Friday, September 7, 2012

Lock the Gates to Your Motherland! - a 21st century Lysistrata FTW

A woman confronts police officers outside a gathering in Lome, Togo, of the opposition group Let's Save Togo.

As a (particularly difficult and rebellious) teenager and freshman in college, I encountered and ravenously devoured Aristophanes' Lysistrata, a brilliant play featuring the plight of a group of Greek women who collectively withheld sex from the men in their city until the men agreed to negotiate the end of the Peloponnesian War. Needless to say, the women succeed in their male-dominated society, and the play remains one of my favorite to this day (Natalie Portman, this romcom has your name alllllll over it).

Imagine my glee upon hearing that the women of Togo, a small African country plagued by dictatorship and political oppression, are staging their own sex strike in the name of democracy. Or in her own words, "keep the gate of your 'motherland' locked up." As one CNN affiliate reported, Togolese activist Isabelle Ameganvi heads the women's section of pro-democracy grassroots group Let's Save Togo and staging a sex strike to bring down the Togolese dictator. President Faure Gnassingbe took power in 2005 after the death of his father, who had held power for 38 years. The ruling family holds regular elections but has not relinquished power in more than four decades. President Gnassingbe was magically elected most recently in 2010. 

Ameganvi (pictured in fabulous orange), our 21st century Lysistrata, announced the strike at a rally at Togolese capital Lome demanding an end to unlimited presidential terms and unjust imprisonment. Recent protests against the Gnassingbe regime resulted in mass arrests by the government-controlled police forces and peaceful crowds are routinely dispersed using tear gas. Ameganvi remarked that the strike aimed to motivate politically apathetic men to join the movement. A fellow supporter remarked, "It's a good thing for us women to observe this sex strike as long as our children are in jail now...for me, it's like fasting, and unless you fast, you will not get what you want from God."

Although this negotiation strategy may be unconventional, "crossed leg strikes" actually have a history of success. In the Colombian town of Barbacoas last year, women launched a sex strike to demand that the government construct a road between Barbacoas to the provincial capital - a trip only 35 miles long but spanned 10 hours. Today such a road exists. More notably, in 2003, the leaders of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace organized a series of nonviolent protests, including a sex strike, to demand an end to the brutal civil war that had continued for 14 years. They succeeded. Later, the group's leader, Leymah Gbowe, won the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Unsurprisingly, this call to action has faced criticism from women asserting that such strategies harm women by emphasizing their sexuality, and implicitly limit a woman's political power to within the bedroom. I do wonder if we're selling ourselves short, but I'm also of the belief that when part of an oppressed minority group, I take my power where I find it and apologize to no one. 

After all, sex is used as a weapon against women - politically, culturally, persistently - so what could possibly be unfair about us using it as a weapon in retaliation? And it's not like this is the first or only thing women can think of - in Togo and other contexts, women's groups have resorted to sex strikes after extreme frustration with every other tactic in the book. Although I have personally never withheld sex from a romantic partner for strategic gain, I do support Ameganvi's efforts. 

In closing, I present the following question to you all: if the U.S. entered into a morally questionable war and invaded a sovereign foreign nation and there was some certainty that we were committing crimes against humanity in order to gain access to natural resources, and our male-majority Congress and executive branch refused to end the war, would you join a women's movement calling for abstinence until our male leaders agreed to end the war? 


Sarah said...

Women who are disenfranchised in nearly every way should not be guided by criticism when they locate an effective, safe and peaceful tool - even if that tool is sex. However, my first thoughts are 1) in response to your question, I doubt that my sex partners are powerful enough that my strike would stop unjust war(s) overseas, 2) sex deprivation can also motivate violence.

KSergent said...

I am inspired by these women were able to use what little power they had to mobilize and effect change. In response to your question, I do not think I would withhold sex in my own relationship to stop an unjust overseas war.

I am skeptical as to whether women in the U.S. would be able to garner enough nationwide participation to make a difference. The strategy is probably more effective in smaller communities where the women were able to agree on their strategy to reach a common goal. We have such strong political factions in the U.S. that women can't even come together to support free breast cancer screening or insurance coverage for birth control. If we pursed this strategy, liberal women would be known as anti-war prudes and all of our partners would be frustrated. Although women in the United States are marginalized, we do have access to modern technology and free speech, which I think is a better way to get our message across in our partisan society.