Femen: How Ukraine Does Feminist Protesting

The relationship between feminists and our bodies is a complicated one. Where as our general goal is to have ownership of and the ability to make choices about our bodies, we're stuck in a society that wants to take that control away. We're bombarded with images of exploited bodies every day. We're told what our bodies should look like (the anatomically ridiculous stick with giant balloons attached to our chests) and what we should do with them (be sexually available but, for the love of God, not slutty. But not prudish either).

The feminist body conundrum is perfectly exemplified by the Ukranian organization "Femen." Essentially, Femen is a feminist group of about 300 women who believe the best way to spread their aversion to things like sex tourism and the lack of women in Ukrainian politics is by loudly protesting in the streets. Oh, I should probably mention that they do this topless.

Anna Gustol, the group's 26-year-old leader, stated, "We thought we'd create an organization where young girls could come and help others like them and help society. And the format we picked was this extremely sexy, bright way of presenting ourselves."

When a friend of mine emailed me this article about Femen with the subject line, "LOOK, FEMINISM!" I can easily say the contents of the news story were not exactly what I expected. My first thought about Femen (right after "Holy Moses isn't it really cold in Ukraine? Shouldn't they be wearing long underwear and parkas?) was that though noble in their attempts to raise awareness about causes like sex tourism and human trafficking, wasn't Femen playing into society's traditional mode of objectifying women? Why did they have to use their bodies to get attention rather than their brains? It just seemed so cheap - I mean undressing in order to get media attention? While, clearly, their ploy has been effective on the surface, are we paying attention to the cause they're promoting, or are we just paying attention to the crazy topless girls in the streets of Ukraine?

But, on the other hand, so much of what has caused this group backlash seems to be linked to our weird relationship with women's bodies. Whereas (as of 2003) porn is a $57 billion global industry the bottom line is we're freaking terrified of these women undressing on the streets in order to raise awareness about a serious cause. Ukranian authorities were so scared, in fact, that they began arresting these girls. As Gustol put it, "What we do is we get Ukrainian and international coverage and it shows that the authorities are scared of seeing bare breasts. And the fact that they are trying to arrest us and not let us undress now proves it."

Seriously, though, if men took off their shirts and wrote words of protest on their chests, would anyone give a shit? No - they'd probably just admire them for their dedication to the cause. While bodies are a point of contention for feminists and a central part of our battles, in the end, they're just bodies. They're just boobs. Half the world has them. Why are we still so shocked and offended by them?

And if organizations like the porn industry can use our bare bodies to further their capitalist cause, shouldn't Ukranian women be able to use their bodies to raise awareness about causes that are actually meaningful? And couldn't that also be a powerful experience of reclaiming our bodies (think Kathleen Hanna writing "slut" on her stomach as a way to reclaim the derogatory term...to the tenth power).

I honestly see both sides of the argument on this one. For me, it just comes down to the fact that I appreciate these young, outspoken women who are so passionate about feminism they're willing to literally bare all. I think that passion is something to look up to. As Gustol (I really like her...) said, "I don't have advice for women from other cultures about how they should protest but one thing I know for sure is that they should raise their voices."

More articles in WMC FBomb by Category: Body image and body standards, Feminism, International, Media
More articles in WMC FBomb by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Gender bias, Discrimination, Pornography, Reproductive rights, Sexism, Europe and Central Asia, News



Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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