When the activist group Femen burst onto the Ukrainian protest scene in 2008, holding mud-wrestling matches on Kyiv's central Independence Square to protest the country’s notoriously dirty politics, I was hopeful the stunts could succeed in kick-starting a serious discussion about sexism and gender inequality, problems that continue to plague the nations of the former Soviet Union.
Four years and a new office in Paris later, the group, which professes to use “sextremism” to fight against patriarchy as manifested by dictatorship, the church, and the sex industry, more closely resembles a girlie show. More flash than substance.
Femen has raised eyebrows -- and certainly provoked a number of salacious grins -- with its topless antics, which have made it the most visible group advocating in support of women’s issues. Now that Femen has successfully roped in the international media with its stunts, it's worth examining what exactly the “founder of a new wave of feminism of the third millennium” is advocating or contributing to contemporary feminist discourse.
Ultimately, a message is only effective if it is clearly conveyed. Though it would seem that there couldn’t be a clearer message than one written on nubile, bare flesh, a closer look reveals that what Femen is actually proposing remains obscured.
In an interview with Gazeta.ru, Femen activist Alexandra Shevchenko stated that the organization’s goal is a "female revolution” but was sketchier on what that actually entails. The group’s website offers little beyond somewhat garbled slogans and repeated references to “hot boobs.” A survey of their protests fails to provide much insight into what the concrete goals are or what the contribution to feminism may be.
In sum, there is little evidence of any of Femen's protests having significant impact, either in terms of early local campaigns concerning, for example, protests against the tradition in Ukraine of turning off hot water in rotating districts of a city, let alone larger issues such as the international sex trade.
Radical feminism has clearly changed since the first calls for women’s emancipation through suffrage were voiced in the first half of the 19th century. Suffragettes were prepared to go to great lengths for the sake of gaining basic human rights. As cigarette ads affirmed in the late 1960s, "You’ve come a long way, baby."
Twentieth-century feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem pushed the issue of reproductive rights, as well as entering the arena of LGBT rights, both of which remain contentious in a number of Western countries. In the East, communism was supposed to be the great social -- and gender -- leveler. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. Now, domestic violence and trafficking of women persist as serious social problems in many post-Soviet republics.
There are numerous international programs that address a variety of gender issues in all corners of the world, from La Strada International’s work on human trafficking in Eastern and Southern Europe to the White Ribbon Alliance For Safe Motherhood, which works to prevent deaths during child birth. All of these programs vie for public attention and funding. Yet it seems that “pop” feminism, at least in the developed West, seems to be dominated by other concerns.
Some groups, including Femen, have been making the argument that the deobjectivization of women can be achieved through in-your-face tactics such as public nudity and overt sexualization. In 2011, a wave of “SlutWalks” rolled through several North American and European cities. Launched in Toronto, women tired of “being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result” encouraged other women to parade in various states of undress, ostensibly to manifest their sexual emancipation.
This trend could also be a sign of the times.
Desensitization to pornography in Western culture, or at minimum its greater acceptability, has led to a bit of warped logic that suggests that pole dancing can, in fact, be empowering -- something I doubt even Alexandra Kollontai would agree with. According to a recent piece in “The Atlantic,” pop singer Kesha “might be just what some of the 20th century's most famous feminist thinkers had in mind.”
Perhaps the fault lies with feminists past who failed to make clear that gender equality and ownership of sexuality and reproductive resources, while certainly an important element of emancipation, are not the sum of a human being.
Admirably, Femen has come out strongly against dictatorship, increasingly a genuine issue of concern in Eastern Europe. The group held -- or attempted to hold -- protests in Belarus and Russia. These ended badly for the activists, as they discovered that security forces in authoritarian countries are less polite and not quite as frightened of female breasts as their democratic counterparts.
While not quite on par with its neighbors, Ukraine has been heading down a slippery slope toward authoritarianism since the 2010 presidential election. Though the group reports increased interest from the SBU (Ukraine’s security services), it continues to function without incident.
With so many issues to tackle closer to home, Femen’s decision to export what it calls its “radical feminism” strikes me as disingenuous at best and frankly somewhat cowardly.
Joanna Rohozinska is senior program officer for Europe and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy. She has worked in the area of civil-society development for more than 12 years throughout Central and Eastern Europe. She completed her graduate studies in history at the University of Toronto, focusing on 19th-century Russian and Soviet history. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.