Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Undressing… with an excuse



Recently, CNN has broadcasted a series of reports on Ukraine as a part of its special I-list news coverage. One of them included FEMEN – a female protest group known for its provocative bare-breasted acts. As I watched it, I thought that if CNN were to do this report about a year and a half earlier, I could have actually liked it. I might have even been happy about it. This time, however, their story only upset and irritated me.

When FEMEN first appeared on Ukraine’s political scene in 2008 I was rather excited. Finally there was a group that chose to draw public attention to such issues as prostitution, sex tourism, and general discrimination of women. I was also wondering whether the girls chose such provocative tactics because they were just fed up with living in a country where job adds seeking secretaries for work and intimacy were not uncommon, where women were still making about 30% less than men occupying similar posts, and, with sex tourism on the rise, as many as two in three young Kyiv women claimed to have been offered sex for money by a foreigner.

And at first FEMEN did seem to progress toward some of their declared goals. With provocative clothes (or, rather, their absence), slogans like “Ukraine is not a brothel”, and "raids" on sex tourists’ popular destinations in the capitol, they got noticed by both foreign and Ukrainian media, which at least prompted the latter to speak about issues [UKR] on which our government often chose to turn a blind eye.

Nevertheless, it quickly became obvious that regardless of the slogans and declared goals, FEMEN was no feminist movement. For instance, many have pointed out how girls’ opinions contrasted with ideas developed by women’s rights organizations [UKR], such as opposing legalization of prostitution (which is generally regarded as a main tool for protecting sex workers), and so on. In short, FEMEN members demonstrated general lack of knowledge and understanding of the issues they were supposedly dealing with, and, apart from one alleged attempt to propose legislation, offered no comprehensive plans for changing the situation for the better. 

Yet, even at that point I retained a sort of positive attitude toward the group – after all, could one really expect a bunch of 18 to 20 year olds to have a serious background in feminist theory and be able to propose comprehensive policy changes? However, as the list of issues taken on by FEMEN grew, along with the number of occasions on which they chose to take their clothes off, disappointment began to settle in.

Throughout 2010 FEMEN has probably joined every public protest that was taking place – luckily for them, the year was rich in attacks on democratic rights and freedoms in Ukraine, which offered girls plenty of such opportunities. By 2011 the organization was regarded by many as a (naked) performance group of sorts. And, although CNN might not have picked it up yet, many western journalists were left wondering why, if Ukraine were not a brothel, it was frequently made to look like one.

Curiously, group’s popularity has continued to grow. Recently, FEMEN has been invited to take part in filming a music video [UKR], while one of its front-girls, 21 y.o. Olexandra Shevchenko, has been noticed in a company of some high-ranked politicians [RUS]. No wonder new members from outside of Kyiv have been joining FEMEN’s ranks and eagerly showing off their good looks on the group’s Live Journal page. After all, not every beautiful Ukrainian girl can become a Via Gra [RUS] pop star and marry an oligarch…. But many can join FEMEN. And while some observers have suggested that FEMEN could be saved by turning from quasi-feminists into real feminists [UKR], the longer I followed their activities the more it seemed that, willingly or not, instead of taking up a cause FEMEN were simply taking the ever-popular Ukrainian game of finding a wealthy man to the new level.

The sad part is that all the while Ukraine has remained Europe’s single country with male-only government, over-sexualized singers like Svetlana Loboda have represented us at Eurovision, and our President has been openly inviting Davos guests to come watch Ukrainian women take off their clothes in spring. And in the end I’ve been left wondering whether FEMEN has actually turned the situation with the issues it was supposed to counter from bad to worse, and if anyone was ever going to take the problems of gender discrimination, prostitution, or sex tourism in Ukraine seriously. 

5 comments:

  1. While it may not be a serious technique for gaining attention to issues. It did work. From my little corner in the U.S. I am now aware. I suppose the next step would be some actual reforms for the benefit of Ukraine women. If enough folks are aware and support the cause, true change can then come about.

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    1. Are u serious?! how is stripping a serious technique definitely not the way that FEMEN is going about doing it.

      I would consider the following women as real activists who used nudity to put a powerful message across http://tehelka.com/we-stripped-and-shouted-indian-army-rape-me-it-was-the-right-thing-to-do/

      What FEMEN does is hardly activism, most of their displays are akin to soft porn,( https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=186203288078395&set=vb.128165263918015&type=3 ) they have demonstrations where they swim in the fountains similar to wet t-shirt contests, they do music video's they have DJ's, event managers, photograph sessions with Photoshop.

      They take every opportunity to jump on to the next big controversial subject in order to stay in the lime-light and keep funds and donations pouring in.

      The put their activists in harms way. Like in the case of Amina Tunisian activist. Here is an impressionable girl who is facing problems in a more conservative society, who is fighting depression (cut marks on her wrists clearly visible) and FEMEN encourages such a teenager to continue to make uproar in her country. She was lucky that copes came to her rescue when she vandalized a cemetry wall with FEMEN spray painted on the wall.

      And that is the other M.O. of how FEMEN runs its demonstration it is often followed with disturbing the pease, destruction/defacing of public or private property and then they make a hue and cry for being arrested. When the cops do come to take them away or request them to leave the premises they get even more violent or refuse to leave, hence they are forced to use force. Again FEMEN will state, we are peaceful activists doing a nude protest using sextremism what is the need for security to be so brutal.

      In majority of Feminist circles the give off being very VAIN with their methods and condescending towards activists that in fact work at the grass root levels to make a change. Check following links:
      http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/future-feminism-0022381

      http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/201304050033-0022659

      http://muftah.org/femen-strikes-in-tunisia-the-case-of-amina/

      Bottom line, we live in a society where women's bodies are overtly sexualised, and stripping is a form of male appeasement. It makes joke of everything it does not take back female rights in anyway.

      To quote someone "When it comes to women, nudity is a great tactic if your priority is to get media attention, but can be problematic because, often, that is the only way the media will pay attention to women — i.e. we are performing for the male gaze."

      ^^^is that what we really want?!

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  2. Dear kentko44, thanks for your comment! I am glad FEMEN helped raise people's awareness about these issues both in Ukraine and internationally. As you said, push for reforms should come next. My problem with them is their inability to do just that. Moreover, their current actions, instead of capitalizing on earlier achievements, start to interfere with the progress that could be made regarding these issues.

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  3. I got here via Global Voices link and I am thankful for this fact-filled expose. I'll post this comment there too, maybe we'll have various kinds of discussions.

    One might add that there is no single feminist movement, so possibly there's room for just-awareness raising groups to contribute in their own way, without the need to fit them into some preexisting theoretical or dogmatic framework.

    Civil society should be an ecosystem, a value-chain, we cannot expect one NGO to fill in all the niches, esp. if they are specialized in some aspect - and are doing it effectively.

    Apart from that, the issue of censorship is important: CNN has "covered" the naked breast in the FEMEN video they've republished, and YouTube says that the account of "FEMENmovement has been terminated due to multiple or severe violations of our Community Guidelines."

    So instead of transmitting the images (actual content of the news), we have both old and new media filtering the essential part of the free expression, regardless if you call it shock-tactic for awareness raising or performance art, downgrading the content to a hearsay level. Instead of showing what's going on at the event, we have doctored "let _me_ tell you what they did" version.

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  4. Thanks for your comment, Filip! I'll post my reply in two places as well :).

    You are right about no single feminist movement. When FEMEN appeared it was quite interesting to watch how they were going to combine feminist issues with approaches that many feminists would not exactly support, precisely because FEMEN stepped outside of dogma. Hence their arguments that feminism in Ukraine comes “combined” with short skirts and high heels (e.g. http://tinyurl.com/mtmpnu).

    I like your point about just awareness-raising groups. But FEMEN would have been one if they could stick with those few issues they originally picked up and kept “protesting” until someone else have taken these issues to the next level.

    As for CNN, I'd take your argument even further – they did a report exactly like tons of other reports that were produced by international media after FEMEN just appeared. So it was almost like "let me tell you what others have said they did."

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