FEMEN have come under the scanner for their “outrageous” and unconventional tactics of exposing their torsos to send out messages that defy patriarchy. They have received MRA hate, feminist hate, and just general skepticism. They also have faithful supporters and enthusiastic admirers. They are militant, loud, brash, and angry. This has resulted in a lot of feminist divide. Some seem to think that their tactics will take away the attention from the actual message. Some say they’re redefining the manner in which feminist messages are being delivered and that’s a good thing. This article attempts to evaluate the validity of FEMEN’s modus operandi and the criticism they get.
That’s how many people mostly know them. There has been many a debate about whether their topless protest is an act of defying patriarchy or a submission to the patriarchal offshoot of objectification. Do FEMEN activists want to pander to misogynistic desires that facilitate an environment when women only get attention when they’re sexualized or naked? Let’s consider a few quotes from a key FEMEN activist, Inna Shevchenko:
“We are not trying to be beautiful or sexy. We use our nudity as a weapon, to irritate people. We’re taking off what’s on the outside to show we can’t stand it anymore on the inside. FEMEN gets naked for our freedom.”
Their nudity has irritated people, inarguably.
“A woman’s naked body has always been the instrument of the patriarchy. They use it in the sex industry, the fashion industry, advertising, always in men’s hands. We realised the key was to give the naked body back to its rightful owner, to women, and give a new interpretation of nudity… I’m proud of the fact that today naked women are not just posing on the cover of Playboy, but can be at an action, angry, and can irritate people.”
This quote is a well-put summation of how women have been made to feel about their bodies. To take the very same body that people objectified, vilified, toyed with, and sometimes destroyed, and use it against the oppressors. To use the body that patriarchy has deemed weak and fragile to fight and defend. That is FEMEN’s ideology.
Many feminists feel that they’re playing into the marketing gimmick of exposing bodies to get media attention by gathering in public spaces which is harmful to the feminist cause. FEMEN has categorically denied that they want to be beautiful or sexy. So it is clear that if some feminists believe that irrespective of their intention, playing into the patriarchal set-up is what they invariably end up doing, shouldn’t that be more cause for protest? This argument against FEMEN resonates heavily with the arguments against dressing “provocatively”. The idea that it is a woman’s responsibility to not “provoke men” in order to get their attention is inherently against the ideals of feminism. If the general public is paying attention to FEMEN only because of their toplessness, this is cause for more protest and not knuckling under pressure and retreating into more “demure” ways of activism.
One of the most potent arguments against FEMEN has been that they are infiltrating a culture that doesn’t belong to them and projecting their own ideals onto that culture. Specifically, the Islamic culture. However, FEMEN’s entry into the Islamic world was a result of a young teen from Tunisia – Amina Tyler, posting a topless photo of her on Facebook, with the words “Fuck your morals” and “My Body Belongs To Me, And Is Not The Source Of Anyone’s Honour.” painted on her torso. The result? She has now been admitted into a psychiatric ward and is sentenced to 80-100 lashes. She also claimed that she faced abuse at the hands of her own family, while she was confined within her house by her family. The Arab world has retaliated with the Muslimah Pride backlash.
FEMEN’s activities have been construed as intrusive White Feminism from the “West”, trying to thrust an imperialistic view within the ambits of Arab Feminism. They’ve been accused of suffering from a “saviour complex”. However, FEMEN’s protests within the Arab world have been a consequence of Amina Tyler’s oppression. Women such as Amina, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, and Maryam Namazie are part of FEMEN. They aren’t white, and they support the messages of FEMEN out of their own volition. The Muslimah Pride movement isn’t a movement that provides overwhelming support to Amina – A woman who chooses to not wear the veil. It is a movement that offers support to women who do choose to keep the hijab. However, in Islamic nations, the choice to wear a hijab or a burqa isn’t the criminalized choice. The Muslimah Pride movement would make sense in countries like France where the hijab is illegal. In predominantly Islamic countries where the choice to not wield a veil is met with severe punishment and sometimes death, we need feminism that supports that choice. If FEMEN is using their anarchist tactics to stage a “topless Jihad” in support of a woman who went topless, they’re being allies. Not infiltrators. They haven’t forced Muslim women to tear their clothes off. They have been earnest about exercising that choice. They have been vocal about calling out to Muslim women to go bare-breasted, but never have they forced women into a choice they don’t want to make.
However, they have made some glaringly stupid mistakes, which justify the claims of racism against them. For instance, their protest in front of an Ahmadiyya mosque was in poor taste. Ahmadiyya Muslims have been oppressed by other Muslims, and the rest of the society for a long time. Getting a mosque to themselves is a hard-earned right for this community. Staging a protest by taking away a safe space belonging to an already oppressed community was a move unbecoming of a supposedly feminist group like FEMEN. Even Amina has expressed concern over the actions of her colleagues by terming their chosen tactic “extremist”.
Another criticism people make is that the group is mostly made up of conventionally attractive, skinny, white women. However, there are members/supporters of the FEMEN group who are Arabs, as evidenced by this, this, this, this, this, and this. If they haven’t been getting enough media attention, that’s because the media has been historically bad at representing women in an intersectional manner. Pinning that flaw on FEMEN does not help the feminist cause. People claim that these women aren’t a majority or that they aren’t representative of Arab struggles. However, this is a fallacy that assumes that the Arab struggle is a monochromatic construct, outlined by strictly defined types or kinds of oppression. Amina’s choice may not be shared by many people in the Arab world, but it is shared by some of them. They may not be the majority but that doesn’t make their choice less valid or less representative of Arab women’s struggles.
A valid criticism of certain facets of a religion does not indicate an intrinsic prejudice towards those who practice that faith. In the face of certain comments that brand FEMEN as “Islamophobes”, this is a statement worth remembering. FEMEN’s criticism of religion extends beyond Islam. Their protests against the Pope, and their destruction of an Orthodox cross in Kiev are examples of their anti-Christian inclinations. Some argue that this isn’t the same as “making a caricature out of” and “stereotyping” Muslims, but FEMEN’s attacks on a particular aspect of a religion affect the nature of their protest. Their attack on the church featured such caricatures and stereotypes as well. Illustrating the fact that they don’t enforce nakedness/toplessness but merely want it as a choice for women is their welcoming of the solidarity shown to them by a nun. Here’s another link, just in case that one isn’t convincing enough. Their tone is largely patronizing and condescending. They do believe that all women who practice religion have been deluded into thinking that they’re truly free. However, this ideology also extends beyond just Islam.
A unit of a few thousand people from Ukraine and other parts of the world doesn’t constitute an imperialistic superstructure. They are not a hegemony and their actions cannot therefore be hegemonic.
Pornography and Prostitution
FEMEN is decidedly anti-pornography and anti-prostitution. Their disenchantment with the sex industry in Ukraine stems from illicit sex trade and exploitation of girls and women. Some feminists argue that banning pornography or prostitution would disempower many women and strip them off their livelihoods. The dilemma of legalizing prostitution has perennially been a subject of feminist debate. FEMEN’s activities are only a part of a much larger subject, upon which there is already a lot of literature and discussion. While it is true that many women are coerced into the trade, there are women who are legitimately into the business and use it to support themselves. The Krasnals – a Polish sex worker group has staged its own topless protest as an affront to FEMEN’s Euro 2012 protest to curb sex trade. While The Krasnals appears to be an anti-feminist group, their concerns are still indubitably genuine. Maybe FEMEN’s heart is in the right place but a call to end an industry while leaving many young women hanging, rather than attempting to lawfully regulate it and protecting the women from oppressors is troubling and dangerous. Not all women within the sex industry are “slaves” as FEMEN chooses to describe them. FEMEN needs a more intellectual, less alienating stance on this issue. Sex workers need feminism that liberates them – not patronising attitudes that put them out of their jobs.
Method in the Madness?
Ideological differences aside, there is still the question of whether FEMEN’s “sextremism” is the best way to convey feminist messages. Their toplessness has already been addressed within this article but there are other issues such as vandalism. Their protests have been widely regarded as reactionary and unproductive. Is rude, unapologetic loudness really the best way to convince people of the need for pro-choice abortion legality, sex/gender neutral laws, and LGBT rights? This is a tricky question to answer. There are movements that exist parallely that don’t employ FEMEN’s tactics. They’ve had some success rate. So has FEMEN. The fact of the matter is that there have been some women, irrespective of how far or few, who have been empowered/liberated by FEMEN… which is the same you can say for most activist movements. FEMEN has alienated people, but then again, so have other movements. FEMEN has been the voice for some Muslim women like Amina who need the support they’re getting. Movements like Muslimah Pride are far from providing that support. So, at least to some extent, one can argue that there is some merit that FEMEN deserves. Maybe there needs to be “sextremist” activism along with other kinds. However, they need to re-think some of their tactics. If their aim is to liberate women and empower them, they need to not make their own members like Amina uncomfortable with their methods. They should also ensure that they put more thought into their protests. Expressing anger and despondency over religion is all very well but using an already ignored Ahmadiyya community’s mosque as their focus spot is beyond wrong.
FEMEN deserves a lot of criticism that they’re getting on the grounds of their tactics, but what we shouldn’t be seeing is a feminist divide about their toplessness, of all things. By doing this, feminists are supporting the idea that somehow a woman’s body is inherently more sexualized than a man’s.
This movement needs to support women by not berating and alienating people who have already taken a beating because of their oppressed status. They mostly protest things that need protesting. However, “good intentions” don’t matter if actions don’t reflect them. Once in a while, FEMEN will come up with great quotes that will make good sense, but then they will go on and do something that gets a big F in intersectionality. If only they could own up to their wrongdoings and try and align with women who stage their own protests for different needs (such as Muslimah Pride), feminism will be better off for it.[
[Note: The author wishes to thank Tim de Visser for his valuable criticisms on FEMEN and this article. She also thanks LoEF for their encouragement. You know who you are.]