FEMEN – the marmite of feminist organisations. At first I thought “what the hell? How on earth does this help?” which was followed closely by “when did the Page 3 girls get together and form a political organisation?”
My main issue was the nudity. I’m no puritan but going topless is one of the fastest ways of making sure nobody pays any attention to what a woman is saying. So when photos of pretty Slavic blondes began to appear with slogans across their bare chests, I dismissed this as mere attention seeking from a group that would go away when the cameras did. I derided the idea of public nudity as a means of reclaiming the female form. I felt that it detracted from the aims of most feminists to reduce the objectification of women in the media, and fed the misogynistic critics eager to slap down yet another generation of harpy feminists. It was nothing more than Page 3 with politically charged chanting that made it that bit harder for the rest of us to counteract the systemic objectification of women as sexual objects. But over time and listening to many different arguments over the issue of appropriation of the female form and its reclamation from the male gaze, I have changed my mind. I have come to admire the sheer bravery of going topless in such a public manner when the consequences can be so damaging.
FEMEN activists paint their chests with political slogans making billboards of their breasts. They then interrupt political meetings, protest in public or post photos online. Most of these events pass by largely unnoticed, perpetrated by no more than two or three activists. But while many dismiss this as exhibitionism (the fact that they described themselves as ‘sextremists’ doesn’t help) it has produced acts of immense bravery by some. For example, the case of Amina Tyler in which she had to flee both the Tunisian authorities and her family, because she posted a picture of herself topless with the words ‘My body belongs to Me’ scrawled across her chest. A cursory glance on the FEMEN website or associated online articles shows a number of young women taking part in similar protests in Europe and the Middle East. All of these women feel driven to extreme protest by extreme regimes or oppressive and misogynistic cultural and religious attitudes. The act of exposing themselves is a defiant gesture. One that says ‘Here is what you fear and I’m you making look at it.’ An act that deliberately stands in contrast to the rhetoric, double standards and laws that women live with. An act that stands against attitudes that enable the existence of justifiable rape in the eyes of a jury and laws that repeatedly legislate against female freedoms.
Topless protests may seem a juvenile act to some but these women risk a lot to make these protests.
In Belarus a trio of FEMEN activists were allegedly kidnapped, stripped naked and doused in oil. In Turkey FEMEN’s twitter has been blocked and two activists protesting Recep Erdogan’s re-election have been ordered to leave the country. There have been many accusations of harsh treatment, of groping by authorities when under arrest and FEMEN’s Paris HQ has been subjected to protests, one that ended with a stabbing. The main leaders of the group have spoken of stalking, abusive texts, phone calls and emails, of physical threats and other attempts at intimidation. It’s clear there is a high price to pay. Some will trot out the old ‘they’re asking for it argument’ and I can understand to some degree that when faced with a topless woman refusing to stop sawing down a cross, a police officer may not know where to put his hands without unintentionally groping the protester, but we’re talking systematic intimidation post-arrest and when walking the street and living their lives.
Yet they continue. They were there protesting the referendum on the annexation of Crimea. They are still in Turkey, in Tunisia, in France, in East Europe and looking to set up ‘outposts’ in England and America.
But all this doesn’t mean I wholeheartedly endorse the group. There are some serious questions regarding the structure of FEMEN and its real leadership. Inna Shevchenko has defended the involvement of Victor Syvatski in an article for The Guardian. There are Facebook groups dedicated to protesting FEMEN’s depiction of Muslim women as a collectively oppressed whole, in need of saving by enlightened western women. The organisation is still not taken seriously by most feminists, the media or the establishment, and is unlikely to ever be. Questions about their contribution to the movement as a whole are often negatively answered, and it’s impossible to actually point to a concrete example of progress achieved by the organisation.
A film by Kitty Green entitled Ukraine is Not a Brothel is the result of a year spent with the group and apparently is a candid look at their workings and motives. One scene shows a conversation between Green and a former FEMEN activist, who complains that FEMEN used to be a real protest group (wearing clothes) and that the topless aspect is a market strategy. If that is true, it’s a clever one, combining both a guaranteed photo opportunity with a potent form of female protest.
I can’t say I support FEMEN but nor can I say I don’t respect them. It takes guts to stand up for something you believe in and do whatever you think it may take to achieve those aims. Regardless of personal opinion, I have to take my hat off to them. But maybe not my top.