It seems that the organizers of the Tel Aviv Pride Parade never expected this: At the height of last Friday’s event, a group of nearly nude women surged onto the stage, shouting, “No more discrimination within the community!” The women were members of a new group: the Israeli branch of FEMEN. Yes: the feminist group from Ukraine, internationally known for organizing topless protests against sex tourism, has spread to Israel as well.
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Shoshan, one of the activists of FEMEN in Israel (she wished to give only her first name), recounts that a woman from France named Elodie started the Israeli branch after meeting FEMEN activists in France. “During the preparations for the Tel Aviv SlutWalk [which took place in May], she came into contact with other women who formed a topless group, which gave rise to the idea of founding a branch of FEMEN in Israel. We are at the very beginning stages, with 15 women, and our numbers are growing from week to week,” she said.
The members, who range in age from 17 to 30, come from all over the country.
“We fight against the oppression of women in all its forms, and this takes the form of the objectification of women, sexism, salary gaps, blaming the victim and rape culture,” she says. “We also work on behalf of various oppressed groups. We hope to create visibility for feminists in Israeli society, since feminism and the war against the oppression of women are very silenced issues. We want to create a conversation about the subject and reach as many layers of the population who live this oppression, and some are not even aware of it.”
Shoshan is not willing to give details about FEMEN Israel’s future plans. “Our activities are kept secret so as to keep the effect of surprise, and so that the police and security at various events will not be able to sabotage our work.”
She says that women in Israel are in contact with FEMEN’s international group, keep up with their activities and receive partial funding for their own activities. “We carry their principles and work according to them, but as FEMEN Israel we choose how to act in accordance with the issues that are relevant here, in Israel’s unique social climate,” she says.
Representatives from France will soon be arriving to join them in activities here, she adds.
Why demonstrate in the nude? Some claim that to do so is to collaborate with objectification.
“We use our chests as our weapons. We do not have the male privilege of physical strength and violence, and we are not interested in them either. Baring our chests is our way of accomplishing our goals. Women’s protests are usually transparent and silenced. The only way the public sees a woman’s body is as a marketing tool in advertisements. We use the body as a weapon of protest to convey our messages and create discourse.”
The SlutWalk was their first step, but their first solid and serious activity as a movement was at the Pride Parade. “When we broke out onto the stage, at first the security guards tried to stop us using physical force. Then they tried verbal force, and the organizers tried to get us to go down too,” she recalls. “But once we started shouting ‘No more discrimination within the community,’ the organizers stopped the security guards and allowed us to stay on the stage, and lowered the volume of the music so that people would be able to hear us. Our message is important and relevant, and they supported us. We also got very positive feedback from the audience.”
She has a great deal to say about the leaders of Israel’s LGBT community. “The gay community is controlled by cisgender Ashkenazi gay men [“cisgender” refers to those whose sex and gender identity match from birth] of a relatively high socioeconomic class,” Shoshan says. “They work for their own good and forget the minority groups that exist within the community. Besides, the community itself has a phobia toward fringe groups – bisexuals, transgendered people, asexuals and so on. We protested against the discrimination that exists. The gay community includes many groups and individuals that are different and varied, all along the sexual and gender spectrum, and everyone should have a place within it – and not just a very specific part of it that has the power to fight for it. Right now, most of the activists belong to the LGBT community, so we chose the Pride Parade as one of our first activities.”
Unlike FEMEN’s activities in other countries, the women of FEMEN Israel did not expose their chests in their entirety. At the SlutWalk some of them walked topless, but at a certain stage had to cover their bodies because of police criticism. “The police announced that they would stop the march if we did not cover up, and out of a desire not to sabotage the march, and in feminine solidarity with the organizers, we chose to do some of the march covered, as the police demanded,” says Shoshan.
What kinds of reactions did you get on the street? How do you expect Israelis will react to activities like yours?
“The truth is that on the way to the Pride Parade, we walked with our wreaths on our heads and I heard some of the women saying, ‘Hey, they’re from FEMEN.’ I guess that the bigger our activities get, the more reactions we’ll get, and there will also be more awareness. Israel has a great deal of population diversity – religious, secular, conservative to a greater and lesser extent. We’re aware that we will receive disapproving reactions from certain segments of society, but this is precisely a population that we sometimes subject to criticism. We hope to succeed in creating an echo in the general population, and as for those who do not support our messages, we hope to get a debate going among them as to what we want to say. The main thing is to bring the subject out of its silencing.”