The radical feminist street-theater protest group Femen has come under fire from all political sides, including some unexpected voices from the Left.
Femen is famous for its topless protests in Europe against sex trafficking, homophobia, right-wing politicians, Roman Catholic teachings about sexuality, and the Muslim laws and customs dictating women’s behavior and clothing.
Femen member Inna Shevchenko fled Ukraine last year after cutting down a wooden cross in central Kiev, which commemorated the victims of the Famine-Genocide in Ukraine of 1932-33, with a chainsaw to protest the conviction of three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” She has recently been given political asylum in France.
Femen protests, which began in 2008 (the topless part began in 2009 on Ukrainian independence day) are announced ahead of time to the media and attract a substantial amount of attention, probably more for their bare breasts than the slogans (reminiscent of early 1990’s Riot Grrrls) written on them or the Amazonian flower garlands on their heads. Their in-your-face tactics are in the tradition of surrealism, punk, and the Guerrilla Girls.
Femen’s performance-like protests have gone way beyond the old cliché about feminist bra burning. For example, in 2010 they protested the egregious sexual harassment of women on the street and on public transportation (“the rush hour perverts that like to trespass up our skirts and undo their pants”) by protesting in the Kiev metro, holding signs that said, “I Will Rip Your Balls Off.” In December 2012 Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy stood outside the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm naked except for black stockings and red shoes – in the snow – with the slogan “Sharia is not a constitution” written on her torso. This year they protested at the Grand Mosque of Paris, chanting “Our Boobs Are Stronger Than Their Stones” and got away before security guards could restrain them. Vladimir Putin, however, liked what he saw when a group of Femen protesters rushed him and Angela Merkel in Germany this April and regretted that his security guards hadn’t been gentler with the women when they tackled them. International Topless Jihad Day began this year in support of a young Tunisian woman, Amina Tyler, who posted two topless photos of herself (Smoking! Wearing lipstick!) on the Internet with the words “Fuck your morals” and “My body is mine, not somebody’s honor!” written across her chest.
A group of young conservative French women have started their own group in response to Femen, Les Antigones. (Doesn’t Antigone die at the end of the Sophocles’ play of the same name?) Based on their officially released video statement and their publicity photos, the Antigones are comprised entirely of young white women who are dressed in modest white dresses, looking as demure as Big Ten college sorority girls at their freshman initiation ceremony. They don’t identify as feminists and object to the shock tactics of Femen as much as their message.
The Antigones describe themselves as, “Daughters of our fathers, wives of our husbands, mothers of our sons, we do not reject men. Instead, we are persuaded that it is with them, in complementarity, that we will build our future.”
After failing to engage the Femen leaders in a dialogue at a protest in Paris this year, the Antigones united to film an official message challenging Femen’s values. One of the Antigones apparently infiltrated Femen as a potential member for seven weeks. At the end of their message to Femen she calls for the arrest and deportation of leaders Oksana Shachko and Inna Shevchenko back to Ukraine.
Traditionalist men are breathing a very loud sigh of relief at the Antigones and celebrating their beauty, femininity, traditional values, classiness, and are hailing them as “real” French women.
One would expect to hear criticism of Femen from, say, Rush Limbaugh, even though the body types and BMI’s of the Femen protesters murder his credo that “feminazis” are ugly, hideous monsters: (“Truth of Life Number 24: Feminism was established so that unattractive women could have easier access to the mainstream.”) But on the other end of the political spectrum are leftist critics of Femen, 1960’s and 1970’s feminist icon Germaine Greer among them. She wrote “Is this feminism?” for Australia’s News:
As a revolutionary movement, Femen is fledgling. Its manifestations, though photogenic, are tiny.
If it could drive out sex tourism and the mail-order bride business, and protect women at risk of honour killing and infanticide, it will have accomplished much, but its attack is aimed as much at religion of any kind.
It belongs to the old order of radical feminism that sought to abolish marriage and patriarchy.
Its leaders tell us classical feminism is dead, but what’s happened is deeply conservative equality feminism has usurped its position. Daring as the young women in the flower garlands are, they don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Though Femen claims 150,000 members, most are virtual. If ever a mass demonstration were needed, most of them wouldn’t show. Virtual isn’t real; breasts aren’t bombs…
For nudity to be a guerilla tactic, it has to go further. The women of Femen are, first of all, young; but they’re also slim.
They may be all colours of the rainbow but they’re not fat, or even plump, or even well-covered.
The breasts they make so much of tend to be small and neat. Not a stretch mark to be seen. Femen offers a very marketable version of contemporary femaleness.
Meghan Murphy wrote on Rabble:
Contrary to popular belief, I am not opposed to boobs. Rather, I am opposed to women’s bodies constantly being objectified and sexualized. I am also opposed to the fact that nobody gives a shit about women or feminism unless women and feminism look like a beer commercial or a burlesque show.
Though Shevchenko claimed that Femen’s topless protests are about taking back power over their own bodies, she contradicts her point by saying that which is true — when it comes to women the focus is almost always on the body.
Many progressive Muslim women are offended by the fact that non-Muslim Femen members are insulting their religion and condescendingly offering to save them. When Femen members wore burqas at a protest in Paris (urging Muslim women to “get naked with me!”) and also burned a salafist flag (containing Muslim professions of faith), they succeeded in alienating many of the Muslim women they want to help. These Femen critics – Muslim Women Against Femen and Muslimah Pride – photographed themselves in their headscarves holding their own signs: “I am already free,” “Freedom of choice,” “Nudity DOES NOT liberate me and I DO NOT need saving,” and “There is more than one way to be free.”
Sara M. Salem wrote in Al-Akhbar:
Feminism has the potential to be greatly emancipatory by adopting an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic and anti-Islamophobic rhetoric, instead of often actively being racist, homophobic, transphobic and Islamophobic. By clearly delineating the boundaries of what is “good” and “bad” feminism, Femen is using colonial feminist rhetoric that defines Arab women as oppressed by culture and religion, while no mention is made of capitalism, racism, or global imperialism. It is actively promoting the idea that Muslim women are suffering from “false consciousness” because they cannot see (while Femen can see) that the veil and religion are intrinsically harmful to all women.
Yasmin AmatUllah (@YasminBSikdar) posted an open letter to Femen on Twitter on April 6th:
Accusing women of being oppressed is not only patronising and belittling but a form of control also. Funny how my so called feelings are forever being dictated to me, funny how I’m told that I’m oppressed when I’ve never uttered this, funny how I’m harassed for the way I dress – yet in this clothing I feel free from social pressures and most liberated.
Women in Islam don’t need western ‘freedom’ where you force her to strip away her dignity, limit her to flesh, undermine her ability to use her mind – in order to exploit her and then call it (her) freedom of choice, when you’ve dictated this to her. This is real oppression.
It isn’t likely that Femena is going to drop its nudity or its hostile attitude toward Islam any time soon. In fact, Shevchenko’s response to criticism from Muslim women in The Huffington Post UK was dismissive:
And you can put as many scarves as you want if you are free tomorrow to take it off and to put it back the next day but don’t deny millions of your sisters who have fear behind their scarves, don’t deny that there are million of your sisters who have been raped and killed because they are not following the wish of Allah! We are here to scream about that.
The Antigones’ message to Femen, below: