“Censor your body and you censor breath and speech at the same time.” – Helene Cixous
On Thursday, March 8 -- International Women's Day, it so happened -- I took off all my clothes and sat naked in the plaza in front of the UBC students’ union building. I did so as a counter to the large signs erected by the Genocide Awareness Project, an anti-abortion group which comes to the campus once a year to “graphically expose the injustice of abortion” (according to their website). The following is an explanation of why I did it, and also a discussion of how the University of British Columbia responded. I hope it will prompt people to think about free speech, our right to protest against things we find abhorrent, and what role the university plays in restricting or allowing protest.
As someone who supports women’s universal access to free, safe abortions, I fundamentally disagree with the anti-abortionists’ message. That said, I respect their right to hold their opinion as long as they don’t infringe on anyone’s right to access a free, safe abortion. However, I object to the Genocide Awareness Project’s particular message, which is that abortion is genocide.
The group conveys this message via large (about two-metre-high) banners displaying photos of the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s massacre of the Cambodian people, lynchings of African Americans, the massacre of the Lakota Indians at Wounded Knee, and the destruction of the Twin Towers. Next to each of these representations of organized, ideologically driven mass murder, is an image of an aborted fetus. (you can see an example here: http://www.abortionno.org/index.php/gap_signs/image_full/91/) The message, as the Genocide Awareness project states on their website, is that abortion is analogous to historically recognized forms of genocide.
But what they are really saying with these images is much more nuanced than that. They are saying that a woman who chooses to terminate her pregnancy is akin to Nazis, terrorists, Klu Klux Klan members and the Santebal – all groups which set out to systematically destroy or enslave entire groups of people out of a sense of God-given superiority. And it is not just a woman who actually has an abortion who is labelled as – at the very least – a cog in a genocide machine. The implication is that anyone who supports a woman’s right to choose is also participating in mass, organized murder, and that the very act of supporting the right to choose is violent and inherently evil.
But this was not the first reaction I had to the Genocide Awareness Project’s display last Thursday. Walking as I was from my Indigenous Literature course, I had issues of exploitation and trivialization on my mind. People of colour, dispossessed Indigenous peoples, and religious, racial and cultural minorities all face regular and concerted efforts to strip their experiences of meaning. Their traditions are outlawed and derided; their place in history is erased or disregarded; and very often, their stories are co-opted in order to first dismiss their experiences as illegitimate and invaluable, and then assimilate those who have survived extermination attempts into the reigning culture. With this is mind, my first thought was: “I wish I were Jewish, or Lakota, or Cambodian so I could tell those people how deeply disrespectful and ignorant their posters are.”
Imagine that! My first thought was that I, as a woman, did not have a legitimate grievance against images which equate my right to choose with enthusiastic membership in the Nazi party.
I became increasingly frustrated as I stood amongst a group of protesters holding signs that read “This is not free speech, this is hate speech” and “Is masturbation genocide?” because I didn’t feel that waving a sign and shouting was an articulate enough way to respond to this very carefully crafted anti-abortion message (which is not to say that I didn’t shout and wave a sign). Many of the people I spoke to said they wished they could knock over the signs or unplug the PA system the Genocide Awareness Project people had set up, but every one of them also said they were afraid of getting trouble and remained where they were. I agreed that kicking over a university-sanctioned display was probably going to result in some repercussions, but I was deeply troubled by the fact that people were so afraid of … what? Getting kicked out of university? Being stripped of their scholarships? There seemed to be a feeling that stepping outside of the zone reserved for protest would have disastrous results, and no one seemed willing to test the rules. It made me sad, but it also got me thinking.
I thought about what it is I wanted to say to the people gathered around this display, and this is what I came up with: I am an exceptionally privileged person. My freedom to exercise control over my own body without shame or fear is a freedom I want all people to have because only when all people are free from oppression and shame will we live in a universally peaceful and egalitarian society. That is what I want for the world, and I recognize that as soon as I take my freedom for granted I make it more difficult for someone else to achieve freedom. Freedom (and I realize I’m starting to sound like a certain American president here, so I’ll just take a moment to say that George W. Bush is a war criminal) is beautiful. My body is where I exercise and appreciate my freedom on a daily basis, and I reject outright the assertion that by supporting the right to free, safe abortions, I am turning it into a tool of mass murder.
So I took off all my clothes and sat in front of the display until it was taken down (not because I was sitting there, I assume, but because it was the end of their day).
I will admit that I didn’t analyse the message of my nakedness for very long before I was stepping out of my clothes, but as I sat there naked in the afternoon sun (the clouds cleared just as I sat down – Thanks, universe!) I had a chance to ruminate on what the naked female form means in our society, and its effectiveness as a way to expose oppression and shame-based control. But this note is getting long, so I will leave that for another day.
It didn’t take long for campus security to arrive and ask me to “cover up.” I asked why, and was told that I was “indecent.” I found this particularly ironic, seeing as I was sitting in front of a six-foot-high image of naked bodies piled in a mass grave, but the security guard was adamant. I refused to give him my name, lied and said that I didn’t have any ID on me and told him I was not a UBC student. I did this because I was irrationally scared of the same things the people who restrained themselves from kicking over the display were scared of. The security guard said he would call the police and I said “Fine.” That was the end of our discussion. At that point, I put my underwear on, which I really wished I hadn’t done, but as I said, I was scared, and the thought of being arrested with a bare bum was simply too much. As I learned from talking to the RCMP officer who works the UBC/Wreck Beach beat (he arrived after the signs were down and I’d put my clothes back on), protesters don’t usually get arrested for being naked, they’re just asked to please put their clothes on – which seems very civilized and makes me happy to be a Canadian. However, that same conversation opened up a whole discussion about the legality of public nudity, including women being topless, which I regrettably have to skip over (for now).
A few days later, I got an email from Chad Hyson, executive co-ordinator at the office of the vice-president, students, telling me that I was accused of student misconduct and asking me to come to his office.
I will post the recording of our interview in the next day or two.
Here is a summary:
Chad told me there were three options: a hearing before the president and a council, a reparation plan or a letter of warning. You will notice that none of the options is a decision that I did not in fact misconduct myself. In other words, I was presumed to be guilty. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that all people are assumed innocent until proven guilty, so right off the bat, UBC is not conducting itself very well. Furthermore, Hyson had no evidence that I had misconducted myself, only an allegation. Now granted, I admitted to taking my clothes off, but as you will hear if you listen to the recording that is not what the allegation of misconduct is – I was alleged to have disturbed the GAP display.
If you take a look at some of the photos my camera-happy classmates took that afternoon, you will see that I am not blocking the display from view, I am not touching their banners, I am not within their marked territory, and there is no sign or barrier to indicate that the place I am sitting is off-limits. In addition to any physical evidence that would prove a disruption, at no point did any member of GAP ask me to leave. Nor did they complain to the university after the fact.
And this is the kicker – the university has translated the campus security guard’s allegation that I “disrobed in the plaza…” into an allegation that I disrupted the GAP display. In other words, UBC is laying charges on behalf of a “victim” who never even made a complaint. I expected that there would be repercussions to my actions that day, but I never suspected the university would come to the defence of a highly controversial anti-abortion group WHICH DIDN’T EVEN ASK TO BE DEFENDED (I try not to descend into all caps, but seriously, this is too much).
So what now? Hyson is writing up a letter of warning which will be put on my file. I am writing a letter detailing the assumption of guilt, the lack of evidence and the specious charge of disruption. Done and done.
But here’s the thing, this is not about me. This is about a) our university quashing people’s right to peaceful protest, while at the same time supporting a group which time and time again has been asked to stop coming to campus because its message is deeply offensive and hateful, and b) women’s reproductive rights, which are not as secure as we might think. As I write this, Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth is trying to have fetuses declared people, which would be an enormous step toward making abortions illegal.
Read more here:
If you think it’s inappropriate for the university to be taking up the cause of protecting GAP from non-violent protest WHICH IT DIDN’T EVEN COMPLAIN ABOUT, then you should write a letter to UBC president Stephen Toope (firstname.lastname@example.org) and also to Chad Hyson (email@example.com) saying as much. If you think Woodworth’s proposal should be turned down by the committee hearing it, write to your MP, or stage a protest of your own.
As a UBC student, you have an enormous amount of protection in the form of your fellow students and professors. I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have said they would support me in any way they can should the university try to take more aggressive action against me. The university can expel you for plagiarism, but they can’t kick you out for expressing your opinion – in fact, that’s what we’re supposed to be learning how to do. Do not be afraid to speak up when you see something that offends your humanity. Don’t let the threat of campus security or the police stop you from speaking truth to power, or the fear of breaking with social norms stop you from standing up for what you believe in.
Oh yes, and ride a bike, it’s good for you. Do it naked if you have to.