Reviewed by Rebecca Booth
Femen and Galia Ackerman (2014) Femen, Polity Press.
Within Western ideology the term ‘feminism’ is readily associated with Western women and values but is not usually applied when considering Eastern countries. This is due to various historical socio-political factors – too numerous and complex to cite here – that are overshadowed by a recurring issue; despite the permeation of Western culture within the East to some extent, and though the Iron Curtain was effectively lifted in 1991, there still exists an element of mystery in the way that the East and West views it’s counterpart. Femen is an activist group of feminists. The founding members, all Eastern European women, lead a group of women that seek to fight patriarchy and address women’s rights on a global scale.
The publication, Femen, is a colourful snapshot of the lives of the four founding members of the group, fiercely intelligent and brave young women, who have become self-appointed soldiers in an international war against the slavery of women. In addition to introducing readers to the current social roles of women and the status of feminism in a post-Soviet country, it simultaneously charts Femen’s organic development into a global activist group with one objective: total victory over patriarchy and capitalism.
Within this, Femen identify a triad of oppression against women: religion, the sex industry and dictatorship. Citing their political tactic as ‘sextremism’, the women use the female body, namely bare breasts, as a non-violent weapon in order to undermine patriarchy, protesting at public events by writing their political messages on their naked torsos and wearing a crown of roses. Their demonstrations are thematically varied, ranging from the initial ‘Ukraine is not a brothel’ campaign, in which they dressed as prostitutes in the red light district within the main street in Ukraine, to the Annual Economic Forum in Davos, and outside the Iranian Embassy in Kiev, in protest against the punishment of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani in 2010 for allegedly committing adultery, in which she was sentenced to death by stoning.
Femen protests are thus regularly documented in the media due to the controversial and striking image of the topless women, who are often accompanied by colourful and distinctive displays or performance art. Considering that the women are fighting against patriarchy, exposing their breasts could be read as a somewhat superficial or hypocritical endeavor, especially when the reader comes to the book, or across divisive images in the media, without much knowledge of the group or their history. The book is thus a necessity; it is an illuminating and moving account of the women’s personal histories and decision to become Femen activists, giving credence to their particular form of global activism and encapsulating their compassion for women around the world, regardless of the consequences.
The remarkable story of the women behind Femen led journalist Galia Ackerman to interview the four founding members of the group, and the book Femen was the result of hours of discussion. Ackerman writes in a neutral tone as the unified voice of the women, with sections dedicated to the perspective of individual members. Beginning with the Femen manifesto, the book sets out the staunch beliefs of Femen. The somewhat aggressive statements echo similar calls to action across a variety of Western feminist groups and approaches, containing such declarations as: ‘Our God is woman! Our mission is protest! Our weapons are bare breasts! Here Femen is born, and here begins sextremism’ (p. vii). This, however, is where the book, and Femen, is different to the majority of feminist texts and groups.
The initial section introduces us to each of the four pillars of Femen, Anna Hutsol, Inna Shevchenko, Oksana Shachko and Sasha Shevchenko, and recounts the development of the group and its members. The mini-biographies personalise the women, revealing intimate stories from their respective childhoods in Soviet Ukraine, Russia and Germany.
The importance of the relationship between politics and the women’s fierce refusal to follow suit is established in these pages. All of the women, each in their own way before they met and formed Femen, refused to conform. As young girls, despite pressure from their mothers, sisters and other community members to marry and produce a family at a young age, they fought for the freedom to take a different path.
Inna’s first political protest occurred during the 2004 presidential election. Despite government officials threatening to terminate employment contracts if locals did not vote for Viktor Yanukovych, Inna went into school wearing the orange ribbon of his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, and was reprimanded by a favourite teacher, with her orange ribbon confiscated. The subsequent Orange Revolution, in which education suffered as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians protested against the success of Yanukovych’s ‘Blue’ camp for months, cemented Inna’s passion for political activism.
All of the women’s tenacity in the face of adversity and traditional roles is apparent throughout the book. The women were all exceptional students and discovered socialist and Marxist theory in underground circles, which opened up their eyes to the possibility of political action in their passion and subsequent fight for women’s rights. Indeed, as refreshing as the book is as an insight into feminism within Eastern Europe, it is also a fascinating account of modern politics in Ukraine, and contemporary social issues such as the pervasive presence of the illegal but lucrative and thus internally ignored sex industry within the country. The book presents the difficult experiences the women faced at the hands of their family and communities – imprisonment, violent threats and estrangement – against the underworld and legal dangers of campaigning in their own country and around the world in which the women have been abducted, physically assaulted and imprisoned.
In March 2012 the women performed their first demonstration in a Muslim country in response to accounts of the domestic abuse and cultural subjugation suffered by some Muslim women around the world. They had been considering demonstrating in a Muslim country for some time. Femen thus appeared in front of the Hagia Sophia mosque in Instanbul wearing only their knickers, their bodies painted to appear covered in bruises and burns. They also bore slogans such as ‘Guilty because I’m a woman’ and ‘Stop the acid attacks’ (p. 130) in reference to the disfiguration of women with acid as punishment for crimes that are often fabricated within a patriarchal society. The Femen women were immediately arrested, held in a prison overnight and beaten. Only when their lawyer notified the press were they released. The book, which is written in an almost factual tone, reveals the very real danger that the women face, which is not necessarily translated in the photographs one catches of the various demonstrations across the media.
This is extended to the reasoning behind the naked demonstrations: the book highlights the sacrifices and danger the women face in not only speaking out against the misogynistic treatment of women in Ukraine and beyond, but in utilising their bodies as part of their campaign. Early demonstrations were not conducted topless; the idea developed over a long period of time and was not a light or fast consideration, with many additional members leaving the group because of this decision.
Femen argue that their decision to protest with their breasts exposed is natural and necessary. In doing so, they are destroying the foundation of patriarchy: naked breasts used as a political weapon refutes the reproductive function of the female body, thus relinquishing male control over it. At the same time, in protesting topless with a crown of flowers, which merges the Ukrainian symbol of virginity (crown) and a peaceful protest (flowers) the women are reclaiming their bodies. The women note that it is a sad fact that they have needed to resort to naked and controversial demonstrations, but in their own words: ‘It’s necessary to shock people to get them thinking’ (p. 67).
Though Femen’s passion and non-violent method of garnering attention for their pursuits is commendable and refreshing, Ackerman notes the complexity surrounding their uncompromising belief in anti-clericalism. Femen state that all religion subjugates women but, of course, this belief does not account for the fact that faith can be a choice instead of an imposed doctrine. Indeed, when reading the individual accounts of the women, Oksana is referred to as an iconoclast. One would assume that this is because she is a talented artist who has painted religious icons since she was a young child, and has earned a living doing so prior to Femen, but Oksana admits that, though she is against traditional religion and some of its practices, there may be a supreme intelligence.
This honest admission, which somewhat contradicts the group’s manifesto, reveals the complex subjective nature of what feminism and ideology means to individual women. It also hints at the somewhat indecisive or unfocused nature of Femen, which is apparent throughout the book. There is no singular theme to their campaigns, which do not appear to be sustained efforts but instead take the form of singular, sometimes sporadic, demonstrations. The group acknowledges that it must focus its thematic approach and has decided going forward that their singular course of action is anti-clericalism.
In an update at the end of the book, written a year after the initial interview, Ackerman writes that the group has experienced a tumultuous period. Paris became the official home for Femen in 2012, and a centre was established, a neutral site in which women from all over the world can join the group. Here, Femen’s efforts have courted controversy, from both critics and supporters, due to the particular nature of their anti-clerical activism in France. In particular the group have been labeled Islamaphobics, after burning a black flag depicting the shahada (the testimony of faith within Islam) outside the Great Mosque in Paris, which, in addition to other extreme protests against Catholicism, cost Femen many members.
While the future of Femen is may be uncertain, this publication is an account of the women’s refusal to be passive in the face of adversity: they not only recognise the need to fight patriarchy on a global scale, but are compelled to do so. Ultimately, regardless of whether one agrees with the women’s methods, and though their campaign may not especially focused, at least they are doing something. Feminism is an umbrella term that incorporates but does not unify or connect the various subjective and socio-cultural experiences of women throughout the world. All too often, feminism becomes lost in words, contained within theoretical commentary and calls to actions. Femen dually provide an honest, raw account of their own experiences of contemporary social roles in post-soviet Europe while tackling oppression against women on a global scale. They are actively seeking change and understand that in order to be heard, one sometimes has to be firstly seen. While the book acknowledges that their activism can be a contentious issue, the voice of Femen is loud and clear. It addresses an unspoken question to the reader: now that you have seen and you have heard, what will you do?