Performance art and knickers with protest slogans ruled the night at this German charity event.
All photos by Maansi Jain
"Who hasn't had a shot yet?" cries Dave, one half of the band You're Only Massive, twirling around the stage in a red sequin cape and matching jodphurs. The crowd cheers in response, under pennants of slogan-daubed knickers with pro-choice messages such as "Free, safe, legal" and "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries." The knickers blend in with their surroundings: The usual décor of the bar, Silver Future, includes bright pink walls covered in female and queer power murals, disco balls stuck onto disco balls, and signs saying "I love my vagina." Instead of the usual rubber stamps, guests tonight have been marked with a glittery nail varnish to show they've paid the entry donation.
The band are encouraging drunkenness all for a good cause—kamikazes, apple sours and tropical shooters have been downed aplenty in the name of supporting women in Ireland who travel to England to get access to abortions that are still, somehow, illegal in their own country. The event was organized by the Berlin-Irish Pro-Choice Solidarity (BIPCS) to raise funds for the London-based Abortion Support Network, which helps women in Ireland with the costs of travel, which can be prohibitively expensive.
"Irish law mainly affects the most vulnerable and poorest in our society, like migrants who are unable to travel and people in poverty," says Dervla, one of the founders of BIPCS, when asked about the reasons behind the event. "We want to highlight the fact that abortion is illegal in Ireland and that Irish laws are causing women to die (like Savita Halappanavar and others) and forcing women who have been raped to go through with unwanted pregnancies."
Although Ireland recently legalized gay marriage in a landslide vote, access to abortion remains a huge issue. Abortion rights campaigners within Ireland are hoping that this victory will open the door for other progressive campaigns.
There is certainly a sense within BIPCS and attendees of the solidarity party from Ireland that this is the moment to capitalize on Ireland's current anti-conservative bent. "There's a bit of a movement growing since the referendum," agrees Antoinette from Dublin. For example, the forthcoming 4th Annual March For Choice, to be held on September 26 in Dublin, is specifically aiming to harness this enthusiasm for change to force a difference at next year's general election.
"The landslide vote for Marriage Equality and the passage of the Gender Recognition Bill earlier this year demonstrates clearly the huge appetite for change and progress in this country," the event's website reads. "This will be the last March for Choice before the next general election, so we must make it clear."
Back in Berlin, the evening is heating up. Vegan cakes are being snaffled by the plastic forkful, while a performance from Princess4Q turns a sheet-covered Fatima Al Qadiri lipsync into a bondage-style dance performance: A striptease finally reveals the queer artist adorned with flopping translucent condoms jiggling from their ears, nipples and thighs, all in time to breakbeat techno.
Combined with the knickers overhead, it makes for a convivial atmosphere that belies the group's serious political message. "We felt it was time to organize something that would be fun and that will directly benefit women and people in need who are affected by Irish law," Dervla explains. "We got this idea from Speaking of Imelda, a direct action performance and protest group based in London. Their most recent campaign is #knickersforchoice [that hung a pair of giant underwear on the gates of the Irish parliament]... Not only do they make an important point, they are also very funny!"
But why did the organizers feel it was particularly important to create an event in the German capital? "Berlin is where we live, and where we can make our voices heard from. It is a major European political capital so we would hope our voices will be echoed louder," says Dervla. Of course, Germany has much more permissive laws around abortion, with the current time limit on the procedure at 12 weeks. However, its neighbor Poland, like Ireland, still criminalizes abortion procedures—Germany, like England, is often a destination for women seeking abortions.
This connection is highlighted by an electro-dance performance from Polish performer Zdrada Palki, whose song lyrics, almost entirely in Polish, range from why we should hate the Pope to one night stands. There's also one memorable chorus that takes the tune of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," replacing the central noun with mifepristone, better known as the abortion pill. Palki's outfit, complete with a pastel curly wig, drawn-on moustache and at least seven different shades of lycra, exemplifies her comedic approach to the serious subject matter. As well as singing about these issues, Palki is also an activist off-stage, and is a part of the group Ciocia Basia who helped to fly abortion drugs to Poland from Germany using a drone.
"I'm having a break from performing at the moment but I couldn't say no to this. I felt I really wanted to support it," Palki explains, noting the importance of Irish and Polish groups learning from one another. "This exchange is useful, so that we can not only support each other in a practical way but also learn from how other support groups act and how they get solutions."
"Having artists from Ireland and Poland seemed like a good idea as both countries have abortion bans, yet Poland is the nearest country to Berlin. We are really happy to have the support of Polish activists tonight!" adds Dervla.
Tonight's intervention doesn't stop once the shots have all been downed: The slogan-inscribed knickers will be delivered to the Irish embassy here in Berlin. I ask another of the organizers, Lorna, what reaction they're expecting from this intervention. "Well, if they're Irish, they'll probably laugh," she smiles.
For her, this action means something specific, since she'll soon be returning to Ireland. "Essentially, I'm getting those rights taken away from me." Long after the shot glasses are put away for the night, Lorna's words are a sobering reminder of the absurd situation women are in— one where basic rights are entirely dependent on geographical boundaries.