The new fundraising campaign of Mama Cash, ‘My Body is Mine’, focuses attention on self-determination and pleasure. And that is more revolutionary than it seems. But why is that?
Women, girls and trans people across the world are told what they may or may not do with their bodies; what they should look like; what they should feel with and through their body. It is no coincidence that bodily self-determination is a feminist theme pur sang and a hot topic for many of the groups that Mama Cash supports.
The emphasis soon shifts to the problems that women, girls and trans people encounter in this respect. And that is less logical than it would seem at first, because in the case of physical well-being, ‘freedom to’ is just as important as ‘freedom from’. It is fundamental, of course, to protect female bodies against violence and subjection. However, the freedom to enjoy your body, to have fun with it and to do what you want with it, is just as important from a feminist perspective; something which is easy to lose sight of.
An interesting example of this was a discussion within the board of directors of Mama Cash last year. Nicky McIntyre, director of Mama Cash: “That concerned a phrase that we wanted to include in our strategic plan, namely that our aim was to enable all women to lead ‘free, pleasurable lives’. Questions were raised about that term pleasurable – what you can interpret to be pleasurable, pleasant, pleasing and enjoyable. Was that not to frivolous, too excessive? Were we not asking too much with that? That was the question actually. However,being able to express yourself fully and have fun is not, of course, an added bonus. It is the heart of the matter ultimately.”
Happy Mwende Kinyili, who is responsible for the ‘Body’ portfolio at Mama Cash, even calls it a political act. “In the face of all the violence that is taking place simultaneously, a focus on physical well-being and physical pleasure does make me feel uncomfortable sometimes. However, it is important to see that the systems which we are fighting against do not want women, girls and trans people to be happy. That makes the pursuit of happiness and pleasure political.”
Nicky: “Of course, we need to stop rape, ensure that gender inequality disappears from the workplace and that women are not driven from their country. However, if we’re not careful, we end up not talking enough about the right to have control: control over our own body and how we experience pleasure. That demand may be more threatening to the established order than our emphasis on problems. There is now much discussion at large policy conferences worldwide about violence against women, poverty among women, genital mutilation, etc. But talking about pleasure, and especially physical pleasure of and for women and trans people, remains a taboo.”
According to Happy, describing how emancipation feels, how it tastes and the type of physical sensations it gives may be more difficult than exposing abuses. “However, it is a challenge to put it into words, because then you also outline where you want to end up. You can say that you strive for emancipation, but that already exists. We make it a reality when we laugh, dance and love.”
This is why Mama Cash specifically supports womens’ rights organisations that embrace pleasure. Young women in Poland who provide sex education to peers, going against the strict Catholic mores. Sex workers who show that they have a private life. HIV-positive women who don’t allow themselves to be cast aside as pitiful victims. Women with a disability who try to subvert the idea that their bodies bring them no pleasure. Nicky: “I’m always a little taken aback when I see the poster that one of our partners has put out, with graphic drawings of all the sexual positions that someone in a wheelchair is capable of. It confronts me with my own assumptions and makes me laugh.”
Pleasure is not, of course, only about sex. “Pleasure also means that your community blossoms, that your environment is safe and healthy, that you manage to organise an inspiring demonstration, that you have work which you can live off. However, sex and female bodies are the battle ground of patriarchal forces and the area where the right to pleasure has to be fought for most keenly.”
Happy: “It is simple actually. Everyone should always have total freedom to ask the question: ‘What does my body need in order to be happy and satisfied?’ And to answer that.”