at the way they are being used in pursuit of this goal.
It should be alarmed that in an attempt to fight for the liberation of women, it has ended up enslaving them in a way where they are not free to be themselves, but rather must perform to meet the standard of some idealised feminist who rejects all notions of femininity.
Even though there seems to be no public response from Femen to Sara’s story, I wonder if its members are considering privately whether they have strayed too far off the course, and are in danger of destroying the very thing for which they purport to fight.
I think the story of Sara and Femen is also educative of how easily the pursuit of an ideology can end up damaging those on whose behalf it presumes to advocate.
Think about campaigners for assisted suicide and euthanasia. Their oft-cited line about “death with dignity” seems to be betrayed by the undignified way in which they identify sufferers of chronic or terminal illness by the condition with which they are afflicted, rather than as an individual person worthy of love and respect. Their call for humane treatment is juxtaposed with an increasing dehumanisation (and, thus, objectification) of the dying person.
There are other examples too. But more important than identifying these is ensuring that we never do the same. As Catholics, we are often involved in the numerous and varied culture wars of our time, with our underlying message being the dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. May our efforts in advocacy always keep the human person as the end, and never as a means, of our efforts.