Cara Park was going to wear a chastity belt and go completely topless for her equal rights speech at Stormont at the weekend, but decided on a revealing, feathered breast-plate instead. It might seem like a bit of a naughty publicity stunt to some — and an indecent outrage to others — but the Londonderry performance artist was deadly serious.
The chastity belt was to be a symbol of sexual slavery but, on reflection, Ms Park (32) didn't want to use “a gimmicky prop to represent a serious act of oppression against the female population of this island”.
“I would have gone topless if it had been taken the right way, but I knew it wouldn't,” said Ms Park from her arts project office. “As I said in my speech, by dressing like this, does that immediately make me a 'slut', a 'slag' a 'dolly bird', a 'whore', a 'loose' woman? Am I letting the side down by wearing lipstick, fake tan, dyeing my hair, showing my nipples?
“I was expressing my femininity, my sexuality. I should be able to dress how I like and not face discrimination. This may seem like a superficial trivial matter, but it is not.”
Ms Park, one of 25 women speakers marking International Women's Day at Parliament Buildings, is mystified at how a nipple could be seen as offensive. Although designer feathers covered her chest, her breasts were clearly visible in side-profile during the Alternative Ms Ulster event at the Great Hall.
She remains unrepentant in the face of unionist outrage, but she was slightly battle-scarred by the flak she received on The Nolan show on BBC Radio Ulster.
“I got a real lambasting — all these digs about ‘making a little boob' and knee-jerk reactions and women calling me a silly little girl,” she said, wearily. “I don't take it personally — it wears me down a bit, but I can take it on the chin.
“You can't be too confident as a woman in some circles, or you're put down as a cheeky wee thing. Nolan was a bit dismissive of me, but I'm not sure if he was just trying to be controversial. I stood by everything I said in my speech — I have sex. I am a sexy woman. And I'm not not ashamed of it. We are all are born of sex. Hiding the truth helps no one.
“Perhaps if we were more open about sex, if it was not deemed a mortal sin and if children were given proper, informative sex education, then so many rapists wouldn't have gotten away with sexually abusing our women, men and children over the years. It is the shame that has guarded rapists and sadists who have carried out hideous sexual acts against their victims.”
Ms Park is single and lives alone in Londonderry. A regular broadcaster for Blas on Radio Ulster, she's used to speaking publicly but, even with all her stage experience, she was apprehensive about standing up in Stormont in her risque dress to make her pro-choice speech.
She was heartened, however, by the audience's willingness to participate in her requested “scream of frustration” and by the subsequent support she received from Clare Bailey and Stephen Agnew of the Green Party.
“I was very nervous, mostly about being misrepresented. Of course, the Press photographer managed to get that side-view shot of me — not that that was important to me. My main point was to defend my right to freedom of expression against misogyny in the Press and in society in general and to highlight the abortion issue and the fact I cannot use my native Irish tongue in court.
“Most of the audience got my point 100%. I still find the outraged reactions ludicrous. Those MLAs weren't even there and didn't read my speech. There were only two or three MLAs there. But somebody has to take a stand against the tyranny of misogyny.”
The controversial dress worn by Ms Park — in the Derry colours of red and white — was created by the up-and-coming Welsh designer Nathan French, who has designed for pop stars such as Kelis, but turned down Katy Perry, according to Ms Park. And speaking of pop princesses, as for the more racy Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, Ms Park is not a fan of their overtly sexual image.
“I would defend any woman's right to dress how she wishes, but Miley and so on are selling a product. I'm not selling anything. Their extremely explicit videos are just about sex and selling and that's all. I have a major problem with this and the sexualisation of children that it involves. My work includes encouraging children in the arts, not in anything so overtly sexual.”
She also objects to topless Page 3 pictures and pornography, which her most shrill opponents seem to have confused her with.
“I've no problem with breasts, but not the way they're objectified in Page 3. It's the little statements at the side that get me — statements they put from the girls' perspectives that are supposed to sound intelligent. I also have a major problem with pornography. Again, it objectifies women and exploits them.”
For her Stormont appearance, Ms Park had the full support of her parents, Thomas and Irene, who are separated, and her four younger siblings. A mixed religion couple, Thomas and Irene were never married and brought their children up in a liberal household, with great importance placed upon the Irish language.
“I am a product of both the Protestant and Catholic communities, as I said in my speech. I relate to both and belong to neither,” said Ms Parks, who describes herself as a humanist.
“I am not a republican. I am not a unionist. I believe we are so distracted by tribal rituals that we forget to address the real inequalities — oppression, racism, gender discrimination — that some of our laws uphold. The gay blood ban — the Stormont administration doesn't do enough. There's far too much emphasis on flags and symbols, which are a distraction from the real issues.”
Ms Park met Nathan French at her fashion degree course at Central St Martin's College in London, from where she went on to work in television and film and as a singer. She returned home three years ago and has worked since as a freelance arts facilitator, organising workshops and children's arts projects. She took part in many of Derry's City of Culture events and sings with a local band.
Next on her heartfelt campaigning agenda is a plan to live for a year in a caravan, as self-sufficiently as possible. She's hoping for backing from the Irish language channel TG4, which she has invited to record her progress.
“I've been offered different bits of land in Derry as my base — I want to experience the four seasons, living off the land.
“It's a protest against the excesses of my own life and all the objects and material things I don't need and also a protest against all the wastage supermarkets are responsible for.
“As for the fight against misogyny, I carry on with that bit by bit every day and through the songs with my band. I've faced sex discrimination all my life — always very casual, off-the-cuff stuff. People saying, ‘Oh, you're one of them’,” as if feminist was a dirty word, and getting shouted at in the street, that sort of stuff.
“I'd urge women not to be complacent, or take it for granted. I think of myself as a positive role model, tackling this daily. Somebody has to.”