Warning: every link in this post goes to pages with photos of bare breasts, vulgar language or obscene gestures — sometimes all three. If you’re offended by the naked human body, certain words written on the naked human body and/or certain extended fingers, then don’t click on the links. You’ve been warned!
FEMEN is a Ukrainian feminist group notorious for their topless protests and confrontational tactics. What are they protesting? A whole slew of social and political issues, including the sex industry, homophobia, the Catholic church, Islam, misogyny, patriarchy and the exploitation and oppression of women. Since its founding in 2008, the group has spread to other countries in Europe, claiming membership well over one hundred thousand women and continues to garner attention for their provocative outcries.
Recently, a 19-year old Tunisian woman named Amina Tyler posted FEMEN-style protest photos on her Facebook page. As a result, she faces threats of imprisonment and even death. You can read about her story in this New Yorker article.
This past April, FEMEN protesters in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Ukraine and elsewhere rallied in support of Amina, staging a “topless jihad.” These protests were documented by The Atlantic in a series of striking photos.
FEMEN has been widely criticized for employing such a confrontational approach to social protest — they’ve been accused of eschewing constructive dialogue and thoughtful engagement in favor of mere publicity. They’re getting attention, but are they really effecting any change?
While I don’t agree with everything FEMEN stands for, I’m generally sympathetic to their cause and their message. And while I’m dubious that their tactics will accomplish anything beyond providing photo-ops for a salacious public, I nevertheless think their approach is brilliant. They’ve taken the very characteristics for which they are subjugated and have turned them back on their oppressors. They’ve hijacked objectification and subverted misogyny. They’re not only confronting us with their sexuality, they’re confronting us with their humanity.
Is some of it hype? Sure! It is over the top? Of course! But that’s the point. A group of quiet, subservient female protesters standing on a street corner outside a trade fair simply won’t garner the worldwide media attention that a group of screaming topless women rushing pell-mell toward Vladimir Putin did. A handful of women picketing outside a Catholic church won’t make the evening news like a group of angry topless women dousing a priest in water did.
I don’t think such drastic measures are suited to every cause and situation. But when people are pushed far enough, when they are abused and mistreated and denigrated often enough — not just on an individual level, but as an entire gender — eventually they’ll fight back. And when you’re up against institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, the Russian government or all of Islam, it takes more than just letters to the editor and online petitions to make your voice heard.
FEMEN forces us to think about how we think about women. Are we more uncomfortable when faced with a screaming, topless woman than with a screaming, topless man? Do images of confident women proudly declaring their opposition to homophobia and misogyny make us pay more attention than men protesting those same issues?
FEMEN‘s approach might not be comfortable, but how much of that discomfort stems from our unwillingness to truly confront difficult questions? How does our society treat women? How do we view gender roles? And more importantly, how does each of us, as individuals, treat women? How do our own attitudes and actions and words reflect our stereotypes and preconceptions and prejudices? Are we contributing to a world that needs FEMEN to wake us up, or are we contributing to a world where groups like FEMEN will no longer be necessary?