Four topless activists from FEMEN protested on top of the Cibeles Fountain in Madrid, Wednesday, to demand the Spanish government repeals the so-called 'gag law' which was passed through Madrid's parliament in December and came into effect on July 1. The topless activists protested at Madrid's Plaza de Cibeles, drawing attention from passing commuters as they waved flags and chanted slogans against the new law, before being escorted away from the fountain by police. Known as the 'Citizen Security Law', the new legislation includes fines of up to 600 ($635) if protests, even peaceful ones, are held without authorisation from authorities. Serious disturbances near government buildings such as parliament can be met with fines of up to 30,000 ($31,758), while unauthorised demonstrations near key infrastructure points could result in fines of up to 600,000 ($635,160). Fines are also in place for insulting anyone in uniform and for photographing or filming police officers, where they could be put in danger.
CONTROVERSIAL topless protesters Femen are spreading their message across the world, with branches of the “sextremist” group now active in 18 different countries.
But their tactics have sparked furious debate, while stories about the group’s history, exposed by an Australian filmmaker, provoked serious doubt over its feminist credentials.
So do their methods really work?
Femen was started in Ukraine in 2008 to oppose sex trafficking, with the slogan “Ukraine is not a brothel”. Their eye-catching naked demonstrations quickly attracted publicity around the world, and their protests spread to new countries and causes.
In 2010, they staged a rally in Kyiv over a visit by Vladimir Putin, holding up placards that read “You can’t make us bend over that easily” and “We won’t sleep with Kremlin dwarfs”, in an apparent reference to the Russian president’s height.
Femen opposes all forms of patriarchy — religion, dictatorships and the sex industry. Members have protested at the Vatican, at the 2012 London Olympics (claiming the International Olympic Committee supported “bloody Islamist regimes”) and drenched Belgian archbishop André-Jozef Léonard with water in Brussels for being “homophobic” and anti-abortion. They protested against a New Zealand “win-a-wife” competition, dressed as giant babies to disrupt a pro-life rally in Canada and wore police uniforms and “beat” journalists with fake truncheons in a call for democratic liberty in Ukraine.
Their eye-popping stunts have certainly attracted media attention, which many believe shows success in highlighting an issue. But others question their effectiveness in achieving any concrete change, as well as what many see as their overt sexualisation.
A Tunisian member who was imprisoned for posting nude pictures of herself on Facebook, left Femen, accusing it of Islamophobia, after it called a “topless jihad”, as well as a lack of financial transparency.
In 2013, Australian documentary-maker Kitty Green revealed that the group had been masterminded by a man named Victor Svyatski, who picked pretty girls to sell his brand.
Green’s film Ukraine Is Not a Brothel showed it was Svyatski who sent the girls on their most terrifying missions to Belarus, where they were reportedly arrested by secret service agents, stripped, humiliated and left in a forest.
Svyatski is apparently no longer involved with the group, which is rapidly expanding. It now has branches all over the world, from the US to Israel, each with their own causes and lawyers. It has produced international training videos to educate new members on how best to protest, featuring members wearing traditional Ukrainian flower garlands in their hair and intoning: “Our god is woman. Our mission is protest. Our weapons are our breasts. Our tactic is sextremism.”
While Facebook has made spreading the word harder by shutting down group pages and individual accounts for nudity, the activists are undeterred.
A recent Vice interview with the Canada branch revealed members protesting against sex tourism in Montreal, opposing a bill that threatened to make it harder to get an abortion and attacking the “conservative, evangelist” government. One woman painted “God out of my vagina” on her naked body, while another wrote “mafia stop f***ing us” across her breasts.
“Women have been talking about their condition for decades now,” Femen activist Neda Topaloski told Vice. “But in reality, nothing has changed. The nature of the oppression may have changed: capitalism, consumer society, the pernicious return of religion within democracies in which state and religion are supposed to be separate. These are just reiterations of male dominance.
“We have made progress in terms of civil rights but equality is far from being achieved.
“Femen emerged with a generation that came after everything else. We cant help but see we’re in the same s***hole as before.”
The group prides itself on being a “guerilla movement” that takes feminism “out of the realm of ideas” and creates radical action. Its members are not afraid of arrest, or being roughly removed from major events by security — which is a good thing, because police and guards are not afraid to use force on them.
One member described being dragged along the ground until her breast bled, while others have been thrown in jail for hours or even months. At a protest against sex tourism during the Grand Prix, a man is heard shouting: “Get the f*** out of here” and “that engine is worth more than her.”
It certainly shows that the group still has a fight on its hands.
The Femen movement was partly a reaction to the Ukraine becoming the a sex capital of Europe.