Toss Your Briefs at the Guys with Briefcases

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the Toronto Star

Toss Your Briefs at the Guys with Briefcases

Two weeks ago, when Panties for Peace hit the news, the bloody crackdown on Burma's pro-democracy protestors last month made a brief comeback in the world's consciousness.

Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that activists, "exasperated at the failure of diplomacy to apply pressure on Burma's military regime," were protesting by "sending female underwear to Burmese embassies."

According to the Thailand-based Lanna Action for Burma, senior general Than Shwe, whose troops bludgeoned unarmed monks and nuns, is very superstitious. The dictator and his minions "believe that contact with a woman's panties or sarong can rob them of their power."

Doesn't matter if the lingerie is clean or dirty, the fact that it's feminine makes it emasculating.

(Not that it stops Burma's state-sanctioned rape.)

And so we have panty power.

Cute - although strict and total economic sanctions, by everyone, including China, which vigorously trades with Burma, might be more effective. Naming and shaming the companies, including Canadian corporations that do business with these brutal bastards, might pressure them to stop starving their people of food, medical care and basic human rights.

But economic sanctions against a non-Middle Eastern state just aren't as newsworthy as they used to be.

No wonder Panties for Peace received some play. In the media age, even peace needs clever marketing.

Hundreds of thousands can turn out for marches in cities all over the world - as has happened on many occasions since the White House first planned its attack on Iraq - and the news media won't deign to print a picture.

But if one CodePink member - former Texas Grade 4 teacher Desiree Fairooz - waves a red-painted hand in U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's face, as she did last Wednesday, that's front-page news.

Not coincidentally CodePink, probably the best-known peace group in the U.S. despite the greater size and scope of others, is a "women-initiated" movement whose members have been repeatedly arrested for non-violent acts such as delivering petitions to the United Nations.

Founder Medea Benjamin first came to my attention five years ago when, as then I columnized, she and a cohort "stood up and interrupted U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was in the midst making his (WMDs) case against Iraq before Congress.

"`Inspections, not war!' they cried, before being hustled away by Capitol police." CodePink was founded shortly after that.

This month, Benjamin and sister CodePink activist Col. Ann Wright, who resigned from the U.S. Army to protest the Iraq invasion, were barred from entering Canada.

They were barred because our border officials found their names on the FBI's crime database, which is supposed to list "individuals who have been charged with serious and/or significant offences" - not peace protestors who committed misdemeanours and got off with fines.

But that's life today in George W. Bush's, er, Stephen Harper's Canada.

Of course, Bush has been beset by women since he moved into the Oval Office. Female activists and protestors - and not just those fighting for so-called feminist issues such as abortion rights - have grabbed more media attention than men.

From Dixie Chick Natalie Mainse's onstage outburst against Bush in 2003, to the "Jersey Girls" who agitated for an investigation into their husbands' deaths in the World Trade Center, to Cindy Sheehan who camped out at Crawford, Tex., after her son was killed in Iraq, women have spearheaded the peace movement.

"Women do catchy things so they attract media attention," says Ottawa computer consultant Corinne Allen, whose is the go-to website for Canada's peace movement.

But, she adds, "Maybe more women are being noticed more than men, but I don't think they want peace more than men."

"Right now, we are the most outraged," CodePink founder Benjamin tells me, hours after her arrest for merely holding up a two-fingered peace sign while Fairooz confronted Rice in the congressional hearing room (watch video). "A lot of us are thinking, `What kind of world are we leaving for our grandchildren?'"

That said, complains Benjamin, women don't get any respect: "I have two master's degrees. I've travelled all over the world. I've worked for the United Nations. I've been to Iraq five times - but I have never been called (by the networks) on these issues.

"I think women are at a disadvantage of being taken seriously from an expert point of view but as activists we have an advantage."

They certainly do if they take it all off, as the women of Boobs Not Bombs do, or as Lady Godiva famously did to protest a tax her husband imposed on his people in 11th-century England.

Getting naked has worked in all sorts of causes, against fur or for trees, as calendar girls here and abroad have proved.

And sex - or the lack of it - sells.

Sure, ancient Greece's Lysistrata-led withdrawal of wives' conjugal services until the Athenians came marching home from Sparta was a figment of playwright Aristophanes' imagination, but real sex strikes have since worked in places as disparate as Poland, Colombia and Turkey.

It's enough to make some of us want to reach out to Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney - or some errant intern in the West Wing.

Where's a thong when you need it?

Which brings us back to panties.

Listen, if there was a chance in hell that sending an entire Victoria's Secret warehouse to Rangoon would usher in democracy, I'd max out my credit cards to do it.

But, if you ask me, it's better to fling the contents of our drawers at our leaders until they're men enough to take a stand.

Antonia Zerbisias

Antonia Zerbisias is a former columnist for the Toronto Star and is the co-creator of #BeenRapedNeverReported.


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