The news about a just-released documentary "I am Femen", (and a few subsequent articles in local media that unfortunately failed to provide any in-depth critical thoughts on the movement), propelled me to finally do what I've wanted to do for years -- write about why I can't relate to FEMEN.
My misgivings about this fringe group have been brewing for a long time and nothing that has taken place over the years has served to change my mind. On the contrary, time has only solidified my point of view, which can be summed up in this one sentence: FEMEN is a group I can neither recommend nor identify with.
Before the usual anti-feminist trolls start snickering, licking their lips and prepare to throw their predictable volleys my way ("See how catty women are? They can't even show allegiance to one another in a feminist movement."), permit me to make a few things very clear.
I'm allowed, as a feminist, to criticize FEMEN. There is no such thing as a cohesive, monolithic movement and there is no one blueprint on how to be a feminist. I am neither obligated nor mandated by allegiance to a cause to claim every protest and action undertaken in the name of feminism as my own, simply because I identify as one. Dissent does not equal disloyalty.
I am not denying FEMEN's right to exist and to protest. So long as they are motivated by equal political, legal, and social rights for women, they remain a legitimate feminist movement. I am, however, allowed to question whether their methods have reaped any benefits or have been responsible for any noticeable dent in the patriarchy.
I would be compelled to say no.
On the contrary, they have proven to be a highly ineffective, divisive movement, quite counter-productive in their methods, and displaying a very particular brand of "white feminism" that is often misguided and exclusionary.
Truth be told, I have so many issues with FEMEN, I wouldn't even know where to begin, but I'll attempt to explain them all here as best as I can.
For those who don't know (and there are many of you), FEMEN is a Ukraine-based movement started in 2008 to protest the growing sex industry in the country. The movement soon branched out and began protesting other gender issues, including the perceived oppression of women at the hands of religious institutions. Their particular type of protest is labeled as "sextremism" and what they basically do is protest topless with painted slogans on their chests and crowned with flowers.
"Our Mission is Protest! Our Weapons are bare breasts!" they've been known to chant. Their website states that "FEMEN female activists are the women with special training, physically and psychologically ready to implement the humanitarian tasks of any degree of complexity and level of provocation." While I'm not quite sure what that means (for a movement that claims to be international, they are in dire need of an English proofreader), I do know that there's a FEMEN shop where you can find boob prints on canvas (yup, it's exactly what it sounds like) for the bargain basement price of $69 to finance their protest activities.
Putting aside the questionable paradox of using your body to protest how the world sees and exploits your body (arguments can certainly be made that, at least, the women are choosing to do so at their own volition), my biggest proof that this remains a movement that most feminists simply can't get behind is the fact that, six years later, it still remains a tiny fringe group with miniscule branches scattered around the world.
Not because most feminists are prudish and aren't willing to show their bodies (there have been more than enough protests to place the focus on public breastfeeding or the right of women to go bare chested in NY State), but because this method is simply devoid of any results.
Here are my biggest reservations about FEMEN:
THEIR INITIAL FOUNDATION
My first red flag came in the name of Viktor Sviatsky. While Anna Hutsol is credited as founding the FEMEN movement, according to the 2013 documentary by Kitty Green, Ukraine is not a Brothel, FEMEN was founded by Viktor Sviatsky - a man with a terrible reputation who treated its female members with contempt. One has to wonder about the motives of a man in charge of a feminist movement that claims to seek women's emancipation who can't even be compelled to treat his own members with respect. While Inna Shevchenko would eventually leave for Paris and found a new FEMEN, and one can certainly argue that the movement should not be judged by its initial baby steps, it has always troubled me that this was how the group was initially founded.
THEY ARE AGAINST LEGALIZING PROSTITUTION
Legalizing prostitution does not mean one is normalizing it or even necessarily condoning it (for those "what has the world come to?" folks), but simply regulating it. Criminalizing sex work (and the related actions required to engage in it) has never eradicated prostitution and it never will. That's just wishful thinking. But better regulation ultimately establishes the conditions for increased protection of sex workers and as far as I'm concerned, it's more important to protect these women than it is to judge them.
The fact that they are against legalizing prostitution is a big no-no for me. You don't get to dictate to other women what they can or cannot do with their bodies, and still claim to be about women's rights. Feminism is about ensuring women have the right to their decisions; even if they're different than the decisions you would make.
FEMEN is GUILTY OF EURO-CENTRIC WHITE FEMINISM
FEMEN's attitude when it comes to Muslim women reminds me strongly of "Les Janettes" during the Quebec Charter of Values debate who claimed to know better than their Muslim counterparts. It smacks of prejudice, paternalistic ignorance, and - most importantly - arrogance.
Their protests in front of mosques where they attempted to pull the burqa off of Muslim women was appalling to me in its cultural insensitivity and misguided notion that if you don't adhere to our way of thinking than you are weak and need to be helped. When Tunisian feminist Amina Tyler, posted topless images of herself on the internet in 2013, with Arabic writing across her chest reading: "My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone's honour," FEMEN called an 'International Topless Jihad Day' and protested by burning Salafist flags and shouting "Better Naked Than in a Burqa", which horrified many Muslim women for its anti-Muslim undertones - including Amina Taylor herself, who quickly and publicly disassociated from the movement.
As far as FEMEN is concerned, their kind of feminism is the only kind of feminism, and women who choose to wear the hijab or the veil cannot be called feminists, because they are "controlled" and "shackled" by religion. By dictating to Muslim women what the right way to be a feminist is, they are guilty of the same kind of exclusionary and limiting beliefs that hinder women in this world, and how they don't see the contradiction is beyond me. You can't force one ideology over another and think that's freedom.
FEMEN may think that the Muslim veil and the hijab are uniforms displaying women's subjugation to religion, but at this point, I feel that their naked bodies and flower crowns are just as much a uniform that leaves no room for any kind of diversity of look or thought. You think I'm exaggerating? Think again.
While FEMEN Quebec was recently bemoaning the uniformity and lack of individuality of Montreal Grand Prix female workers (and they certainly have a point... all the girls comply with the cookie-cutter version of female beauty), the Facebook cover page for FEMEN France features air-brushed, all-white, bare-breasted, crown-wearing women, who are barely distinguishable from one another and most certainly should not be giving lessons about individuality.
But back to why so many Muslim feminists can't possibly align themselves with this movement. FEMEN member Inna Shevchenko told Huffington Post U.K during an interview: "They write on their posters that they don't need liberation but in their eyes it's written 'help me."' Um, no. Where is there room for a plurality of voices in feminism when statements like this are uttered?
You cannot dismiss women who don't think like you without dismissing the experience and beliefs of countless of Muslim women around the world who identify as feminists. FEMEN's anti-Islam campaign has sparked widespread outrage, inciting many Muslim women who feel targeted to create a Facebook group, "Muslim Women Against FEMEN". With over 16,000 "likes" it most likely has way more support than FEMEN ever will.
Probably the aspect that most troubles me about FEMEN is their blatant disdain of religion and the people who practice it. As an atheist myself, I can certainly understand how religion has helped to keep women down, but one does not pretend to waltz in and "save" women who are immediately dismissed as too weak or ignorant to save themselves.
THEIR METHODS ARE SIMPLY INEFFECTIVE AND DO NOTHING TO FURTHER THE FEMINIST AGENDA
At the end of the day, though, my biggest gripe with FEMEN is that I feel that the movement has done absolutely nothing to further the feminist cause. I wish it had, but there has been no proof to the contrary.
While I can agree with most of their goals and understand their motivation, I simply can't agree with their methods. While I can empathize with their attempt to claim back their bodies from a patriarchal society that uses female nudity to sell everything under the sun, I simply can't subscribe to their simplistic notion that nudity is freedom or - at the very least - an effective protest tool. It's a gross misrepresentation of complex gender inequality issues to simply believe that you can strip down, stage highly theatrical protests, and use your breasts as a weapon.
"That's the goal of FEMEN, to get people's attention. We use methods that are extremely crude. Nowadays, to get a message across and break through the constant flow of information, we need to go hard." - Ukrainian-born, Northern-Quebec-raised Xenia Chernyshova talking to Vice.
The problem with getting people's attention by showing your breasts, is that no one gets past the boobs, Xenia.
As an outspoken feminist, I am keenly aware of what a daily struggle it is to explain to people why feminism is still required, why there are issues still unresolved, legislation that still interferes and limits our reproductive rights, biases we still need to overcome. It's a daily battle not to be perceived as nagging, whining, overindulgent, man-hating bra-burners without having a bunch of women flashing their boobs in protest to undo all that work and make all feminists look barking mad.
Flashing your breasts will never convince anyone of the legitimacy of feminism's demands. Flashing your breasts will never convince a politician to make any legislative changes.
It's a complete and utter failure as a protest tactic that has only served to make feminists look extreme and radically oblivious to reality. While they may aim to show that the naked female body is not a commodity for male consumption, but a political tool, they fail. No one ever remembers what they're protesting. All they remember are a bunch of bare-chested women being led off kicking and screaming while amused passersby whip out their iPhones to snap a few pictures.
A picture with a quick byline subsequently makes it into the local paper, which most people will curiously gawk at or scoff at, and no one ever remembers the reason of their protest. The message may be painted on their chest, but I can assure you, no one gets past the boobs. Because, whether we like it or not, the medium is still the message. The medium influences how the message is perceived and the content is often usurped by the method you choose to do it with.
It horrifies me that I am actually agreeing with Vladimir Putin on anything at all, but after the visibly delighted Russian president was accosted by bare-chested FEMEN protesters at a Hanover fair in 2013, he was quoted as saying: "If someone wants to debate political questions, then it's better to do it clothed rather than getting undressed."
I have to, sadly, agree.
When women struggle on a daily basis to be seen and judged as human beings with talent and merits, having semi-naked women prance around (unless your protest is specific to something requiring selective nudity) calling themselves "foot soldiers of feminism" is not helping us in the boardroom or on a news panel or in government.
There's an inherent paradox in protesting the exploitation of female nudity by using... female nudity. And as much as FEMEN claim that it is their way to turn the tables and force the media to pay attention to them, they seem to forget that, despite what they do, they are never the ones who ultimately control the narrative. The ones who dole out the news do. And mainstream media's agenda is simply not FEMEN's agenda.
Just look at Buzzfeed's treatment of FEMEN. Nothing but visuals of hot naked women and not a clue what they are protesting. So much for pushing through a message, ladies...
My gut (and my experience so far) tells me that lobbying and awareness campaigns that are forceful and compelling, yet don't alienate and divide, are much more instrumental in affecting meaningful change. Attracting attention isn't enough. You need a message that inspires change and respect. Not giggles.
Issues of male privilege, of female objectification, inequity in the workplace, rape culture, harassment in the community and misogyny in our world are very real problems. I would rather all feminists joined forces to denounce and fight against these problems without ostracizing a good chunk of the world's women and without rendering their important message useless and on deaf ears to those who will never get past their misguided methods.
Anna Hutsol has argued that beautiful women are used to sell cars and beers, so why not use them to sell a political message?
I'll tell you why, Anna. Because, just as female nudity in commercials and advertising and music videos infantilizes and treats women as superficial baubles to be ogled at and lusted after, there is nothing about that equation that changes, even when the instigator and the person in control is now the protester. You may call it radical feminism, but using female nudity to force/coerce/entice people (mostly men) to pay attention is just the same old shit that's always been done. Sorry, but there's nothing radical or ground-breaking about that.
The medium remains the message. The form with which you to choose to state your cause matters, because even if these women are brilliant and articulate, even if they have loads to say, no one will ever hear them say any of it.
All they will remember is a flash of a nipple or two, an angry tirade, and a cop yanking them away. It shortchanges the feminist movement and reduces it to its most elemental of visual slogans. One that most people will simply gawk at, laugh at, and easily dismiss.
How does one affect change like that?
For more of Toula's writing on feminism, you can go to www.headspacepress.com where this blog originally appeared.
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