Ladies, you need to put some shirts on.
That’s the response Juno-nominated singer-songwriter Alysha Brilla, 26, and her two younger sisters, Nadia Mohamed, 25, and Tameera Mohamed, 22, allegedly got from a cop last week when the trio exercised their legal right to go topless during a bike ride on a humid night in Waterloo, Ont. When they asked the officer why they needed to cover up, he reportedly replied, It’s the law.
He was wrong. Women have been legally permitted to go topless since 1991 in Ontario. But that doesn’t mean exercising that right is without consequence for the women who do. Dismayed by their treatment, Alysha and her sisters have not only filed a complaint against the officer (the Waterloo Regional Police are also conducting an “an internal review of the circumstances of the incident,” according to the Toronto Star) but they’re also holding a rally in downtown Waterloo on Saturday, August 1. Called Bare With Us, the event is a show of support for women’s right to take off their shirts in public as men do and without fear of street harassment.
We talked to Brilla about the infuriating double standard when it comes to toplessness—and why people go cuckoo in the presence of bare boobs.
Can you walk me through that night?
We’d been biking for a couple of hours and it was very hot. It was 9 p.m. We still had to go to my sister Nadia’s and pick up her stuff because we were going to have a sleepover. We were just about to leave when we started pulling on our shirts saying, ‘Oh, god, it’s so hot.’ We’d been observing men cycling topless, skateboarding, and walking all day and we knew our legal right and we knew we were allowed to do it, too. So my little sister said, ‘Let’s take our shirts off, it’s really effing hot!’
I said, ‘OK, cool.’ It’s not something we’ve never done before. Earlier that week we had gone canoeing down the Grand River and we had our shirts off then and when we’ve gone to the beach we’ve done it. But we hadn’t done it on a bicycle in the city.
So we [took our shirts off] and left. We had no problems with anyone. We passed one site where there was a female cop directing traffic through a construction zone and she ushered us through. She didn’t say anything to us at all except for ‘OK, ladies you can go now.’ We were happy about that. We were approaching my sister’s place on a quiet street—by that time it was 9:30 p.m.—and we were biking silently just enjoying the evening and we passed by a cop in an SUV. He passed us in the front so he would have seen our helmets and lights and our chests. He immediately made a U-turn and rolled down his window and said, ‘Ladies, you need to put some shirts on.’
We said, ‘No we don’t.’ He said, ‘Yes you do, it’s the law.’ We said, ‘No, in Ontario we are legally allowed to be topless. It’s our right.’ He said, ‘We’ve been receiving complaints from concerned parents in the neighbourhood. There are kids around.’ Of course, there were no kids around. And he wouldn’t have had time in between when he saw us and made the U-turn to receive however many phone calls [he mentioned].
Once he let you go [Brilla and her sisters weren’t ticketed or charged with anything], you immediately went to the police station and filed a report. What was the response you got there?
The cop who was working at the Kitchener station where we went to talk about it was just as baffled as we were. He was like, ‘Yeah, of course you were allowed to be topless.’ I showed him the video and he recognized the cop in it so he gave us his name and his supervisor’s name and he told us we had to go to the Waterloo station because of where the incident happened. On Sunday we did [go there] and talked to the supervisor and that encounter was just as patronizing as [the incident with the Kitchener cop].
You didn’t get a good reception?
When we walked in the supervisor basically said, ‘I think I know why you guys are here but go ahead.’ It was really disrespectful. I told the supervisor that my objective was just to have a civil conversation and maybe get an apology and he scoffed at us and said, ‘Ha, that’s not going to happen.’
Because of that we weren’t satisfied by the way we were treated and we didn’t feel like it was dealt with properly so we filed a formal complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review [which oversees complaints about Ontario police officers].
What’s the public reaction been to you and your sisters?
I know a lot of women and men are being very supportive and they know that this is just a symptom of an underlying inequality issue among the genders. On the other hand, it’s really shocking how many people are commenting saying that women’s breasts were made for sexual arousal. When men go out topless, people don’t make that association so why is it forced on women?
When I see a man with a bare chest that’s nicely developed I find it just as attractive as a man would seeing a woman’s bare chest. The sexual arousal issue goes both ways. The difference is women don’t make a big deal out of their arousal…
Exactly. Arguing that women’s chests are so different from men’s [is silly]. It’s only for the fact that we feed babies with them and if that disturbs you, that’s really wrong.
Why do you think people get so upset at the site of a bare-chested woman?
I credit socialization. For example, in the Himba tribe in Namibia, the women go topless their whole lives and it’s completely normal in their community. Breasts have other associations. For us, all we’re exposed to is either pornography or sexy advertisements. We don’t see women breastfeeding [generally]. When was the last time you saw a woman breastfeed on TV or in a film? It’s bizarre. That’s why we’re holding the rally and I think that’s why this has become such a hot topic.
Will people be marching topless at this Saturday night’s rally?
It’s very pro-choice. It’s really up to whatever you’re comfortable with. For me, for example, I felt comfortable going topless that night because it was dark and hot and there were no cameras around. Coming to this event and this context I don’t feel comfortable. I’ll be wearing a shirt, but I’m there supporting the right to be topless 100 percent and people shouldn’t be surprised to see me at another time exercising that right.
We have that right, and we should have that right respected, too. I’ve never seen anyone call a man going topless a slut or a whore, why should women have to deal with that? It doesn’t make any sense to me.