Ukrainian led Femen propose new age for Feminism with British expansion by Janeeth Devgun
Controversial feminist group Femen have grabbed headlines once more in the past month with a radical topless demonstration in support of a campaign to allow women in Saudi Arabia to drive cars. Stripping off their clothes and chanting slogans outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Berlin, the ‘sextremists’, as the organisation likes to call their members, caused quite a disturbance in their efforts to show support and solitude for an earlier demonstration in the week by Saudi Arabian women who openly drove cars throughout the streets in protest of the ban.
This topless protest is becoming quite a regular feature of Femen’s tactics to combat patriarchy. On the official website, the organisation describes itself as ‘fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations – the sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and religion’. The organisation has protested at various events; the Nina Ricci Fashion show, St Peter’s Square and Quebec’s National Assembly, to name just a few. However, the trademark of the group is becoming not of their successful action plan to combat various issues regarding women’s rights, but rather their inability to protest with their clothes on, and without vivacious messages daubed across their body.
Is this attention grabbing and media savvy? Yes. It is effective in initiating government policy change? Unlikely. The organisation, which boasts that it aims to ‘break the patriarchal system with our breasts’ is slowly becoming recognised for being more of a joke than for political action. Their shock tactics are often seen as undermining what they are trying to achieve and ‘topless action’ has faced criticism from other feminist groups. It has however, brought campaigning for women’s rights to the front of media attention, but it is difficult to pinpoint whether this is because of their innovative nudist tactics or if they are succeeding in their goal of destroying the sexist view of women’s bodies.
For me, it is unfortunate that the message Femen are trying to put across gets lost in their vibrant media display as many of the results of their protests are quite heart-breaking. Influential member Shevchenko, having been consistently harassed by tourists for sex, joined the organisation to fight against objectifying the female body. However, there have been many reports of beatings and sexual harassment of Femen campaigners. In Belarus in 2011, the group stated that three Femen Activists were blindfolded, taken to a forest, doused with oil and made to strip. They were then threatened with being set on fire, and a knife was used to cut their hair. The right to protest is a natural feature of democracy, and no matter what tactics the organisation uses, surely they should not be treated in such revolting a manner.
Another big hit to public confidence in Femen has been the discovery that the organisation was masterminded by a man, Viktor Svyatski. The organisation maintains that although he was the founder of the organisation, he was not the creator of their topless strategy, but this has faced scepticism from many media outlets. Alongside this, it has not gone unnoticed that many Femen activists embody beauty norms more familiar in porn and pop stardom. They preach women’s independence, yet can be criticised for not being sensitive to the ‘modesty’ values of Muslim feminists. The majority of them are tall, blonde, slim and extremely good looking. I cannot help but feel that alongside excluding Muslim feminists, they also exclude other Feminists that are unlike them.
And now the ‘sextremist’ organisation is expanding to British soil, aiming to make it the 11th country with an active Femen base. Shevchenko has recently issued a statement saying ‘The streets of London will be occupied by our naked bodies painted with our political demands and our colourful flower crowns. Feminism is coming back on the street.’ Personally, I doubt that Femen will be as successful in Britain as it has been in other countries. British women are traditionally viewed as being reserved, and many I know are reluctant to go topless even on a sunbed – let alone in front of the Houses of Parliament. I agree that sometimes the most successful campaigns are the most radical, but when it can undermine the severity of the issue that you are standing for, I think maybe; it should be toned down a notch.