FEMEN fatale?

// 13 June 2012

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Chrissy D considers the attention-grabbing campaigning of FEMEN, a Ukranian women’s protest group.

Two topless FEMEN members protest in Paris in March 2012. Both of them have their arms stretched up and they appear to be shouting. They have words written on their bodies in black. Most of these are not fully in the shot but

It was the start of Euro 2012 last weekend, with all the expected political ‘will they-won’t they?’ of UK politicians visiting or not visiting, endorsing or not endorsing the Ukraine’s government and who-really-cares-anyway since it’s all just a carefully aligned political mise-en-scene. So now seems like an appropriate time to consider my official feminist opinion of the bare-chested, latex-penis-wearing warrior-esque protest group, FEMEN.

I want to like FEMEN. I want to condone their painted nude protests and their unafraid and self-monopolised sex appeal. But the truth is, with all their partial-nudity in the snow and femme-fighter appearance, FEMEN throw up some interesting and at times awkward questions about feminism and the sociology of the female body in the private and public sphere.

Started in Kiev in 2008 by a group of university students, including Anna Hutsol, FEMEN are known for their trademark activism of staging political protests topless, with slogans and blue and yellow logo – the colours of the Ukraine flag – painted on their naked skin. They were formed primarily to campaign against and raise awareness of the growing ‘sex tourism’ trade (a euphemism for sexual slavery if ever I heard one) in their homeland and have recently been most active in bringing the public’s attention to this issue ahead of the football championship. They accuse the Ukraine government of intending to legalise prostitution to please foreign fans and of doing little to stop the ill-treatment of women in Ukraine, an issue which has hit the news recently with the case of Oksana Makar.

Along with their strip-to-subvert-patriarchy policy, the activists also wear a ring of flowers in their hair as a symbol of unmarriedness traditionally worn by ‘maidens’ in Ukraine. Along with the group’s spokesperson in the Sunday Times Magazine stating that they will put their beautiful bodies to good feminist attention-grabbing use before childbearing apparently ruins the aesthetic, this is a message that I’d rather not be affiliated with. However, FEMEN defend their use of partial nudity by claiming “This is the only way to be heard in this country.”

However, their overall aims “To develop leadership, intellectual and moral qualities of the young women in Ukraine” are somewhat more palatable and inclusive. Critics will argue that there’s nothing ‘moral’ about standing in front of a sex shop in Reeperbahn in a gimp mask and thong, but here I support Jessica Valenti’s stance on the myth that female morality is related to how much flesh she does or doesn’t show or how often she does or doesn’t engage in sexual behaviour.

FEMEN’s protests outside the Saudi Embassy and in a Paris square, both to raise awareness of women’s rights in the Muslim world, also suggest a naiveté and ignorance that weakens their message. Chanting “nudity is freedom” and protesting about some Muslim women covering up some or all of their body puts the group at one end of a scale of prejudice – the right not to cover up versus anyone’s right to adorn themselves as they wish. However, hearing criticism of FEMEN for just that -their right to go topless- also presents feminists with an uncomfortable dilemma. Are we to suggest there is a ‘correct’ amount of flesh to show? Are we saying “You must show your hair and your face. Don’t cover it up. That’s oppressive, isn’t it?! But for god’s sake keep your top on! That’s too much!”?

And does the suggestion that FEMEN’s rallies are ‘erotically flavoured’ work for or against their feminism? In a culture where women are often viewed as sex-dolls, is appearing to adhere to the female oversexed image an advantage or appeasement?Three topless members of FEMEN at a protest in Paris on 31 March 2012. A woman on the left is facing away from the camera, with just the back of her head and her right arm visible. She is being embraced by a more visible woman in the middle, who is smiling

As well as some dubious image-politics, I would say FEMEN also have a reputation of being political pawns, rather than autonomous campaigners. In a world in which it seems no one is truly acting for their own making-things-better-for-humanity ethic, FEMEN unfortunately seem to have been used by political parties for their own ends.

Critics of FEMEN include Sitting on the Edge of the Sandbox, Biting my Tongue, whose evaluation of FEMEN argues: “Ukrainian feminists of more traditional orientation (yes, apparently, there are some) hate Femen. Femen perpetuates sexual exploitation and sucks all the oxygen out of press coverage of Ukrainian feminism.” So are we to conclude that their feminism is more attention-grabbing than other feminism and therefore shout it down? Or academically critique it down?

Having spoken extensively with other Ukrainian women, both those who are feminists and those who aren’t, the prevailing consensus seems to be a pejorative opinion of both FEMEN’s politics and mode of consciousness-raising: that breasts are not best when it comes to patriarch-shaming. Europe is watching, for sure, but what message about contemporary feminism are they getting?

Photo of FEMEN in Paris on 31 March 2012 by Joseph Paris, shared under a creative commons licence.

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 14 June 2012 at 3:08 pm

They reinforce the idea that, if you’re a woman, you need to be hot, naked, light skinned, thin and have no obvious physical impairments in order to gain attention (at least that seems to be the case in the photos I have seen). I don’t think that’s going to get us very far, regardless of the issues they are drawing attention to, because it’s not challenging the belief system that underpins women’s oppression.

Anarcho // Posted 15 June 2012 at 7:41 pm

I quite like FEMEN. They smash the silly myth that all feminists are sexless dungaree wearing man haters. They have their physical flaws like you and I, yet are beautiful. They are vocal. They may not be perfect, and I agree with some of the criticism, but they may well be the ones who ll make feminism cool again. Because far from being silent Barbie Dolls, they are loud and passionate about women’s rights.

mommie's girl // Posted 17 June 2012 at 9:42 am

Don’t forget the millions of children embroiled in the sex industry. Nobody seems to be fighting for their justice. Attention needs to be given to their plight.

sian norris // Posted 18 June 2012 at 9:40 am

i also find Femen confusing! I quite like them, but i do have some concerns. On the one hand, hurrah for feminist activists taking on the sex industry in bold ways, refusing to be silenced. On the other hand, as Laura and this post says, are they doing this by conforming to beauty ideals and not challenging the idea that to be heard and seen, women need to conform to this beauty ideal?

I also think that some of the press coverage they get really undermines them, that Sunday Times article was awful and really offensive to the UK feminist movement.

all that said though, the fact that their members have been kidnapped show just how much their activism threatens the patriarchy, how scared men are of women standing up for our rights not to be seen as commodities, not to be for sale. In spite of my questions and reservations, i am standing in solidarity with my sisters across the world where the act of raising their voice in protest puts them in danger.

Mommiesgirl – yes, we are. of course we are fighting to end the exploitation of everyone – women, men, boys and girls in the so-called sex industry.

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