During a camp that had been organised by us, we met two people who were out on a walk. They wanted to know what kind of event it was. When we told them that it was a »feminist camp» the elderly man* immediately knew what we were talking about »Oh, you are those who get undressed all the time?«
When it seems that Femen start to surpass Alice Schwarzer as personification of »the« feminism and if the term »Femen» is googled more often than »feminism«i we as feminists are obliged to carry on spending time on this grouping. It hurts to be put under the same umbrella with them. But why is it so striking that they are called feminists? In our days there are so many »feminisms« why should they not exist on an equal footing and/or complement each other? Maybe we are just looking jealously at their growing fandom, their public relations work and connected with it, their possibility to exert influence. Perhaps we are even jealous of their courage to get undressed in public. Perhaps we can‘t stand that in regard of Femen’s success it makes no difference weather we show solidarity with them or not. Or maybe, especially because of certain parallels to our political work, it peeves us time and again when they are completely off the mark one more time– and this under the label of »feminism«The more similarity exists the stronger the need for differentiation grows; a note of this insight can surely be noted in the following description.
Concerning the question about the »feminist content« of Femen it is not helpful to take the respective self-descriptions »I am feminist« or intentions like »I fight for the rights of women*« as an indication. In contrast to extensive conspiracy theories we do not see any reason to doubt that Femen have this intention. But you can’t do other than looking beyond this intention if the term »feminism« should not become meaningless. If you want to work against this arbitrariness you have to fight for the label. Concerning this our yardstick is: In what sense do Femen promote – in fact or at least potentially – the liberation of women*?
Femen was officially founded in Kiev by Alexandra »Sasha« Shevchenko, Oksana Shatchko and Anna Hutsol in April 2008. The latter appears as leader of the group. Unofficial mastermind and real founder of the idea »Femen« is Viktor Swjazkij, political advisor from Odessa, born in Chmelnyzkyj (Western Ukraine). It is said that he did not only select the women* by their outer appearance but also weaned them from certain characteristics which were incompatible with political activism.ii Since the important role of Viktor became public, Femen deny that he still has a strong influence on their actions but claim to have won the battle against the »patriarch« Swajazkij iii. But it still seems as if he continued to be in “Femen’s entourage”, as just in July 2013 Femen announced that Swjazkij was beaten up in the open road.iv
According to their own statement Femen set themselves the task to fight against patriarchy in the form of »sex industry«, religious institutions and dictatorship(s).v In doing so the way of acting has changed during the last five years. Whereas in the beginning women* and men* protested together, men* were only allowed to participate in the background later on. When in the past they distributed leaflets and discussed with passers-by, this is regarded as ineffective now and mainly well planned, press effective photo shootings are preferred. Although in the beginning the protest was carried out in tight, pink clothing Femen started to protest bare-breasted in 2010. It can’t be said clearly when the nationalistic, traditional floral wreathes started decorating the heads of Femen.vi
Since 2011 Femen also exist outside the Ukraine. Beside feminist themes they had often been busy with local problems up to that time like for example the lack of warm water and public toilets in Kiev. Meanwhile the »new amazons« are an internationally acting group and describe themselves as a global movement of the »third millennium feminism«vii Especially in France where they are registered as organisation since September 2012 they are very active as well as in Germany where they were registered as association in July 2013.
But how autonomously these subgroups are really allowed to act? Not long ago Femen Belgium broke up, as they had »differing views concerning questions of the intern organisation as well as the international movement«.viii It is unknown to what extend there existed pressure from the side of the Femen-leaders. But obviously it was impossible to continue being active under the Femen label even in spite of these differing views. As it has been stated, the activists were going to »continue the fight in another way« and they stated as well that they did not have any regrets and that they had carried out all actions in an honest way.ix In addition to that even the few known facts about the inner structure of Femen create the appealing of a strictly hierarchical organisation. Almost always the same persons as e.g. Inna or Alexandra Shevchenko have their say. They travel to the different places for leading or controlling actions and to stand in the first line. But allegedly everyone may act in the second line. In the video »How to become a Femen sextremist« Inna shows the women* how to steel themselves »physically and mentally « in so called training camps. By means of synchronic facial expressions and trained behaviour patterns they want and are supposed to appropriate their bodies as a weapon and demonstrate unity and strength – corporate design, corporate identity. In doing so the collective enables them to master extreme situations, e.g. to cry as long as possible to the cameras with a face contorted with pain while being carried away by the police. This must not be confused with learning how to defend as self-determined woman* or making agreements for common acting. In contrary to that the system Femen is almost anti-emancipatory. The one who wants to join has to subordinate individual needs to existing contents and procedures.
Femen’s Images of Women*
Femen have a twin-track strategy:
a) their concern is to spread short, allegedly feminist messages as far as possible and
b) the allegedly prevailing image of women* (weak and in needy) are supposed to be broken down.
The target is to realise both by a strong media presence.
Strategy a) works as follows: Via photos and videos the public is put on guard by the naked breasts of the protagonists and reads the messagesx placed on the activist’s skin. To make their actions medially usable, Femen use and reproduce the general sexualisation of female* bodiesxi. Although the rehearsing of synchronic performances leads to a certain influence on the medially produced pictures of strength and impregnability, it gives no control over their reception.xii Beside the reproduction of heteronormative ideals of beautyxiii the reduction to »naked boobs« can also be found in many comments under the photos of their actions: One example: »I like boobs but please no politic with naked pugs, run through the streets, post your photos, but without politic.« At present no one will be able to make a statement about the politicizing effect Femen’s “disturbing” breast messages might have on the recipients. But Femen insist that it is more powerful than the structural reduction of naked women* to sex objects.xiv If someone would really want to deal with the topic in addition to the three or five words he_she will not get any information from Femen, as they do not underpin the short messages with secondary information. For this a differentiated discussion about feminist themes would have to take place. Instead of this the themes are just adapted and exploited publicly in a rather superficial way. In an interview the former self-defence teacher of Femen-France Laura-May said: »…what Femen say is not what they do. « Lyse Bonconseil (pseudonym) associates with this statement: »…Femen used the gay issue in France to attack the church. But Femen members themselves made homophobic jokes and discriminated against the lesbians. And when these women left, they said that they were fat anyway. «xv
All in all you can say: The largest possible spreading of short messages [part a) of the strategy] works out quite well, whereby the feministic content as well as the effect claimed by them remains questionable.
In how far the breaking down of prevailing images of women* [part b) of the strategy] can work remains unclear, not at least because Femen’s idea of these models fails to recognise exactly these models. In contrary to actions of, for example Pussy Riot, hegemonic images of femininity are not broken down but tend to be increased. Femen who describe themselves as »normal women*« seek to escape the »general« image of women* which is perceived by them as »needy«.xvi But the truth is that, with their staging of »femininity« they improve the demands women* must meet already now anyway: being strong, independent, autonomous and sexy and despite of multiple stress factors in job, every day life and family able to manage everything. They are fighting against an image of women* which is, at least in Western Europe, tending to be antiquated. Even if the reality of life for women* in Ukraine differs from that in Western Europe there are the same (medial) pictures, on which people align themselves.
As Femen state, the situation of women* in Ukraine was the reason to choose exactly this form of action. They say that in Ukraine it is impossible to be heard as women or to make feminist politic without getting undressed.xvii But nevertheless there are other approaches to feminist protest, also in Ukraine, like e.g. the group Feminist Ofensyva.xviii The image of women* Femen create in the general public by their populist argumentation as well as by their lack in content and their resistance concerning criticism unfortunately tends to be an image of women*, who are able to be brave and strong but not clever and sharp-witted.
Femen in Action
An action, we sharply criticized in public took place in the red-light district of Hamburg on the 26th of January 2013.xix With slogans like »Arbeit macht frei « (work liberates), »Stop Sex Slavery« and torches they protested without meeting the needs and interests of sex-workers. One of the sex-workers commented the action as follows: »I am here voluntarily. They are just prostituting themselves«.xx But here the problem was not only the lack of interest in »their« political subjects but also the playing down of fascism and Shoa. Even in retrospect Alexandra Shevchenko is sure, despite of the massive critique that »Especially the Germans ought to understand that prostitution and fascism must be equated. « xxi Further serious errors are the incorrect use of the terms »prostitution» and »slavery« as well as the inadmissible equation of sex work and human trafficking for sexual exploitation. »Forced prostitution« is a crime, sex work a profession that was legalized in Germany only in 2002. It is necessary to discuss whether this led to an improvement of the situation of sex workers and a combating of the so called “whore stigma” xxii or not. Femen ignore the voices of sex-workers, who shape their lives on their own and who are capable of acting and making decisions and who talk about »voluntariness of their vocational choice« despite of all societal circumstances.xxiii People who are affected by human trafficking who are sexually exploited do not »prostitute themselves« but are victims of mass rape for commercial purposes.xxiv But Alexandra Shevchenko rejects the term »sex work« and states in an undifferentiated manner »Prostitution is no work«.xxv
Femen even do not follow their own logic – they neither demand a right of residence for people affected by human trafficking or a decent protection of affected persons, nor do they network with them and their supporters. xxvi
Another great theme for Femen is their fight against patriarchate in form of religious institutions. As an example for it we want to cite their activities to »free« Muslim women* from traditional role (allocations) and moral values. When the Tunisian Femen activist Amina Tyler had published a topless self-portrait and was arrested later, Femen started a campaign against Islam. Actions like »Topless Jihad Day« and the naked protest in front of the Justice Palace in Tunis with the demand to free Amina Tyler caused a huge wave of criticism worldwide beside a lot of solidarity with the arrested Amina Tyler. Feminists with different backgrounds called attention to the fact that Femen neither could nor should speak for them. They protested e.g. in different networksxxvii and criticized them as insulting, imperialistic, colonial, racist, Islam phobic and paternalistic and as well as not complex enough concerning the presentation of the many different situations women* in Islamic shaped countries can be in – the colonial feminist rhetoric of Femen would characterize Muslim women* as women* who are generally suppressed by culture and religion. The critics on #MuslimahPride state that the right to be naked is no guarantee for freedom and women’s* rights.
Femen kept their position unchanged and even formulated more drastically that Muslim women* with headscarves are slaves who have to be liberated and that the headscarf can be compared with a concentration campxxviii and their Muslim critics would not know the difference between freedom and bondage and suffer from the Stockhom syndrome.xxix
Not every criticism that concerns sexist oppression legitimated by the Islam can generally be swept away as »Islamophobic«. There is no doubt that from a feminist perspective there is a need of criticising religion, also including Islam and to deal with themes like the headscarf and to fight vehemently against religious constraints. In the field of the German speaking left wing this happens too cautiously or even not at all, as quite often no distinction is made between a needed criticism and »Islam phobia«, anti-Muslim resentments or racism. Therefore the Femen’s actions happened; to certain extend in a kind of Islam phobic vacuum. Nevertheless the harsh criticism of the actions or statements Femen made so far concerning this theme,describing Muslim women* as pathologically inhibited and patronised are justified. If you ask women* to put their headscarf off and in the case of non-compliance you reproach them for endorsing their own oppression you are far away from a well-founded religion criticism which would have to understand the societal function of religion and the power structures based on these structures and to explain a behaviour caused by it.
To us, opposing Femen’s actions for the above mentioned reasons does not automatically make us lean back in a culture-relativistic way. It is important for us to be solidly with women* living in Islam(ist)ic states, who criticize their religion or culture as being misogynist, for whom a public showing of nudity is emancipating and/or who want to change social conditions. Their fight for human rights has to be promoted. But this promotion only works if it goes together with sensibility concerning paternalistic and/or postcolonial behaviour, with appreciation towards local feministic fights as well as the needs of the women* concerned.
Femen would have done a favour to themselves and to »their« political subjects if they had asked broad local networks how they could be useful to them before starting the actions. But the way of their so called solidarity shows a clear denial of solidarity with the persons concerned. xxx
All against Femen? Criticism of the Criticism of Femen
Meanwhile a common Femen-bashing came up, that enables the various critics (like us) to fade out all kind of self-criticism. In view of the common enemy Femen our discrepancies can be put into the background. The feminist scene should not choose this easy way. Quite often you can hear that »we as women*« or »we as feminsts« should not maul each other, but concentrate on the common enemy, the patriarchate. But we all don’t want the same thing, neither concerning the pros nor the cons.
Especially also outside feminist circles there have been and still are anti-Femen protests as well as animosities. We strictly reject any sexist and racist comments under their photos as well as any violent attacks. It partly sucks in a way that we ask ourselves whether a complete break down of solidarity with Femen activists is proportionate – if e.g. their trainings centre burns down or they are beaten up in the street.
Femen brought in »feminist« themes to the public perception – and they really must be given credit for that-. By this other feministic groups could and can profit from this perception and take their own themes to the public sphere – for example the spreading of critical texts concerning Femen’s actions, which are also received by Femen-fans. Our group as well has become better known by the confrontation with Femen.
Furthermore, the local starting point of the organisation should be remembered when Femen are criticised, which is not always the case. Maybe it made sense to the founders to take up the discourses of the second wave of feminism in a climate of backlash of conservative gender roles as it existed in the post-Soviet Ukraine. But concerning the export to other religions an adaption would have been necessary. When e.g. their »ethnocentrism« is criticised their origin in the periphery of Europe should be taken into consideration. But nevertheless the benchmark of criticism should be their statements and not their »descent«.
But there is still another point which is questionable with regard to the criticism of Femen from the feministic point of view. The criticism of Femen is quite often an argument about Femen’s reproduction of current ideals of beauty. Body sizes are exceedingly rated. We want to bring into consideration that Femen activists as well as their critics are people who live in a society where painful standard-setting processes have an effect. Is it a crime to correspond to these ideals of beauty and to use it? Would it still be standards if not everyone – even if spurning – would have to be in line with them? The problem is not the fact that some people quicken a strong public interest (and especially not the outer appearance of these people) but that not everyone can do it in the same way. By focussing on the body of Femen members certain existing societal structures become clear and get manifested, also by criticising them. We believe it is important that the criticism of Femen should much more have the character of a discussion concerning the contents.
And what are we going to do with it now?
Femen are a prime example for illustrating the negative consequences of actionism which is likely to be seen in left or radical left and/or feminist circles. Femen are on the point of succumbing to incessant activities which is likely to seem as the delusional attempt to be busy. Probably for not being urged to ask themselves about the real effectiveness of the own activity in regard of a certain purpose or its precise delimitation respectively its justification. One action is followed by the next the attention must not be disrupted. The strategy is more important than the goal but at the same time this unclear goal which has to be reached is used to justify the strategy. Or, in other words: The purpose justifies the means and the means are the purpose. Such a practise as an end in itself must fail. It can’t permit itself any question for the special feature of each single situation and the adequate means to improve it.
This kind of actionism is an expression of desperation about everything being terrible, without knowing what to do. The contact with the object of criticism gets lost. One sees oneself and the own influence on societal structures overly important while the influence of these structures on the own thoughts and actions is underestimated. Here you can just react with the challenge to yourself to take the »almost insoluble task « seriously to » avoid being made stupid neither by the power of the others nor by the own powerlessness. « (Adorno, Minima Moralia). With everything written so far, the question resonates if it is not worse spreading
Femen- like populisms instead of not making certain questions a subject of discussion at all. In the assessment of the previous Femen-actions a negative stock must be taken. Although traditionally feminist themes are – somehow – publicised but, as stated earlier, emancipatory efforts are impeded. But in this context we should ask ourselves in how far something has to be correctly and well thought-out before one may show feminist engagement in public. Or: how short statements which are easy to be understood can be made without being shortened. Criticising the shortened statements of Femen does not mean a general exclusion of short, succinct and media effective statements. Femen themselves show: There is another way: In the beginning of the year 2013 Femen protested on the Piazza San Pedro inter alia with the statement: »in gay we trust«xxxi against the homophobic statements of the then pope. Although we asses the consequences concerning gay rights as relatively low and take into account our general criticism of Femen actions it seems at least that it had no real negative impacts.
Summed up we criticise as already stated, inter alia the lack of discussion with feminist themes, the lack of a substantiated social criticism, their instrumentality of feminist themes for unclear goals and purposes, as well as their hierarchic structure. All this would not be that bad (as it can be changed and developed) if they were not completely ignorant concerning any kind of criticism. From our point of view this appears not only non-feminist, they even seem to counteract emancipatory efforts and block them. In regard of the question »can Femen still be rescued? « We can state that it can not be excluded that in future Femen will contribute to an emancipatory practise. A sensible response to critique however, which means a fundamental change of their practise, would be necessary. But maybe this is hindered again and again by their hierarchical structures. We continue to place our hope on those individuals who take off the blinkers, on those dissidents for whom the ranks at the Femen-frontline are likely to be too closed.
… is a feminist, sexism-critical group from Dresden, that organised the »e*camp against capitalism and its gender relations« and now really managed it to agree on a final version of this text.
This Article was published in the magazine „Phase 2″ #47 in January 2014
ii [the women] do not have the needed strength of character. They even don’t desire to be strong. Despite of this they show submissiveness, have no backbone, are unpunctual and many other characteristics, which keep them from being political activists. This were the qualities I urgently had to teach them.” http://www.sueddeutsche.ce/kultur/enthuellungen-ueber-femen-putsch-der-gedemuetigten-1.1763684
iii “This film does not reveal anything it just shows the inner battle within Femen”, said Hutsol. “ The spectator sees the struggle of us women against one man and we are the winners” http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/enthuellungen-.ueber-femen-putsch-der-gedemuetigten-1.1763684-2
vi The floral wreathes are a folkloristic symbol of Western Ukraine. Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union they are mainly used to show the delimitation from the soviet heritage – and from the Russian shaped east of the country. Look http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/folklore-und-brauchtum-boomen-in-der-ukraine-a-837519.html
viii Belgium Femen group broke up on 9-11-13 http://diestandard.at/1378248777447/Belgische-Femen-Gruppe-löst-sich-auf
viiii See viii
x » Perhaps they are not the division who are interested in feministic themes. And if they see it, they see of course e.g. the naked breasts but they also see the message. And they start thinking about it…« Hellen Langhurst in »3nach9 « 06-14-2013. Radio Bremen TV
xi “They say that nakedness is a successful strategy that creates medial attention and on which the group has agreed on after some political discussions. They did not want to leave the power of disposition over bared breast to the patriarchate, that exploits female nakedness for capitalism”. Simon Brecht; Peta für Frauen. In Jungle World No. 8, 21st February 2013 http://jungle-world.com/artikel/2013/08/47119.html
xii »We regain our bodies. It is like a weapon« Klara says. »We use our bodies for feministic resistance «. They would always ensure to appear strong and dangerous to destroy the stereotype of the passive, helpless woman that is often used by the advertisement […]. Simon Brecht: Peta für Frauen. In: Jungle World No. 8, 21st February 2013 http://jungle-world.com/artikel/013/08/47199.html
xiii But it is problematical that their self-staging always reproduces images of women that correspond with the heteronormative ideals of beauty.” See. Simon Brecht: Peta für Frauen. In: Jungle World No. 8, 21st February 2013 http://jungle-world.com/artikel/013/08/47199.html
xiv Josephine Witt from Femen ignores the objectifications from outside: “men will just stare at our boobs and not understand what we’re really doing, and I don’t believe that. Men are way more intelligent than that.” (Luise Flavel: INSIDE FEMEN .interview with Josephine Femen activis. In Lip, 18th June 2013 http:77lipmag.com/inside-femen-interview-with-josephine-femen-activist/)
xv Conrad Steenkamp: Femen: From enthusiasm to disenchantment. In: Tought Leader (Blog) 26th July 2013 Http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/conradsteenkamp/2013/07/26/femen-from-enthusiasm-to-disenchantment/
xvi “The society wants to see beautiful submissive women who are only presented in a highly sexualized way and who are in need of help. But we are not like that.” Zana in http://www.vice.com/de/read/auch-femen-aktivistinnen-haben-cellulite-und-haengetitten/?utm_source=vicefb
xvii “Many chriticize us for out methods, calling them too extravagant and immoral“, says FEMEN activist Galina Szanskaya, “But we understand that this is the only way to be heard in this country. If we staged simple protests with banners, then our claims would not have been noticed”. In: “Ukraine is not a bordello”. http://rt.com/news/ukraine-femen-sex-tourism/ 12-14-2009
xviii See the interesting interview with Anna Khvyl „ It is important not only to react“. In: Jungle WorldNo16 18th April 2013. The representative of Feminist Ofensyva also talks about Femen: “ There was just one meeting with Femen. We had invited the group to one of our conferences. One representative really appeared at the discussion, but after five minutes she disappeared without having said a single word. The relationship with Femen is ambivalent as they avoid the contact with us and other feministic organisations in the country. I for myself think that it is problematically that despite they call themselves feminist from time to time, but block out an exchange about their work of their point of view and doing so they avoid a professional discussion. [..]”Further on there is the ChCGI (Institute for Gender Studies in Charkov) where a real good article about FEMEN was published in the institute’s magazine: Marija Dimtrieva: Radikal’nyj eksgibicionizm [radical exhibitionism], in:Gendernye issiedovanija, Nr. 20/21 (2010), p. 394-409; URL: http://www. gender.univer.kharkov.ua/gurnal/20-21/26.pdf
xix Open letter to Femen Germany 01-29-2013 http://evibes.blogsport.de/2013/01/29/offener-brief-an-femen-germany/
xx Steffi Fetz, Femen-scream in Herbertstraße. Die Zeit 26th of January 2013 http:77www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2013-01/femen-herbertstrasse-protest
xxi Who does not need FEMEN.: People affected by human trafficking and sex-workers, human trafficking today. Critical online magazine against expoloitation. 31st of January 2013 http://menschenhandelheute.net/203/01/31/wer-femen-nicht-braucht-betroffene-von-menschenhandel-und-sexarbeiter_innen/
xxii To this Hydra e.V.: “[We advocate] that everyone can decide voluntarily whether she/he works in the field of sex work or not and when she/he stops doing it. For reaching this it is especially important to get rid of the societal whore stigma. It is this stigma that makes it difficult for women and men who had been working in the field of sex work to start with another profession because sex work is not regarded as qualified, qualifying and valuable work. Sex work in the curriculum vitae is rather an obstacle for a carrier in other branches of business. http://www.hydra-berlin.de/ueber_uns/ziele_von_hydra/ Some demands of Hydra can be found under http://www.hydra-berlin.de/ueber_uns/ziele_von_hydra/
xxiii “Prostitution is a profession, something done voluntarily. If it is not done voluntarily it is no prostitution but a crime.” Sex worker Marleen on the 15th of December 2012 http://www.taz.de/!107465
xxiv Organisations of affected people propose not to use the term of »forced prostitution« any more. Human trafficking and prostitution are no more to be regarded as synonyms. Prostitution (ProstG) and human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation (StGB §232) are very different facts and acts. This applies especially for Germany. /Who does not need FEMEN: People affected by human trafficking and sex workers. In: Human Trafficking today. Critical online magazine against exploitation. 31st of January 2013 http://menschenhandelheute.net/2013/31/wer-femen-nicht-braucht-betroffene-von-menschenhandel-und-sexarbeiter_innen/
xxv Simon Brecht: Peta for women. In: Jungle World No. 8, 21st February 2013-11-15 http://jungle worl.com/artikel/2013/08/47199 html
xxvi “Therefore sex workers don’t need FEMEN, because FEMEN declare sex workers incapable, describe them as objects and possession in spite of citizens with rights and justified political demands.” “ FEMEN even regards the self organisation of sex workers as non justified, as they represent, according to FEMEN the “fascist sex industry”. Those who don’t need Femen: People affected by human trafficking and sex workers, human trafficking today. Critical Onlinemagazine against exploitation. 31st of January 2013 http://menschenhandelheute.net/2013/01/31/wer-femen-nicht-braucht-betroffene-von-menschenhandel-und-sexarbeiter_innen/
xxvii On Twitter with the Hashtag #MuslimaPride and in the Facebook group »Muslim Women Against Femen«
xxviii Cigdem Akyol: » you don’t have to free me«. Femen activists demonstrated for women’s rights – as well for those of Islamic women. Some Muslim women feel patronized and fend off. In:taz, 24th April 2013 data got 25th August 2013, http://www.taz.de/!115330
xxix Cigdem Akyol: »We forgive her« Femen-founder about the withdrawal of Amina. Interview with Alexandra Shevhenko, in: taz, 21st of August 2013 http://www.taz.de/Femen-Gruenderin-ueber-Aminas-Austritt/! 122270/
xxx »Their activism often shows a lack of knowledge or even worse: a lack of interest in the subjects they want to speak up for « EXIT FEMEN about FEMEN on their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=3&theater