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When a young woman bares her breasts in public to protest something—a breast-feed ban, cruelty to animals, spousal abuse—people get really angry. Some find it distasteful, others think it's sexually exploitative, and others are just against the idea of protesting in general. But the obvious trick is that everyone talks about it, so the protest works, and so the cycle continues. Ukrainian feminist activist group Femen made it their signature move back in 2008. The manifesto that opens their new self-titled book specifies: "Femen is an international movement of bold, topless activists whose bodies are covered with slogans and whose heads are crowned with flowers."
So now that they've got your attention, what does Femen stand for? In the manifesto, they claim an objective of "total victory over patriarchy." This "sextremism" became the most obvious way to draw attention to their cause in the highly macho Ukraine—a location suffering very publicly from a panoply of problems—and to take a stand against Russian President Vladimir Putin's increasingly aggressive stance against the nation.
Femen is a collaboration among the four founding members of the group and journalist Galia Ackerman. It opens with a meet-the-Beatles introduction to each of the four members (with chapter titles like "Anna, the Instigator" and "Sasha, the Shy One") and continues with an account of Femen's major actions, in roughly chronological order. Femen's prose is inartful at best; it's unclear if this is due to Ackerman stitching the book together from interviews, Andrew Brown's English translation, or some combination of the two. But activist prose is seldom stylish, and Ackerman successfully transmits the women's passion to the page.
For young people considering a life of activism, Femen is required reading. It does not gloss over the group's failures. The women discuss their multiple imprisonments and their jealousy of Russian feminist activists Pussy Riot, who began as contemporaries but eclipsed Femen when they were arrested after their infamous church actions. While Femen dedicated an action wherein they cut down a large cross with a chain saw to Pussy Riot after their arrests, they chastise Pussy Riot in the book for not adhering to what they believe to be the absolutely essential activist tenet of atheism:
We must admit that the behavior of Pussy Riot at their trial disappointed us. We devoted our action to them because we believed they were on the same wave length as us... Pussy Riot stated at their trial that they were believers and attended church and prayed. This is ridiculous! Their attempts to justify themselves destroyed the deep sense of their protest. People must have the courage to take their struggle to the bitter end. The revolution is always made by young people, carefree and fearless. Otherwise, it's not worth sharing.
Easy to say when you're not at the center of an international incident and looking at a seven-year prison sentence, but maybe not the most politic response. But then "politic" is a description that Femen rejects by design. American feminists will almost certainly agree with Femen's actions on behalf of net neutrality and against the underrepresentation of women in the Ukrainian government, but many will balk at Femen's outright rejection of prostitution as antifeminist, or their self-description as libertarians. (Though there's never a good excuse for libertarianism, there is a cultural defense for Femen's radical prostitution stance: Ukraine has become a major sex-tourism destination in the style of Thailand, making it harder to argue that women have the agency to make an informed decision to become sex workers.) And others will find their characterization of the entirety of Islam as being in favor of the subjugation of women to be xenophobic at best and bigoted at worst; Femen describes Islam as being "incompatible with European values," which feels like queasy-making coded language.
That's the thing with activism, though: If you're out on the edges of politics agitating for change, even your compatriots are going to get offended now and then. Femen does not include the most up-to-date news of Ukraine—it ends before Putin's recent invasion, for instance, and so there's no account of the rough treatment Femen members recently suffered at the hands of pro-Russian forces—but it does bring the complexities of the region to life. If you're going to learn about a politically volatile part of the world, it's better to see it through the wide-open eyes of the people who love it enough to sacrifice their freedoms on its behalf.