Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Contrarian

Commentary: The Femen Effect On Feminism

Femen activists demonstrate in front of the headquarters of the International Ice Hockey Federation in Zurich in February. They were trying to draw attention to the political situation in Belarus ahead of that country's hosting of the Hockey World Cup in 2014.
Femen activists demonstrate in front of the headquarters of the International Ice Hockey Federation in Zurich in February. They were trying to draw attention to the political situation in Belarus ahead of that country's hosting of the Hockey World Cup in 2014.
By Joanna Rohozinska-Michalska
When the activist group Femen burst onto the Ukrainian protest scene in 2008, holding mud-wrestling matches on Kyiv's central Independence Square to protest the country’s notoriously dirty politics, I was hopeful the stunts could succeed in kick-starting a serious discussion about sexism and gender inequality, problems that continue to plague the states of the former Soviet Union.

Four years and a new office in Paris later, the group, which professes to use “sextremism” to fight against patriarchy as manifested by dictatorship, the church, and the sex industry, more closely resembles a girlie show. More flash than substance.

Femen has raised eyebrows -- and certainly provoked salacious grins -- with its topless antics, which have made it the most visible advocacy group on women’s issues. Now that Femen has successfully roped in the international media with its stunts, it's worth examining what exactly the “founder of a new wave of feminism of the third millennium” is advocating or contributing to contemporary feminist discourse.

Ultimately, a message is only effective if it is clearly conveyed. Though it would seem that there couldn’t be a clearer message than one written on nubile, bare flesh, a closer look reveals that what Femen is actually proposing remains obscured.

In an interview with, Femen activist Oleksandra Shevchenko stated that the organization’s goal is a "female revolution” but was sketchier on what that actually entails. The group’s website offers little beyond somewhat garbled slogans and repeated references to “hot boobs.” A survey of their protests fails to provide much insight into what the concrete goals are or what the contribution to feminism may be.

In sum, there is little evidence of any of Femen's protests having significant impact, either in terms of early local campaigns concerning, for example, protests against the tradition in Ukraine of turning off hot water in rotating districts of a city, let alone larger issues such as the international sex trade.

'Pop' Feminism

Radical feminism has clearly changed since the first calls for women’s emancipation through suffrage were voiced in the first half of the 19th century. Suffragettes were prepared to go to great lengths for the sake of gaining basic human rights. As cigarette ads affirmed in the late 1960s, "You’ve come a long way, baby."

Twentieth-century feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem pushed the issue of reproductive rights and entered the arena of LGBT rights, both of which remain contentious in a number of Western countries. In the Eastern Bloc, communism was supposed to be the great social -- and gender -- leveler. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. Now, domestic violence and trafficking of women persist as serious social problems in many post-Soviet republics.

There are numerous international programs that address a variety of gender issues in all corners of the world, from La Strada International’s work on human trafficking in Eastern and Southern Europe to the White Ribbon Alliance For Safe Motherhood, which works to prevent deaths during childbirth. All of these programs vie for public attention and funding. Yet “pop” feminism, at least in the developed West, seems to be dominated by other concerns.

Some groups, including Femen, have been making the argument that the deobjectivization of women can be achieved through in-your-face tactics such as public nudity and overt sexualization. In 2011, a wave of “SlutWalks” rolled through several North American and European cities. Launched in Toronto, women tired of “being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result” encouraged other women to parade in various states of undress, ostensibly to manifest their sexual emancipation.

Warped Logic

This trend could also be a sign of the times.

Desensitization to pornography in Western culture, or at minimum its greater acceptability, has led to a bit of warped logic that suggests that pole dancing can, in fact, be empowering -- something I doubt even Aleksandra Kollontai would agree with. According to a recent piece in “The Atlantic,” pop singer Kesha “might be just what some of the 20th century's most famous feminist thinkers had in mind.”

Perhaps the fault lies with feminists past who failed to make clear that gender equality and ownership of sexuality and reproductive resources, while certainly important elements of emancipation, are not the sum of a human being.

Admirably, Femen has come out strongly against dictatorship, increasingly a genuine issue of concern in Eastern Europe. The group held -- or attempted to hold -- protests in Belarus and Russia. These ended badly for the activists, as they discovered that security forces in authoritarian countries are less polite and not quite as frightened of female breasts as their democratic counterparts.

While not quite on par with its neighbors, Ukraine has been heading down a slippery slope toward authoritarianism since the 2010 presidential election. Though the group reports increased interest from the SBU (Ukraine’s Security Service), it continues to function without incident.

With so many issues to tackle closer to home, Femen’s decision to export what it calls its “radical feminism” strikes me as disingenuous at best and, frankly, somewhat cowardly.

Joanna Rohozinska is senior program officer for Europe and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy. She has worked in the area of civil-society development for more than 12 years throughout Central and Eastern Europe. She completed her graduate studies in history at the University of Toronto, focusing on 19th-century Russian and Soviet history. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL
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Comment Sorting
by: Bertrand from: London
November 28, 2012 13:16
The idiom "pop-feminism" seems poignantly relevant : as for a few other manifestations of political activism (often around the ever widening space of identity politics) it seems that "the medium is the message" - as if the ideology pertaining their protest was self-evident enough they did not need expressing it. Instead, the focus is put on the strategies and the symbolic.
Where I take issue with their "cultural terrorism" is that whereas situationists or even Voina found in this post-relational aesthetics enough room to innovate, Femen seems only able to re-hash long exhausted themes (sex and anti-clericalism) blurring further the line between the counter-culture they claim to embody, and the sell-out pop-culture they pretend to attack.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
December 03, 2012 10:53
Close door - devil jump into window,
Close window - devil jump into Chimney.
Stop Russia in Gori - it jump into Bidzinou,
Stop Russia by Yushenko - it will burn his face
And install Vakula. What if nations still don't bow?

Russia forge many faces, including "pop-feminizm",
Please the West, blessed by London and Bertrand,
RFE article, pseudo-specialists on political scizm,
And usual Russian liers - to cut down symbolism,
Golodomor of ethnic Ukrainians by "Ratenfaband".

As for most of CIS women - they are "Amasons",
They don't likie perversions - but order of Russia
For some of them to play "Kosmodemyanskaya",
Expand Russian Empire, with battle-axes "zvon",
And "Westernized" vulgarities displayed in public.

by: Sey from: World
November 28, 2012 16:26
The only positive feminism in history is the one where women demanded their right to vote and become citizens instead of mere objects, the property of their husbands...and that happened way back in the early 20th century.

Everything since that point has been a senseless ideology encouraging women to become prostitutes. It seems in the minds of these people being proud about your incredible promiscuous tendencies, having no self-respect at all (I mean, participating in a "Sl*tWalk"...please!), and getting naked at any given opportunity is what every woman on this planet should do to become a free woman. I guess prostitutes who have no sexual inhibitions at all should be the more liberated, free women in the universe...right?

And the ridiculously worst part is they say this will eventually led to the "deobjectivization" of women as sexual objects. Of course, like legalizing drugs would eventually led to a decrease in consumption...right?

by: Sophie from: New York
November 28, 2012 20:56
Here's an interview I did a few years ago with two FEMEN leaders, with a more in-depth discussion of their ideology. (The English translation follows the Russian.) The site also has interviews with other women's rights leaders from Ukraine and Russia.
In Response

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
November 29, 2012 03:56
What does a woman want?..not only pineapples and you know-Girl's best friends are diamonds...
And of course the prince on a white horse or at least on a Bentley or Maserati..Unfortunately, in real life, handsome princes with the money,do not have enough on all the girls.. So poor girls have to sleep with Quasimodo and Shrek (recent example- Serdyukov-Vasilyeva)..a la "Beauty and the Beast" with not very good end....

"...Sophie Pinkham: Please tell me your names, ages, and where you work.
My name is Anna Hutsol. I’m 25. I work in show business and in FEMEN.
SP: In show business? What do you do there?
AH: I organize concerts. Now not so much, because there aren’t many concerts...."

As we see feminism not her position in life, but only a tool for public relations and the opportunity to catch some fool with money..all thoughts female about it..
poor men of blue-collar occupations and chances..just save up money and buy a rubber woman..

Another story, why Sophia knowing all this and also dreaming of a prince, does not give its conclusion that all women want money, diamonds and sponsors
You think one thing, say another..Yes, Sophia?
Is this not hypocrisy?
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
November 29, 2012 16:33
AAh,what every woman want is a Vakhtang,just as every Eugenio dreams of a Jack,but since here are so many women and Vahe is One and Only there`s bound to be some frustrations on the run.So,what do we have to do???? Cut vahe in millions of pieces and give each and every woman a piece of happiness??? Naaah,you bloody fools-the solution is quite simple-just clone the georgian from Mosscow to please all these craving gals!!!

by: Lucian from: Malta
November 29, 2012 11:36
If Femen stuck to making problems in Russia, this article would have never been written.

Same goes for Pussy Riot. If they starting making problems in the West a stream of moralizing articles would be written by journalists and pundits with ties to western security services.

by: Victor from: USA
November 29, 2012 16:23

The author seems both excesivelly and insufficiently appreciative of Westernization.

The reason Femen and the Pussy Riot get attention in the West is because the West has come to appreciate how even radical expression contributes to the freedom of speech´s needed liveliness.

Eastern Europe is certainly nowhere near this level of understanding of the concepts of freedom of speech, conscience and artistic expression, the fact is it has actually been for the most part backtracking after the relatively brief opening that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

In essence the West has come to understand that freedom of speech is mostly about tolerating the open discussion not so much of acceptable ideas (we wouldn´t need the freedom for that), but also the least popular ones.

When politics meets aestethics in a radical context stereotypes can be questioned by going to the roots of people´s motivation.

If people have any doubt that discrimination against women is all about sex (as in sexuality as much, if not even more than as in gender), then one need only read the other comments regarding this article.

The fact that Femen is getting traction even outside of Eastern Europe proves that the debate over women´s right to their sexuality is not over, even in the West. It will never be completely over. In some parts of the world it is even starting now (Arab Spring).

Does the author think that the fight to protect the right to abortion and LGBT rights is somehow outdated? In Eastern Europe of all? Churches from Poland to the Baltic going all the way to Moldova and Russia are doing everything they can to fill the political vacuum created. And there are very few actually liberal parties.

The author should be proud that it is women in Eastern Europe who are leading a new way of fighting these autocratic regimes. She should be specially proud of the fact that these women have the guts to go against such a powerful institution as the church, something that even women in the West were careful about doing.

If Femen and Pussy Riot used outdated protest techniques they wouldn´t be getting such a following. In their countries they are way ahead of the curve. In our countries we see their renovation of causes and methods rightly as cause to celebrate.

How can anyone criticize any activist for trying to get media attention for their cause? That doesn´t even begin to make sense no matter how you put it. Politics, ideology, art, freedom of expression in general are all about the media. That´s why freedom of expression and the media are almost treated as one and the same.

This article is a disgrace and the author should be ashamed to use the word cowardice. The thing that gives these women the greatest credence is their bravery in "exposing" themselves in ways that would lead to certain arrest.

Instead of envying the exposure, she of all people should be supportive or at least not cursory critical.

by: Zory from: Geneva
November 30, 2012 13:30
Thank you for the article. It is the first rational attempt at looking at FEMEN and its lack of ideology - critical but not judgmental. It is a pity that Ukraine with it's diversity of gender inequality expressions comes in the spotlight with the group that does not even seem to be aware of feminism, its ideas or history. I doubt that their protest inspired any women to gender equality activism or explained the public what it is all about and why it is important. Just another show that might have done more harm than good, shunning men and women from healthy debates on gender issues.

by: DCM from: Texas
December 02, 2012 11:36
Femen's protests are clearly based on the belief of most women and perhaps all feminists that men are slaves of sex and are easily controlled through bare flesh. Adult men will watch and go about their lives unchanged, though they will encourage the girls to put on another show.
I'm surprised this belief persists among feminists.