It was a gruesome image: Barbie tied to a burning white cross, engulfed in flames, charred and melting, brandished like a weapon by a topless blonde activist standing atop the giant pink stiletto which greets visitors to the new ‘Barbie Dreamhouse’ at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. Across her chest were the words ‘Life in plastic is not fantastic’ – a reference to the 1997 anti-Barbie pop song by Aqua.
This ‘ritual Barbie-cue’ on 17 May 2013 was one of the latest in a recent series of impressive media stunts by the now international feminist group, FEMEN. They were quite rightly protesting the transformation of ‘a piece of plastic into a god for millions of girls’ for whom the only ‘reason to exist [is] in the continuous care of their appearance and the house’.
And it might have been funny, too, if it weren’t for the alienated and bewildered five-year-olds who witnessed the burning crucifixion of their favourite consumerist idol. Or the fact that this separately organised stunt stole the media show from a broader collectively organised demonstration of over 300 people. Or, more importantly, if in the past two years FEMEN had not taken such a colonialist and even seriously racist turn, alienating many who might otherwise sympathise with their attempt to reinvigorate ‘third wave’ feminism.
The truth is, many of FEMEN’s actions are funny, in a way. So is their website, among whose images is one of a FEMEN activist brandishing a bloodied sickle in one hand and a pair of testicles in the other. But usually I’m laughing in an ‘I-can’t-believe-their-politics-are-so-off-the-mark’ way. And increasingly, it has started to feel a bit like laughing as you slowly realise that you’re actually watching a train wreck.
FEMEN, the founders of ‘Titslamism’, ‘Sextremism’ and other equally confusing neologisms, are currently the most talked about feminist group in Europe. FEMEN was founded in the Ukraine in 2008 by Anna Hutsol, Oksana Schachko, and Alexandra and Inna Schewtschenko to protest the use by ‘foreigners’ of the Ukraine a destination for cheap and no-strings-attached sex, with the slogan ‘the Ukraine is not a brothel’. Rapidly obtaining publicity, these topless women activists became (in)famous through staged tactics that follow a consistent pattern. A very small group of FEMEN activists will burst suddenly into a public space. They are topless, wearing Daisy Dukes, bright red lipstick, a wreath of flowers with ribbons on their heads, and political slogans written across their chests; they are dragged off kicking and screaming by police (this last being an almost essential part of the theatrics).
It was in 2012 that FEMEN’s international fame exploded. Their stunts often target top-ranking politicians or religious leaders, including Vladimir Putin (‘the most dangerous dictator in the world’), Viktor Yanukovich and Silvio Berlusconi. Their interventions have a leftist edge: they have participated in anti-Nazi protests in Berlin, pro-gay marriage demonstrations in France, and in August 2012 conducted a solidarity action with imprisoned Russian band Pussy Riot, during which one woman cut down a giant wooden crucifix in Kiev with a chainsaw. In Germany, the group has since even appeared on the widely watched current affairs program Menschen bei Maischberger.
Within the last two weeks alone, FEMEN stunts have taken place in the Ukraine against the Japanese Mayor of Osaka’s comment that ‘comfort women’ helped maintain military discipline in the Second World War; in Paris in the Notre Dame cathedral calling on French fascists to follow the example of conservative politician Dominique Venner, who shot himself on 21 May in protest against gay marriage and ‘Islamist’ control of Europe; in New York, in support of the laudable decision to decriminalise female topless nudity; and in Germany, where two FEMEN activists sprang onto the stage at a live broadcast of the final of Germany’s Next Top Model, bearing the slogan ‘Heidi [Klum’s] Horror Picture Show’.
Yet despite their fearless tactics, cleverly timed stunts and many admirable motivations, FEMEN’s political perspective has been filled with contradictions and confusions from the start. FEMEN’s website states that they are ‘serving to protect women’s rights, [and are] democracy watchdogs attacking patriarchy in all its forms: the dictatorship, the church, the sex industry’. But their self-proclaimed ideology of ‘Sextremism’, for which there is no clear definition, seems to boil down to the idea that women exposing their breasts is the best way to shock the world into granting women’s emancipation. Their equally opaque summary of feminism as consisting of ‘hot boobs, a cool head and clean hands’ has also been criticised for reinforcing the same body-stereotypes created under capitalism that FEMEN itself claims to oppose, in which women must aspire to a certain ‘look’: unblemished, skinny but not-too-skinny, blonde, blue-eyed, sexually available, and perfect (usually white) skin, just like Barbie. In fact, looking at some images on their website, it is difficult to tell the difference between FEMEN and FHM-Men. In one interview, German FEMEN activist Irina said their aim is to ‘show [that] feminism is not limited to old, bitter, ugly women with short hair’.
Their topless protests have generated a great deal of controversy in mainstream Europe. In the Ukraine and Belarus, they have been accused of obscenity, moral outrage and contempt for public decency. But there has also been no shortage of sleazy innuendo by a media that thrives upon the objectification of women. An early piece of international coverage for the group by the Economist magazine, for example, reported that the group had ‘aroused’ much attention, and advised its assumed male readers that they ‘might not want to read this story with your boss around’ – get it, boys? Yet the Economist simultaneously accused FEMEN of a ‘shameless quest’ for media attention.
It is, therefore, in some ways understandable that Irina believes that ‘without our topless actions no one would be at all interested in what we have to say’. Yet, as British critic Elly Badcock has noted, this tactic ‘has always been questionable, to say the least. Of course, the female body is nothing to be ashamed of … but in this context, the tactic is misplaced. The ideological statement the action ends up reinforcing is this – that showing your breasts is inherently liberating, and covering up is a necessary signifier of sexist oppression. Women’s liberation cannot be reduced to measuring the amount of flesh we’re permitted to show.’
To be sure, their approach has in many cases been humorous, buoyant, and importantly, inspiring to many young women attracted by their libertarian ‘fuck-your-morals’ radicalism. Yet their methods of organisation and political statements reveal at their core a fairly pure liberalist-colonialist tendency. Acknowledging this can explain how their obsession with topless nudity and their predominant Barbie-doll image is connected to a more serious and disturbing aspect of their movement. Ultimately, they end up following a particular path of feminism that upholds racist stereotypes. Even in their early days, the FEMEN founders said they wanted to ‘build up the image of Ukraine’, and rid the country of its ‘Arab mentality towards women’. And most of their international fame has been generated not through the examples cited above, but through their repeated attacks on ‘Islam’ and their colonialist ‘defence’ of ‘Muslim women’.
Many of their actions have been explicitly racist. At the Eiffel Tower in April 2012, FEMEN staged a protest against the burqa – the garment which in 2010 had been banned by the French state and against which ban French Muslim women had organised repeated protests! – by stripping off and holding up signs saying ‘Muslim women, let’s get naked’ and ‘Nudity is freedom.’ During the Olympic Games in London in August 2012, they staged a topless ‘Islamic marathon’ to protest against ‘bloody Islamic regimes’. One activist had dressed up as a ‘Muslim man’ wearing a long white robe, with a drawn-on beard and artificially thickened and conjoined eyebrows. Other slogans linked the legal tradition of sharia to ‘speed raping’.
The greatest international attention came in April 2013, following an action in March by Tunisian feminist Amina Tyler, who posted FEMEN-inspired images of herself on the internet. Her naked chest bore the slogan ‘My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honour’, to which a Muslim cleric responded by calling for her to be stoned to death. A call by feminists from across several predominantly Muslim countries to organise a day of solidarity with Amina had the misfortune of also attracting signatures by famous Islamophobes like Richard Dawkins. As if on cue, FEMEN launched an ‘International Topless Jihad Day’ on 4 April. They encouraged women across the world practice what they called ‘Titslamism’ and protest in front of Muslim organisations and mosques, in a ‘sextremist’ show of outrage against ‘Islamic’ misogyny. This became a day of the crudest, most embarrassing examples of racist idiocy, with FEMEN activists finding the nearest mosque – oh, any old mosque will do – and stripping off, or posing in racist caricatures, or (just to turn things up a notch) burning a salafist flag in front of the great mosque of Paris.
It is hopefully, dear reader, clear to you that in a Europe increasingly full of budding Anders Breiviks, Geert Wilderses, and English Defence League members, what the implications of a so-called ‘feminist’ action of this kind might be.
Muslim women around the world reacted by accusing FEMEN of neo-colonialism, and of ridiculing ‘the millions of women who do wear hijabs and cover their bodies out of choice by making it seem like they’re too naïve to know any better’. Amina herself condemned the flag burning, saying ‘they have not insulted extremists but all Muslims, this is unacceptable’. On Twitter, the hashtag #muslimahpride created in reaction to FEMEN generated thousands of tweets; the Facebook page ‘Muslim Women Against FEMEN’, launched on 5 April, now has over 10,000 ‘likes’.
The action also prompted British student Sofia Ahmed to launch ‘Muslimah Pride Day’. Ahmed says that FEMEN’s tactics ‘reinforce Western imperialism and generate consent for the ongoing wars against Muslim countries.’ The response to her initiative indicates the ‘anger and frustration that Muslim women feel toward being perpetually infantilised … By dismissing the role of Western countries in the oppression of Muslim women and focusing solely on Muslim men, [FEMEN] are only working to demonise Islam, not liberate Muslim women.’
In a special panel on Al-Jazeera on the question ‘Who speaks for Muslim women?’, Iranian activist Leila Mouri noted the great diversity in Muslim countries, ‘influenced by their cultural, economic, political and historical background’. She suggested that the job of a movement for women’s liberation based on solidarity rather than paternalism is to ‘permit women to strategise their [own] struggle based on the … political atmosphere that they are working in’.
Yet FEMEN’s paternalism has also manifested in their actions focused on the European sex industry. The first action by FEMEN Germany was, in fact, in January in Hamburg’s Herbertstraße (known as ‘brothel street’, and legally off-limits for women since the Nazi period) in January, where they held a topless protest in front of one of the brothels, holding up burning torches and signs in which the ‘X’ in ‘Sextremism’ had been turned into a swastika. They announced that ‘In concentration camps, people were destroyed and prostitution destroys the souls of women … what’s happening here is a genocide against women’. They then proceeded to spray paint the walls with the Nazi slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei’. Not surprisingly, this enraged and alienated several groups involved in the self-organisation of sex-workers. During the action, one prostitute even came outside to tell them to piss off.
Sadly, despite much sensible criticism expressed in growing numbers of online opinion pieces, and despite the fact that one of the FEMEN leaders herself even appeared on the Al-Jazeera program in dialogue with her critics, all the critiques seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Just this week, three FEMEN activists – from France and Germany – turned up in Tunisia to up the neo-colonialist ante by stripping off in front of the Ministry of Justice in solidarity with Amina, with FEMEN founder Inna Shevchenko boasting that this was ‘the first protest of its kind to take place in the Arab world’ (a bombastic and probably untrue claim).
One thing is certain: the humour is well and truly gone, and FEMEN has come to represent a train wreck of the burgeoning feminist renewal in Europe. I hope that they do not remain the only option available for young women pissed off and ready to fight for a better world for everyone, not just for Barbie dolls.