By EMILY VILLANO
December 31, 2011
It seems fitting that in the four years leading up to 2011, the accolade of Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” went to a dictator, the ‘leader of the free world,’ the holder of America’s financial purse-strings, and a corporate CEO billionaire (Putin, Obama, Bernake, and Zuckerberg, respectively). And, in keeping with this particular honor, which up until 2000 was almost uniformly “Man of the Year,” those four, highly influential persons are all men. The cover of this year’s issue is striking, therefore, both because the face of 2011 has come to the fore by subverting these traditional modes of influence—protesting dictatorship, faux democracy, financial and corporate power—and because it is the face of a woman.
The cover image is taken from a photograph shot by Ted Soqui, a freelance photographer, of Sarah Mason, both of whom were participating in the Occupy L.A. protests. The two were lock-armed during a demonstration outside a Bank of the America in L.A, preparing for arrest, when Soqui took the photo. In the photograph, Mason’s yellow knit beanie and the red “99%” scrawled across her bandana mark her as a member of the Occupy movement. Yet in Time’s posterized version, the image evokes a Muslim niqab, linking Occupy to the Arab Spring, and the pair of feminine eyes, brows set in firm resolve, emblematizes protesters from Athens to New Delhi, Moscow to Mexico City. In BBC journalist Paul Mason’s astute breakdown of the current social movements, “Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere,” written back in February, bullet point number five reads: “Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernized labour markets and higher-education access the ‘archetypal’ protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.”
As the “year of global indignation” increasingly gains steam and breadth, it has borne out Mason’s analysis. Cryptome, a website devoted to freedom of speech and information, has posted a series of photographs entitled “Women Protest Worldwide,” revealing women at the forefront of every facet of the year’s socials movements. Defying conventions of feminine docility, the women pictured are aggressive and uncompromising. Filipino women throw mud to demonstrate against the power of oil companies; a young Greek woman opposing austerity measures withstands tear gas; female Occupiers spar with police. In those societies where women’s bodies are most policed, it seems especially meaningful to see women placing theirs on the line. An Indian woman sprawls her body across railroad tracks; a veiled Egyptian woman wags her finger and yells at a riot security guard; covered Orthodox women march before Parliament in Bulgaria.
Beyond the rank and file, women stand at the helm of many of the year’s largest movements. Camila Vallejo embodies Mason’s ‘archetypal’ protest leader. A 23-year old college student, Vallejo has commanded the attention of Chile since May of this year as the leader of a Chilean student movement demanding education reform. Combining charisma and public appeal with an incisive ideological critique of neoliberalism, Vallejo drives students to protest on her celebrity alone. Across the ocean, 32-year mother, journalist, and activist of many years Tawakel Karman leads the Arab Spring. She was thrust into the spotlight this year when, after witnessing the Tunisian demonstrations in January, she called for similar protests in her home state. Her subsequent arrests only further galvanized the nation, spurring demonstrations that culminated this November in an agreement by the Yemeni President Saleh to cede power within the month. This year, Karman became the first Yemeni woman, and only the fourteenth woman ever, to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.
The tactics of some woman protesters exploit traditional gender conventions. For example, in February, Asmaa Mahfouz, a young Egyptian woman, roused support by playing on a culture of masculinity. Her webcam broadcast urges, “If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25th. If you have honor and dignity as a man, come. Come and protect me, and other girls in the protest.” Yemeni women demonstrating in January wore headbands that read “housewives,” implying that their demands ought be heard because they conform to societal standards of respectability in women. At the other end of the spectrum, the Ukrainian activist group Femen has drawn attention to such diverse issues as election fraud in Russia and the lack of female representation in Ukrainian government with heavily sexualized and provocative topless displays.
Other woman protesters have been forced to fend off attempts to delegitimize their claims because of gender. Vallejo and Karman present just two high-profile examples. Much media coverage and attention in Chile has been devoted to Vallejo’s appearance. Described variously as a “student siren” and “flowering power” by a press fixated on Vallejo’s nose ring, as a “babe” in trending Twitter feeds and Facebook groups, the world sometimes seems more interested in Vallejo as a pretty face than a protest leader. But Vallejo has sublimated such superficial attention into genuine change, stating, “You have to recognize that beauty can be a hook. It can be a compliment, they come to listen to me because of my appearance, but then I explain the ideas.” In Yemen, President Saleh’s regime tried to discredit Karman by distributing a doctored photo of her alone with a male colleague and issuing statements that denounced woman protesters for mixing with men. Yet the strategy backfired, with Yemeni protesters asserting that female honor was better upheld by protesting the reigning government than obeying it.
The question remains whether increased participation and visibility for women in these social movements will translate into concrete gains for women. This question has sparked particular anxiety for woman protesters of the Arab Spring. Tunisian women, for example, have expressed fear that the Islamist party empowered in the wake of the revolution will compromise their rights. At an October forum discussing the future of Arab women following the Arab Spring in France, Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi warned that women may be closed off from power despite their revolutionary role. “You are making the same mistake Iranian women made. We thought we could demand women’s rights after the revolution,” she says. However, women are resisting the rollbacks. Just last week, Egypt saw the largest demonstration by women in the country’s history, protesting the violent treatment of woman protesters, and reclaiming a voice for women who have been almost completely excluded from the country’s new power structures.
What’s certain is that the protests of 2011 display the power of women to influence the course of history. As Karman states, “If you go to the protests now, you will see something you never saw before: hundreds of women. They shout and sing; they even sleep there in tents. This is not just a political revolution, it’s a social revolution.” Of course, a full recognition of the power and influence of women is still a ways off. Of the four “Runners-Up” to Time’s technically genderless “Protester,” the only woman included, Catherine Middleton, has the great distinction of marrying a powerful man, and, presumably, influencing women’s hat-wearing worldwide. Here’s to those women who, in 2011 and before, wore headpieces inscribed with political slogans instead.
Emily Villano is a junior in Yale College. She is an associate editor for Broad Recognition.