Although it has minimal presence in the US and the UK, FEMEN is one of the fastest growing feminist activist groups in the world. One whose activities, although even many feminists disagree with them, have raised the international movement’s profile to staggering new heights.
My Body, My Rules
You have probably seen the photos on the news. Small groups and large crowds of topless and genuinely beautiful women, marching in support of a range of causes, with their own flesh deployed as placards. A peaceful protest rendered visceral and violent not through actions, but through words. Phrases such as “My Body My Rules,” “Fuck Your Morals” and “Breasts Rule The World” may seem no more than coarse platitudes on paper. But painted on human flesh and thrust in the faces of those people - Presidents and police, religious leaders and bigots of all persuasion - who need to hear them the loudest, then they become more than mere manifesto. They become rallying calls that are heard across the planet.
FEMEN started life in the Ukraine in 2008 (it celebrated its birthday a little over a week ago, on April 10), founded in response to the growing, and seemingly unstoppable international trade in Ukrainian women... the so-called Russian Brides, so beloved by male/mail order perverts everywhere.
Since that time, sister organizations have sprung up in countries around the world and have earned a small forest’s worth of headlines too. Their support of the jailed members of the Pussy Riot group probably brought them the most attention in the west, after FEMEN activist Inna Schevchenko brought down the thirteen foot cross in Kiev’s Freedom Square with a chainsaw. In the outcry that followed, which included both intimidation and death threats, Schevchenko was forced to flee the country; she headed for Paris, where she established FEMEN’s French office.
It is their propensity for direct action that establishes FEMEN as a very different and new face of feminist activism. Believing (and it sometimes feels hard to disagree) that the time for passive protest long ago ended, FEMEN are more akin to the Suffragette movements that brought votes and rights to women in this country, back during our great-grandmother’s day. In fact, I like to think my own great-grandmother, herself a staunch supporter during those heroic days, would approve of FEMEN’s methods - if not necessarily their choice of costuming.
FEMEN stand loudly and vociferously against any institutionalized movement that acts against women’s rights. They have a lot of targets: Elements of Islam and Sharia law, and the patriarchal practices that still shape many western religions; The anti-abortion and anti-gay movements; The sex trade and certain aspects of the sex industry itself; The hideous torture of female circumcision. All beneath the banner of “unit[ing] young women on the principles of social awareness and activism, intellectual and cultural development," and the worldwide recognition of "the European values of freedom, equality and comprehensive development of a person irrespective of the gender."
All of which is, in the eyes of many, controversial enough. But FEMEN had another trick up its sleeve - one which, with its membership largely comprising young women, was guaranteed to get the cameras flashing.
Early FEMEN protests saw the activists clad in lingerie and make-up; a rally at the Turkish Embassy in Kiev in 2008 found them wearing nurses uniforms and pink high heels. They dubbed themselves “sextremists” and saw their caricature of elemental male fantasies as one means of drawing attention to themselves.
It worked, too. But not as well as Oksana Shachko’s decision to go topless when FEMEN appeared at Kiev’s independence day celebrations in 2009. Since that time, toplessness has become firmly established as FEMEN’s weapon of choice, with slogans daubed and painted across the torso.
Not everybody gets the point, of course. Visitors to FEMEN’s heavily illustrated Facebook page, for example, and viewers of other media coverage, will see any glimpse of nipple safely covered up - indeed, Facebook resisted allowing FEMEN to even establish a presence on the network for fear that its politics were simply a cover for some kind of strange new pornography.
FEMEN activists operating within the virtual world of Second Life (the source of the photo at the head of this piece) are likewise warned to ensure that bare breasts are not visible in any area not registered as Adult’s Only. Failure to comply can result in being banned from that area, or even the suspension of your SL account.
Thankfully, however, the censorship has not spread to FEMEN’s message - those slogans, frequently strongly worded and geared towards grabbing the most attention, often appear in English because that is the language, like it or not, that so much of the free world’s media understands.
Indeed, much as we might be repulsed by the censorship, still there is a glorious irony in the fact that, though we are not permitted to see female nipples, neither are we prohibited from reading such sentiments as “Fuck Patriarchs” and “Fuck Your Morals” - again expressions that many women, even those who acknowledge that sexism remains a problem in modern society, may not necessarily agree with. But which speak loudly to those of us who do feel that direct action and sextremism has its place in our world.
And to those who are repulsed by the methods by which foreign governments have cracked down upon women’s attempts to gain equal rights - or even to establish any rights whatsoever. In December 2011, following a FEMEN action outside the former KGB headquarters in Minsk, Belarus, where their hats and fake mustaches parodied the Belarusian president, three of the women were snatched by local security forces, driven to a forest, shaved, stripped and doused in flammable liquid.
The attackers did not follow through on their threats to then ignite the girls’ bodies. Rather, they drove away, leaving the three young, naked, women alone in the midwinter snows of a midnight forest, miles from anywhere.
FEMEN remain unbowed. Their methods have not changed, and their insistence that “this is the only way to be heard” is difficult to argue with. True, some women’s organizations have spoken out against FEMEN’s in-your-face approach, arguing that toplessness only contributes to the objectification of women; and it is true, if the organization was staffed only by overweight seniors with saggy breasts and toothless faces, a lot of the editors who currently plaster FEMEN’s photographs across the media would probably not look twice at them.
But that, surely, is the point. Our bodies are our own; we all agree (I hope!) with that sentiment. And they are ours to employ as we wish, whether we choose to use them to make a point or make a living. A beautiful girl standing topless on the front page of the newspaper will naturally attract the attention of men. But so might the words that are written on her chest and if just a fraction of the viewing public is moved to find out more, then the gesture can only be considered a success.
Those traditional symbols of protest, placards, chants and marches are all very well, and may once have served a purpose. But, as the Occupy movement (to name but one) has sadly discovered in recent years, more often than not they are not enough. In a society where law enforcement demands that the most vociferous protestors must first acquire licenses and permits before they can set foot on the street, the very act of protest has been diminished. FEMEN believe that it is only by abandoning such self-castrating niceties that any real point can be made.
“If we staged simple protests with banners,” they say, “then our claims would not have been noticed." Or, to put it bluntly, people rarely stop to look at banners. They do stop to look at bare breasts, and although it is unspoken, surely another major element in FEMEN’s struggle is precisely that. When is society going to stop regarding a woman’s breasts as so inherently pornographic that we have to cover them up to avoid corrupting every poor soul who is forced to look at them? My own boobs aren’t big, but I think they’re kinda pretty. I’m sure you feel the same way about yours’. How many hapless strangers have your nipples condemned to the slippery slopes of hellish degradation?
The approach is working, too. Yes, the sex trade is alive and well, despite sundry well-meaning attempts to rein it in. Yes, women’s rights are regarded as absolutely wrong in far more countries than actually support them. Yes, religion continues to keep women down, and so do politics, culture and bullies.
But when Amina Tyler disappeared... a Tunisian activisit who appeared on FEMEN’s website with the words "I own my body; it's not the source of anyone's honor" written in Arabic across her bare chest... it was not her country’s media who informed the world of her disappearance. It was not Tunisian law enforcement who moved heaven and earth to discover her whereabouts; nor, following her escape from imprisonment by her own family just last week, was it the Tunisian government who hustled her into safe keeping, a refuge in which she could no longer be beaten, drugged and lectured about morality. It was FEMEN.
As Inna Shevchenko said following Tyler’s escape from captivity, "Amina has became a symbol of liberation of women in the Arab world.” Again, that is a role that we in the west cannot help but admire, even if we do not fully understand all that it entails. The phrase "Topless Jihad" has now entered our language, and it will remain there until it is no longer required.
FEMEN’s other most recent coup, of course, was the sequence of photographs taken on April 8 in Hanover, Germany, when five activists ambushed Russian President Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, their bodies daubed (in English and Cyrillic) with sentiments that included the very pointed “Fuck Dictator.” No matter how much of the ensuing news coverage seemed more interested in the expression on Putin’s face... which, in the face of five pairs of nubile breasts, really did look as though all of his Christmases had come at once. The message was put across regardless.
FEMEN is not to every woman’s tastes, and it is certainly not a movement that either governmental or law enforcement agencies are likely ever to tolerate. Regardless of whether or not we agree with the laws and practices against which FEMEN fights, particularly those that would have no place in our own society, the fact remains that much of FEMEN’s activism is illegal, and there are those among us who would argue that no law should ever be broken, no matter how repressive, irrelevant or just plain stupid it may be.
All of which is true.
But as our own Suffragettes proved a hundred years ago, and the abolitionists before them, laws and customs that need to be changed should be changed. Particularly if, by changing them, you will improve the lives of countless people. And if the only way to make certain they are changed is by breaking a handful of others, then they all should be shattered into a million pieces.