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Free to be: The Body of Femen

Free to be: The Body of Femen

By Susan Harris

Femen is an exhibitionist protest group formed in Ukraine in 2008 where protesting against a myriad of topics related to the state or the church or the law they take off their tops with the messages written on their body. It has spread to other countries, and has gained a lot of attention, including being arrested for hooliganism and ‘desecration of state symbols’. In their acts of resistance they see radical feminism, claiming that if they were protesting using banners no would take note of them and that machismo can be defeated only by rebellion. In a world of news and access to news, Femen manages to make the world focus on their breasts. They have declared that they have three aims: to fight sexual exploitation, dictatorship and religion.

Some feminists have been openly critical accusing them of dressing like prostitutes perpetuating an objectification of women even in protest. Maria Dmitrieva also said that baring your breasts is not conducive to a social discourse which would allow change for women. However the policy of Femen seems to be to wrest control about the use of their body from men rather than a negotiation with patience. Moves such as declaration of an International topless jihad day fall in the same category.

A Femen member has also said that men like women’s breasts but the connotation and attitude changes when the woman uses them to express a political desire. Given the controversial nature it is only natural that other aspects also come under the scanner. For example they have been accused of using only white, pretty, slim women as volunteer-protesters. Further a large number of feminists have also pointed out that the entire movement seems to doubly reduce to the image of the naked protesters than their causes. To the first allegation they have squarely blamed the media and said that it is typical of the media to focus on what would be appealing to men or people as consumers of the images of body. The second criticism is a bit tricky to unravel. For example, the same images will be getting published in a magazine for men called ‘Gentlemen’s Quarterly’. It is highly unlikely that some of their readers would be motivated into rethinking patriarchy after seeing these images because the context is aimed at something different altogether. The same issue is at stake when Facebook blocked some of their pages because they were interpreted as pornographic.

A more serious charge is that of neocolonial feminism and cultural imperialism. Making statements such as ‘better naked than the burqa’ and clearing the ‘Arab mentality’, the Femen has been called yet another movement that thrusts its values on other cultures, ignoring their specificities and sensitivities. Feminism and diversity has always had a complicated relationship. Diversity is harder to engage correctly than intersectionality where diversity calls for difference in methods and intersectionality only a non-simplification of the problem by taking into account other aspects such as race and class. In the contemporary political climate, diversity and pluralism often trump every other argument. For example when the Egyptian protester Aliaa Elmahdy posted her naked pictures online in an effort to dismantle Egypt’s patriarchal structures, even the secular feminists decried her actions. The implication of this was two fold: first, if secularists denounced her then she must not be secular and second, secularism does not mean anti-religious.

Such moves conveniently forget that Femen has organized protests against Christianity and churches as well but any critique of Islam is drowned in a discourse of political sensitivity and cultural differences. Against the monolith of Islam sediment other monoliths such as secularism and liberalism though there is no essential unity to these terms other than a contemporary meaning. If in today’s climate secularism means no religious interference, does it mean the meaning must be accepted unambiguously? In the same way if these protest methods are alien to the Arab world and culture, does it mean they must never be used?

The monolithic nature of political correctness becomes even clearer when we consider some other criticism. Femen activists are routinely accused of staging these acts as some kind of performance that will draw attention. Other than the fact that this is precisely their objective, such statements tend to attribute negative qualities to Femen such as shallow or predictable. Thus everyone agrees on the politically correct as some kind of assumption such as all traditions must be sacred and cultures must never be criticized against Femen itself which is seen as politically incorrect and doing ‘damage’ to the feminist project.

With first and second wave feminism, it was important to consolidate unity and present a credible front for their needs to be taken seriously. But today when we have post-feminism and intersectionality of various factors, it is more important to have competing voices against the common goal: the critiquing and dismantling of patriarchy. It appears that one must move beyond any conception of feminism as the ‘right’ kind of politics. Some might be relatively more important than others but no woman or theorist can preempt its importance or efficacy. This means that the question whether Femen are real feminists or not is invalid.

Though it remains to be seen if Femen is selective in the presentation of a particular aesthetic of women and whether it will have any real impact in the Middle Eastern countries, when the movement is definitely growing and drawing more women supporters; a naming of it as exhibitionism or vacuousness is unwarranted. Politicized nudity is subject to interpretation as it is a political act but it must not deflect the attention from the bigger things. Questions typical of this nitpicking approach concentrate on whether the Femen members are splurging and spending the money or a focus on the personal lives of the protagonists or controversial statements made by one person. We must realize that in the discourse of power, many discourses float around and some get more attention and the adaptation of patriarchy to these discourses to subvert them must be the worry of every feminist. Even if a politics isn’t the ‘right’ kind of politics, and even if it doesn’t have backing by the theorists or feminists, we must not eliminate any act prematurely. There is a separate intrinsic worth of the organization or the movement that is worth saving.

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