In the last several months, the mainstream media has launched a tsunami of negative criticism towards FEMEN, an international group opposed to dictatorships, religious extremism, and patriarchal persecution of women throughout the world. Like the much beloved Pussy Riot, Femen attacks societal taboo and institutionalized status quo through provocative direct action, exposing their bodies, often withstanding violent assault by men in the process.
Despite the nobility of this struggle, many Western bloggers have condemned Femen for being mostly “white”, “elitist”, or even “racist”. While Pussy Riot retains popularity in the West for targeting malevolent president-for-life Vladimir Putin, similar actions against the Russian ruler carried out by the outcast Femen have been largely ignored. Those labeling Femen as religiously intolerant seem to have no problem with the action that landed Pussy Riot in prison. When members of that group staged a guerrilla punk show inside a Russian Orthadox Church, they attacked the institution and it’s followers alike in lyric form, singing: “Shit, shit, the Lord is shit! A preacher is on his way to your school, Go to class and give him your money!”
Femen has been crucified in Western press, whereas Pussy Riot remain the darlings of the world wide web. Yet Pussy Riot engaged in far more radical direct actions that the West has chosen to overlook. Prior to their incarceration, members of Pussy Riot engaged in public orgies and torched police cars. Not exactly the kind of civil disobedience Americans commend.It would seem the reason for this disconnect in the Western press is that Femen first entered the global lime-light for criticizing Islamism. ‘Islamism’ is an application of certain cultural aspects of the Muslim faith not necessarily attributed to the Quran, yet are often imposed as though they were Islamic law. Femen has focused their criticisms not on the religion of Islam itself, but on the ways this faith has been used to subjugate women. In countless cases, these social rules have been enforced on women through beatings, mutilations, and so called ‘honor killings’. Despite this nuance, Western writers have tried to brand Femen’s indictment of patriarchy within the Muslim world as simple “Islamophobia“.
In the weeks after Femen exploded onto the world stage, counter protests and a meme campaign went viral. Islamic women posed with signs condemning the group with slogans like, “Femen does not speak for me”, and rightly so. The thing is, though, you won’t find any instance of Femen claiming to speak for anybody but themselves. Quite the contrary, Femen’s message seems to be internationally consistent: ‘It is the men who do not speak for the women.’ Nothing more. As noted by Jeffrey Taylor in The Atlantic, “The overall [response] to Femen has been, in fact, nothing less than ‘Sit down and shut up’, [but] the radical feminist group has ignited human-rights debates we need to have.”
So where did this false myth that a bunch of European anglos were running around claiming to speak for Arab women come from? By and large, the misinformed claims that Femen aren’t “nuanced” enough or engage in “blatant racism” has come from Americans and other Westernized liberals. You won’t find any instance where Femen has cited race as a source of patriarchal repression. Despite this fact, Western accusations that Femen are merely “white French women” are as diminutive as they are inaccurate; Femen has tens of thousands of members and supporters, many in Arab and Persian nations. Even more bizarre, denunciations of Femen as representing misguided “Western feminism” are being made in ignorance of the fact that Femen was founded in the Ukraine, not the Western world. And for those bashing Femen’s tactic of provocation, there’s a rather in vogue proverb they may wish to memorize. Since sounding the alarm when authorities threatened death to a Tunisian activist named Amina Tyler, Femen have been busy disrupting the scripted photo-ops of balding dictators and their corporate sponsors. They set aflame a ‘Barbie Dream House Experience‘ grand opening to protest the commodification of womanhood. In retaliation to the Pussy Riot conviction last year, Femen chainsawed a famous church cross to the ground. In direct response to the threats against Amina, Femen waged protests at Mosques all over the world, burning flags they viewed as symbols of oppression in the process.
If all these actions are too controversial for the weak-stomached liberal media, there are a few other arenas Femen has tackled that even the most uptight American patriot would be proud of: they’ve taken on neo-Nazi skinheads. As chronicled on Vice.com recently, Femen spokesperson Inna Shevchenko led a successful action to disrupt and troll the hell out of several hundred jack-booted bigots preaching hatred. The result of the action required police to hold back the skinheads from storming a hotel for revenge.
As time goes on, I predict the initial knee-jerking will die down and people will actually listen to what Femen is saying. Patriarchy is bullshit. Religion if full of patriarchy. So are fascist dictatorships. Hell, democracy is also awash in patriarchy. Using your naked body as a tool of protest is apparently still controversial, and when you’re trying to get the world to take notice of an overlooked injustice, you need controversy to draw attention.
Any time people take to the streets, the mainstream will try to diminish the actions of protesters, they’ll say our message is not perfect, or that we’re being too provocative. They said this about Alice Paul and the suffragettes who demonstrated in front of the White House. They said this about Martin Luther King Jr. They said this about Harvey Milk. Truthfully, if you aren’t pissing off the mainstream in some way as an activist, you probably aren’t trying hard enough. As the saying goes, well behaved women rarely make history.
Threats against women are real, and they need to be addressed head on. Those that scold Femen, who tell Femen to ‘shut up’ and ‘put their shirts back on‘ and instead support established charity groups – they might well benefit from learning the history of radical direct action. Bureaucratic establishments doing little to foster social advancement will always condemn individuals who break rules, who rebel, who truly challenge the status quo. Trying to reframe Femen’s modus operandi as ‘colonialist’ or ‘racist’ serves to distract from fighting against the very real dangers women face.
Femen, Pussy Riot, and other radical groups grabbing headlines aren’t disappearing any time soon. When institutional nonprofits fail to advance these causes swiftly enough, we need groups like Femen to raise the bar. We need women who aren’t afraid of being arrested, who will defy laws and social taboos.
It has been disappointing to witness ‘progressives’ prop up regressive regimes as cultural heritage. But there are many things to bemoan about so-called progressives in America. Amina Tyler is now awaiting trial for her naked ambition. If only those who shouted down Femen, who insisted ‘wearing a Hajib is a choice!‘ could now find the same energy to voice support for Amina. Here’s hoping they do.