London Times Saturday Magazine
March 8, 2003
By Catherine Lucas
Donna Sheehan sits on the window-seat in the living room of her simple wooden cabin, in the little town of Marshall, Marin County, California. She is tall and striking, with thick, shoulder length ash-blond hair, blue eyes and a radiant smile. From her vitality and vigour you would think she was a young woman, but she is actually seventy-two years old. While she talks on the phone to a reporter from a TV station in Los Angeles, her partner Paul Reffell, works diligently away at the computer, answering the eighty emails they receive a day inquiring about the new peace movement started by Donna, called Baring Witness.
On the wall above the desk there is a large black and white photo of fifty women lying naked on the ground forming the word peace with their bodies. This is what it means to bare witness - women (and now men too) getting naked and spelling out their convictions for all to see. As I look closely at the picture, I can see my own body. I am lying on my side, one of half a dozen women making up the first letter E.
Things have been very busy for Donna since the day that photograph was taken. The idea for the picture came to her in November last year. She was lying in bed one morning, feeling frustrated and powerless at the prospect of another war, wondering what she could do to create peace. Suddenly she had a vision of women forming the word with their bodies.
Then she remembered reading about a demonstration staged by a group of 600 Nigerian women outside the Chevron Texaco oil plant, on the Niger Delta. They asked the oil company to provide the local people with basic services like running water and electricity and to give jobs to their men. But it was only when they threatened to get naked that their demands were taken seriously, because in Nigerian culture it is shaming for a man to have a woman stand naked in front of him, let alone 600 of them.
"That got me thinking," Donna said "about what nudity means in America. To many people it is simply shocking or titillating. But to me naked peace is a lot better than naked aggression and when I had the idea to do the photo it was obvious that if the women posed naked it would make a much more dramatic statement. And it was time to do something radical. I knew so many women who felt that their voices were not being heard. We had all voted, written letters, made phone calls, held rallies, with little effect. I realized that a bold step was needed in order to convey our feelings of desperation about this war.”
So she put out the word on the local women's grapevine. "I called five friends and asked them if they thought it was a good idea. "Yes!" they replied. So I asked them to each call another five friends and so on." Because time was of the essence they agreed to do the photo the next day and they arranged to meet on Love Field, the baseball pitch in a nearby town called Point Reyes Station.
I heard about it because my cousin Susie called me at lunchtime. "Catherine," she said, "all the local women are getting together on Love Field this afternoon to pose naked for a peace photo. The idea is to send it out over the Internet. Be there by 3pm if you want to take part."
By the time I arrived there were fifty women, ranging from twenty five to seventy five and of every shape and size imaginable. We stood in a circle and Donna explained her idea for the picture. "With this photograph we will not only send a message to our male leaders asking them to stop and think, we will send a message to women all over the world asking them to be bold, to be courageous, to be vulnerable for peace."
Then we sorted ourselves into letters. One woman said, "I'll be a 'P'. The next woman said, 'E', the next 'A' and so on. Each group lay on the ground and we began to position ourselves. The photographer, the only man on the scene, was up a fifteen foot step ladder, shouting instructions. "Letter C, you need to be more round. The last E is too far away, all of you shift a foot to the left. Letter A, you need to have a more clearly defined point."
It was a cold, grey, wintry day and it took at least an hour to get the letters aligned. Just as it was time to take off our clothes it started to rain. We stripped in place and a few women who had come to help rather than pose, scurried around picking up our clothes and carrying them away. Despite the wet and cold the mood was incredible. There was such a feeling of excitement - elation even - and a real sense that it was possible to create peace on earth through peaceful means.
It was only after every one had undressed that I understood the deeper meaning of posing naked. It was easy to see it as a way of getting attention, but as I looked at the women stripped of their clothing it brought home the basic truth that we are all human beings. Regardless of nationality, culture, colour, class, sex and size we all have bodies. Bodies that house the same longing for life and love and beauty. Bodies that have the same needs for food and water and shelter. Bodies that are equally vulnerable to the devastating blast of a bomb or the deadly power of a bullet.
Suddenly I could imagine how the peaceful scene around me would look after a bombing raid and I knew it was no different from how Iraq would look, because death and carnage are equally horrifying and unacceptable no matter what country they take place in.
When the photographer had finished we all leapt up and ran whooping and cheering through the rain to find our clothes. For some women it had taken immense courage to bare all. "Phew," said the youngest member of the picture, who had begged to keep on her baseball cap, "that was the bravest thing I have ever done." While another woman in her mid-fifties, summed up the feelings of many. "With this gesture I have given all I have to give."
The photo went out on the Internet the next day and the local paper, the Point Reyes Light ran it as the centerfold. It was all very exciting, but no one was prepared for the storm of interest it would cause, least of all Donna. Within days the picture was posted on all the major web-sites and from the local paper it was picked up by the national media. Suddenly there were radio stations and newspaper reporters ringing Donna from all over the country, wanting to know how the photo had come about and what Baring Witness was planning to do next.
Not only that emails flooded in from people all around the world who wanted to join in by doing their own picture. At that point Donna realized she had inadvertently started a new peace movement and Baring Witness was formed. The first step was to put together a team. Her partner willingly stepped in and they became the joint creative force behind the operation, while other people volunteered to help organize and administrate. Then a friend offered to set up a web-site, www.baringwitness.org, with a mission statement, the photos, news coverage and a 'how to' page for people wanting to do their own pictures.
The next step was to register as an organization. There were financial and legal questions to be dealt with and issues about copyright and payment. It was a lot more than Donna had bargained for. "At the beginning it was a very steep learning curve," she said wryly. "I am a painter, not a business woman, so I was completely naïve about the whole financial and legal aspect." But she is living proof that it is never too late to learn new tricks or to make a difference in the world.
There were not only the logistical things to handle - there were also the next actions to be planned. Two more pictures were taken, this time on the beach, one with a hundred women again spelling the word "peace" and another with twenty-five men, forming the peace symbol. Then in the middle of January, there was another all women photo, forming the words "no war" across a verdant Marin County hillside.
At this picture Donna did a roll call of participants and their occupations. There were: seven waitresses, two doctors, one librarian, three singers, two teachers, one nurse, nine artists, one writer (that would be me), six radio personalities (think community rather than national radio), two bartenders, one mountain climber, two 1960s activists, four social workers, three senior citizens, and "no FBI agents." Twenty of the group were mothers.
Soon there were other actions happening across the States: Florida, Montana, Texas and Missouri. And around the world: England, Antarctica, Cape Town, Hong Kong and Australia - where seven hundred and fifty women spelled out the message "no war." The first English photo was taken in the Ashdown Forest, in Sussex and the thirty brave souls who gathered lay down in field covered with thick frost. They have just completed their second picture in Derbyshire and they have set up their own website: www.barewitness.org in which they challenge every town and village in the UK to get naked for peace.
With each picture interest in Baring Witness has grown and the movement has been featured in newspapers and magazines worldwide. "Did you know your picture was in The Economist?" Donna asked me, picking up a copy of the magazine from a huge pile of papers in the corner of her living room. "And Der Spiegel?"
The Economist, January 18, 2003 Ming Pao, January 22, 2003 Der Spiegel, March 2003
Click on images for enlargements
Donna has done interviews for the BBC, CBS, PBS and television networks in France and Germany. She and Paul are about to do a piece for a Japanese news agency and the Middle Eastern News Service called. "When I asked the man what he thought of the nudity," Donna said, "he replied, 'Oh, its fine.'"
With every interview the message gets more clearly honed. "Baring Witness is about seduction," Donna explains. "It is about using the power of the feminine, the power of our beauty and nakedness to seduce our male leaders and stop them in their tracks. As we see the bloodlust rising, we must sit down with our men and say, "Honey, we need to talk". If we cannot deter our men from violent acts, then we have failed as women, as nurturers, as guardians of our families and as voices of reason."
"This war is a domestic issue," she continues. "It is about killing people for the oil we use to produce our luxuries. Our men are playing the traditional role of trying to supply what they think are our needs. So we women are responsible too. We are responsible for discriminating between our real needs - the necessities of life like food and shelter - and our more superficial wants. A peaceful society is by definition a sustainable society. As we reduce our consumption of and dependency on oil - so we reduce the need for oil based war."
Coming up next is a mass demonstration in Washington DC, on March 8th, in celebration of National Women's Day. Baring Witness has been invited to take part by the other women's peace groups, including Global Exchange, Code Pink and Gather The Women, who are organizing the event. Donna and Paul are planning to have fifty women standing in black robes on the stage and up to a thousand more in front of the stage all ready to disrobe when the signal is given. Of course they hope that it will spread through the entire crowd.
"Imagine it," Donna said, "tens of thousands of women all standing naked in the Mall demanding peace. That is the real power of a movement like Baring Witness. It is not just a means to protest against war. It is giving women permission to initiate change. It is encouraging them to step into equal partnership with men and to take equal responsibility for what happens in the world."
This attitude is entirely in keeping with International Women's Day. Since 1911 women worldwide have used this day to demand political and social reform. However, not surprisingly, the focus this year is peace rather than equal rights. Still it is telling that women in the west have the freedom to protest naked, an action that would incur extreme penalties in many parts of the world, including Iraq.
"A woman's right to determine how she uses her own body is a touchstone for civil liberties," Donna said. "Obviously Baring Witness would like to see women around the world enjoy the same level of freedom and respect that we do."
"But important as the issue of civil liberties is, right now we have to address the real priority," she continued. "War with Iraq is not going to help Iraqi women, even if it does eventually result in a more progressive regime. We are already exacerbating their misery through our sanctions. A US embargo has withheld $5 billion of humanitarian aid, including medical supplies. The rate of infant and child mortality in Iraq is the highest in the world. Bombing it will destroy the primary health care system, leave 39% of the population without water and an estimated 500,000 innocent people injured. If we were really concerned about the welfare of Iraqi women, men and children we would spend the $200 million it will cost to attack Iraq rebuilding their country. That is the way to bring about change - you have to kill with kindness. War is not the solution to this problem on any level."
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