x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Ukrainian feminists intersect

There is something rather hopeless and thus courageous about Chelsea Manning’s attempt to reclaim a sense of self after all the accusations thrown against Private Bradley Manning. In contrast, Femen’s rather predictable naked protests seem ill-thought out and even worse, uninteresting

In one sense, Bradley Manning had little left to lose. Sentenced to 35 years in Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents, Manning made this rather unexpected request. "As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me," he wrote in a public statement.

"I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition." While his plea for empathy and understanding is likely an optimistic one, the timing is telling: only at the moment when Manning faced a future behind bars did he feel free to talk about "her" identity publicly.

The only hint at this outcome had been a black-and-white photograph, a rather hurried close up of the then-Bradley wearing a woman's wig and lipstick that was submitted as evidence of Manning's mental state in court. It's hard to imagine any more pictures of Chelsea Manning coming out of Fort Leavenworth, even though the name will be seldom out of the limelight as lawyers prepare to argue that the military's policy of not providing medical treatment for gender dysmorphia is a breach of civil liberties.

That private photograph is a world away from the aggressive representation of female outrage in the public sphere fashioned by the Ukranian feminist-action group, Femen. Until very recently, their most famous pin-up was 19-year-old Tunisian feminist Amina Sboui, also known as Amina Tyler, who became famous for posting topless photographs of herself online with political slogans in Arabic written across her skin; she was later jailed for two months for a political protest against a Salafist meeting in Kairouan.

Sboui has now fallen out with the group over its protest outside the Tunisian embassy in Paris during which anti-Islamic slogans were chanted. "You have to respect the religion of others," Sboui reportedly told the Huffington Post Maghreb news site, despite having outraged Tunisian Muslims with her own actions.

The very public arguments and recriminations - there's little patience for privacy in the age of the internet - occurred sometime after Sboui had posed for yet another image of political protest. In it she stands in Femen's by-now trademark state of undress, daubed in political slogans and lighting a cigarette from a Molotov cocktail. The rather glossy, styled shot could almost have been taken by Annie Leibovitz.

But where in the Venn diagram of political protest and ideals of femininity do Chelsea Manning and Amina Sboui intersect? Both feel compelled to make public statements about ownership, gender and identity that challenge societal norms and both are insistent in demanding our attention. Indeed there's something rather spoilt about Manning's words "I want everyone to know the real me". Not everyone will want to know, never mind care.

There is, however, something rather hopeless and therefore courageous about Chelsea Manning's attempt to reclaim a sense of self after all the accusations thrown against Private Bradley Manning. Some will see this latest act as a cynical attempt to remain a thorn in the side of the US government, an embarrassment sooner released and therefore forgotten; others that Manning's past actions put all sympathy out of bounds. In contrast, Femen's rather predictable naked protests seem ill-thought out and even worse, uninteresting. Only time will tell which one is remembered five or even 35 years from now.