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Women can't win, no matter what they do in politics


Whose boobs are we talking about here? That's the problem with getting naked to make a political point, as Derry feminist Cara Park (kind of) did on International Women's Day at Stormont.

However empowering it might feel while you're doing it, baring your breasts instantly makes them not your own. They become public property, and – worse – they can be turned into weapons, Exocet missiles that your enemies can use against you.

In this case, it was Jim Allister who led the unionist fulminations at the thought of a rogue nipple, or two – even if mostly camouflaged by strategically-placed white feathers – sullying the noble halls of Stormont, and called for an inquiry into the dangerous security breach.

"Unseemly behaviour", harrumphed the big beast, while various lesser male unionists ran round in the background crying "shameful" and pausing to fan their flaming cheeks.

Nothing this exciting had happened since Michael Stone got jammed in the revolving doors. It was as though the very presence of semi-naked female flesh had the power to undermine the entire institution.

One journalist suggested there would have been the same reaction if Jim Allister had gone topless in the Great Hall. Well, it would be an interesting experiment (with tie, or without?), but the magic doesn't work that way. Jim's baps – or any other man's – don't have the same inherited cultural power to inspire, divide, titillate, outrage and offend.

Bare breasts are political dynamite, no question, even if it's the kind that's quite likely to blow up in your face. The worldwide Slutwalk campaign, which arose after a Toronto police officer suggested that, to remain safe on the streets, women should "avoid dressing like sluts", involved lots of female protesters stamping about in their knickers and fishnets, the point being that rape is never excusable, no matter how you're dressed.

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And Ukrainian 'sextremist' feminist group, Femen, are forever thrusting their mammaries, usually daubed with anarchic slogans, into the faces of international politicians. "We're taking off what's on the outside to show we can't stand it anymore on the inside", they claim.

They certainly have no trouble grabbing the front pages, but although the bemused expressions on some of their targets are absolutely priceless – when Russian president Vladimir Putin was ambushed by a Femen activist at a trade fair last year, his eyes nearly popped out of his head, and he admitted later that he "liked" it; German chancellor Angela Merkel, who was with him, merely pursed her lips in frosty disapproval – all anyone remembers is the nudity.

It's one thing to provoke and protest, and that has its role – quite another to achieve real change.

Which brings me back to the Alternative Ms Ulster event at Stormont, which was a riposte to the bizarre plan to hold a real beauty contest, Miss Ulster, at Parliament Buildings, hosted by ever-suave NI21 leader Basil McCrea.

(And, yes, there does remain a vital difference between choosing to expose your body as a political demonstration and offering it up, all primped and prettified, as part of a beauty competition.)

Yet, sadly, most people would never have heard of Alternative Ms Ulster if it hadn't been for Park's performance and the presence of a canny Press photographer who noticed that – from a side view, anyway – Cara (below) was letting it all hang out.

It was always intended to be an event about action, not just talking: bringing women together to share ideas and plan strategies for dealing with domestic and sexual violence, discrimination in the workplace and inequality in society. And that's what happened, in fact, but all anyone's interested in now is the boobs.

This is the absurd double bind that radical women who want change continually find themselves in. Keep your clothes on and probably be ignored; or take them off, cause a scandal, get vilified by prudes and boors, get laughed at and lampooned, be accused of self-seeking exhibitionism, or selling out to sexism, and hope – desperately – that some small element of your message gets through. You just can't win.

So forget the coy feathers, Cara. Next year, walk down that marble staircase buck naked. Give Jim a cheeky little wave as you go. If it subverts – even for a moment – the turgid atmosphere of male entitlement up there at Stormont, it will be well worth it.

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