Vikki Lang is an MJur student at Durham Law School.
They call themselves the ‘naked soldiers of feminism.’ They are the women that ran down the runway in Paris fashion week, shouted ‘Fuck Democracy’ to Putin, interrupted Pope Benedict’s Sunday mass with ‘homophobe Shut up’, and organised world-wide ‘topless hijab protests.’ They are Femen; the bare-breasted self-dubbed ‘sextremists’, and they are coming to the UK.
In a recent interview with the Huffington post, lead campaigner Inna Shevchenko summarises the cause of Femen; ‘our main enemy is patriarchy and its three manifestations – dictatorship, religion and the sex industry.’ Their main methods in fighting patriarchy? Their breasts. Their protests are often dangerous and can be violent, their tactics are extreme and shocking, often resulting in the women being forcibly removed, arrested, and even allegedly kidnapped. It is not surprising that debate surrounding this Ukrainian-born group is high. It has once again ignited after their announcement to set up a Femen branch in the UK, with the leader Inna Shevchenko vowing that ‘the streets of London will be occupied by our naked bodies painted with our political demands.’
They certainly get people talking. As a group of topless beautiful women, they are frequently on front covers of newspapers, tabloids, online blogs and social media sites; their radical protests are difficult to avoid. But is this the sort of publicity feminism in the UK needs? Is there a place for radical feminist protest in the UK or, more specifically, is there a place for protest using the female body?
At home in the Ukraine the social context that gave birth to Femen was entirely different. Five years ago, the majority of Ukrainian women didn’t know what ‘feminism’ was; the Femen headlines placed feminism into the public realm and people began to talk. Yet, in the UK, feminism is difficult to avoid. It is taught in our Universities; it informs policy change, is written about in our newspapers and fills our social media sites. By no means is feminism in the UK universal or even supported by the majority, but awareness is certainly high. Recent activism such as the No More Page Three campaign and Everyday Sexism has garnered tens of thousands of supporters and are still growing. Although there is a significant way to go, there has been undeniable feminist legal and policy influence in areas of women concern such as Sexual Offences law reform, prostitution and pornography. In our society where feminist influence is increasing and gaining credibility, do we still need shock tactics? Do we need women to bare their breasts to gain publicity or will it simply push back feminist gains or even lose supporters?
Femen argue that using breasts for protest turns the tables on male control over women’s sexualised bodies, that this self-empowerment serves to reverse patriarchal control and place bodily autonomy back in the hands of the woman. In this sense, the underpinning frustrations behind Femen’s methods make sense. It is perhaps the most agreed feminist concern that women’s bodies are sexualised within society and the media; that will not be debated here. Yet the idea of using breasts as a vehicle to combat this sexualisation remains dubious. Can breasts be used as an instrument against patriarchal control or, does equating feminist protest to breasts serve to further entrench this reduction of women to their bodies? For Shevchenko, women using breasts as protest symbolises self-empowerment; taking women’s bodies away from male control and placing them firmly within the power of the woman. Yet this alleged defiance of female sexualisation seems debatable when placed within the context of the media – yes Femen get coverage, but is it the right coverage or do these tactics take attention from their actual message?
Another question is raised when it comes to Femen – exactly which women are they protecting? They have been accused of essentialism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. They have been widely criticised by feminists and non-feminists for allegedly imposing their own Western ideals and expectations onto a culture or group that is not their own. They have protested in front of an Ahmadiyya mosque and organised a ‘topless Jihad Day’ which they dubbed a ‘new Arab Spring,’ leading many people to question how these protests help women’s position in Islam. The UK group, Muslim Women Against Femen state, ‘muslin women and women of colour can come with their own autonomy… Take aim at male supremacy, not Islam.’
The reduction of Islam to something intrinsically oppressive is problematic for many and has received extensive criticism. This criticism has not been limited to Femen’s stance on religion. Similarly, Femen’s characterisation of pornography and the sex industry as innately oppressive and violent can be viewed as just as essentialising. As a part of a much wider feminist debate over the sex and pornography industry it can be argued that although some women are coerced into the industries, other women can exercise choice and legitimately enter into the business to support themselves. Are all women in the sex industry ‘slaves’ as Femen choose to describe them? There is a failure to not only take into consideration the nuances and social context of individual women involved in these issues, but also, a bigger failure by shying away from intellectual debate and explanation.
There is a darker side to Femen that has recently gained much media attention and lost a number of supporters: the recent revelation that Femen was founded and is controlled by a man. The film documentary ‘Ukraine is not a brothel,’ screened at the Venice Film festival earlier this year, saw director Kitty Green follow Femen and become a part of the organisation. It ‘outed’ Victor Syvatski, a Ukrainian male, as the mastermind behind the group. Ms Green reveals, ‘it’s his movement and he hand-picked the girls. He hand-picked the prettiest girls because the prettiest girls sell more papers.. that became their image, that became the way they sold the brand.’ He, she explains, ‘is Femen,’ he sends the girls into the most dangerous protests, commands the ‘leader’ Inna Shevchenko, and ‘teaches’ then how to become political activists. So Femen, the anti-patriarchy and self-empowering women’s group, is governed controlled by a domineering, dictatorial male.
The potential role of Femen in the UK is ambiguous to say the least. We must ask to what extent the UK needs this form of radical protest and essentialising rhetoric. Their ability to place feminism on the front pages is not disputed- but the potential for furthering the feminist agenda in the UK is far more ambiguous. Sadly, in our 21st century boobs still make news – but is it the right kind of news feminism needs?