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Do FEMEN's Topless Protests Advance Women's Rights or Jeopardize Them?

Whether the feminist movements in Europe and France rally behind them or not, the controversy surrounding feminist protest group FEMEN continues. Triggering a barrage of criticism and attacks on social media, in the press and within some political circles, the members of FEMEN–using their bare breasts as simple yet radical weapons–seem to serve as a symbol of protest for women facing difficulties all over the world.

When a man sets himself on fire in protest, no one thinks to accuse him of harming any social justice movements. So is FEMEN jeopardizing women's rights with the radical nature of their actions?

Following FEMEN's shows of support for Tunisian FEMEN activist Amina Tyler, who had been threatened by Tunisian leaders for posting topless political photos on her Facebook page and was arrested for painting the group's name on a cemetery wall in Kairouan in protest at a planned meeting of radical Sunni Muslim Salafists, Karima Brini [fr], founder of Tunisian association Femme et citoyenneté (Women and citizenship), wrote that such radicalization can be damaging [fr]. Three FEMEN activists were later arrested and imprisoned for protesting topless in front of the Justice Ministry in Tunis in support of Tyler:

Les raisons de leur combat contre l’exploitation des femmes sont respectables. Mais ce qu’elles ont fait ici en Tunisie va nous porter préjudice parce qu’on aura tendance à associer les organisations qui travaillent pour les droits des femmes à leur action.”

The reasons for their fight against the exploitation of women are honourable. But what they have done here in Tunisia will adversely affect us because people will be inclined to associate their actions with organizations working for women's rights.

FEMEN's trade secret

There are likely many circumstantial reasons that the FEMEN movement has been experiencing so much media success. With unceasingly white-hot Twitter [fr] accounts (nearly 7,000 followers for FEMEN France) and passionate Facebook [fr] pages for every country (nearly 40,000 likes on the FEMEN France page), as well as a content-filled website, it is clear that FEMEN activists know how to use all the means at their disposal to make some noise–and they do.

It seems their key to success lies simply in their radically innovative means of protest: a simple, powerful, effective, iconic, popular, universal, and age-old gesture, a huge kick in the hornet's nest. A gesture that Olivier Ciappa [fr] wanted to reflect in the new French stamp he designed, bearing an image of the country's national emblem Marianne inspired by prominent FEMEN activist Inna Shevchenko:

Elle incarne le mieux les valeurs de la République, liberté, égalité, fraternité. Le féminisme fait partie intégrante de ces valeurs. Et la Marianne, au temps de la Révolution était seins nus, alors pourquoi ne pas rendre hommage à cette fabuleuse Femen ? “

She best exemplifies the values of the French Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity. Feminism is an integral part of these values. And Marianne was topless during the Revolution, so why not pay tribute to this fabulous FEMENist?

It is also a gesture for which Tunisian FEMEN activist Amina Tyler has been both celebrated and condemned. Charged with “immoral conduct” (gestes immoraux [fr]) by the Tunisian Ministry of Justice, it is this very gesture that Sami Adleeb defended on his blog [fr]:

En aucun cas son geste est impudique ni symptomatique d’un quelconque trouble psychologique. C’est un cri d’indignation et de colère contre la bondieuserie [...]. Elle voulait attirer l’attention de l’opinion publique mondiale sur les atteintes au droit des femmes, sur la banalisation du viol et l’impunité dont bénéficient les violeurs en Tunisie post 14 janvier 2011. [...] En recourant à ce mode d’expression politique inédit en Tunisie, Amina n’a pas enfreint les tabous ou un quelconque ordre moral [...], elle n’a justement rien à dissimuler, c’est pourquoi elle revendique en toute dignité et liberté.”

In no way is her act indecent or symptomatic of any psychological disorder. It is a outcry of indignation and anger directed towards sanctimoniousness [...]. She wanted to draw global attention to the violations of women's rights, the trivialization of rape and the impunity being enjoyed by rapists in post-Revolution Tunisia. [...] By using this unprecedented method of political expression in Tunisia, Amina has not violated any taboos or moral order [...], she rightly has nothing to hide, that is why she makes her demands in complete dignity and freedom.

Soutien à Amina à Montréal posté sur la page facebook Femen France, reproduite avec autorisation de Femen France

“Free Amina” (Libérez Amina): Show of support for Amina in Montreal posted on FEMEN France's Facebook page, courtesy of FEMEN France

Nudity, particularly that of women, as a form of protest against societal violence in public space had been mentioned before by Rue 89 [fr] in 2011 in relation to the Tibet-China conflict:

En septembre, à Shanghaï, une autre femme âgée de 77 ans, médecin, avait eu recours à un autre mode de protestation : elle avait manifesté, nue et à genoux devant le siège du tribunal local.”

In September, in Shanghai, another woman–77 years old and a doctor–used another form of protest: she demonstrated, nude and on her knees, in front of the local court.

An unclear but “sextreme” message

If FEMEN's actions are clear, the message attached to them seems to be harder to understand. After posting a problematic tweet about Islam and Ramadan, Inna Shevchenko [fr] defended herself from the charges of islamophobia in the French daily newspaper Libération [fr] :

S’agissant des accusations d’islamophobie, Inna Shevchenko les balaie d’un revers de la main, préférant le terme « religiophobe » et insistant sur le fait que les Femen n’ont « pas peur de souligner les aspects liberticides de cette religion ou d’autres religions ».”

Inna Shevchenko brushes off accusations of Islamophobia, preferring the term “religiophobe” and insisting that FEMEN is “not afraid to point out draconian aspects of that religion or of other religions.”

FEMEN's website has recently evolved, it seems, to take a more radical turn, combining highly connotative symbols like the swastika with battle poses and anti-male sentiment:

FEMEN – is the new Amazons, capable to undermine the foundations of the patriarchal world by their intellect, sex, agility, make disorder, bring neurosis and panic to the men's world.

In India, other women have moved from an imagined battle of the sexes to a real one with the Pink Sari gang [fr - see also on English Wikipedia]:

Elles ont choisi le rose comme emblème de leur combat et peuvent compter dans leurs rangs, plusieurs centaines de militantes et de militants. Elles sont armées de lathi – les bâtons traditionnels – qui servent à battre les hommes qui ont abusé de leurs épouses ou les ont abandonnées, et aussi à “tabasser” les policiers qui ont refusé d’enregistrer des plaintes pour viol.”

They chose pink as the symbol of their struggle and count hundreds of activists among their ranks. They are armed with lathi–traditional sticks–used to beat men who have abused or abandoned their wives, and also to “beat” police officers who have refused to register rape complaints.

FEMEN seems much more moderate on their site's info page:

  • We unite young women based on the principles of social awareness and activism, intellectual and cultural development.
  • We recognise the European values of freedom, equality and comprehensive development of a person irrespective of the gender.
  • We build up a national image of femininity, maternity and beauty based on the Euro-Atlantic women’s movements experience.

The word “national” in the last sentence could raise some eyebrows, however.

Neither for or against

The FEMEN movement's identity is very much under construction, constantly evolving along with the news that it generates. It arouses hatred that seems to come from another era, but also a lot of misunderstandings, in particular from feminists. The site Egalité et réconcilitation [fr], for example, states:

« Ce n’est qu’une simulation de féminisme » [...]. Femen « nuit à l’image de l’Ukraine autant qu’au vrai mouvement féministe », renchérit Marianna Evsioukova, une responsable à Kiev de l’ONG internationale La Strada, qui défend les droits des femmes. D’autres assimilent les Femen à un projet commercial [...].”

“It is only a simulation of feminism” [...]. FEMEN “is as damaging to Ukraine's image as it is to the real feminist movement,” adds Marianna Evsioukova, an official in Kiev at international NGO La Strada, which defends women's rights. Others liken FEMEN to a commercial project [...].

But FEMEN does have its gesture, this gesture that connects it to the world, especially to women. A group of Greek women posted the following video on FEMEN France's Facebook page as a show of support to Amina and following the temporary censorship of their Facebook page.

If there is so much discussion about FEMEN, it is probably because, whatever is said, the issue of women's rights is far from being resolved both in France and abroad. Thus, it seems that the question is not about being for or against FEMEN, but rather about seeing the light shed on this archaic injustice as an opportunity for feminist movements in general to change and evolve. According to Femmes pour la paix's website [fr]:

Tout militantisme demande du courage car d’une certaine manière nous nous mettons à nu devant une masse uniforme. Il est plus facile de rester chez soi à regarder le monde évoluer sans nous que d’y participer.”

All activism requires courage because in some sense we are laying ourselves bare before an undifferentiated mass. It is easier to stay at home and watch the world go by without us than to get involved.

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