When It Comes to Feminism, Is It True Breasts Are Best?

The Ukrainian protest group Femen has gained plenty of press by going topless at their demonstrations. But when it comes to liberating women and promoting feminism, is the bearing of ones chest a weapon, or just another spectacle?

Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
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Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

People might have thought them an oddity at first, but the young Ukrainian women of the group Femen who demonstrate topless against sexism, homophobia, fascism and other such -isms are gaining such momentum and influence that it could be the start of a revolution.

One of Femen’s leaders, Inna Shevchenko, published an essay earlier this month in the British newspaper The Guardian. “You can hear us shouting ‘Fuck off, dictator!’, ‘I'm not your sex toy!’, or ‘Religion is slavery!’ You can see our half-naked bodies facing Berlusconi, Putin or the Pope. You can feel how deep our anger is by looking in our eyes. We are feminism’s shock troops, a spearhead unit of militants, a modern incarnation of the word fearless.

“We are Femen. Our nakedness attacks the raw nerve of the historic conflict between women and ‘the system.’ We are nothing less than its most visual and fitting embodiment. Our activists’ bodies represent undisguised hatred for the patriarchal order, and display the new aesthetics of a rejuvenated woman's revolution.”

Shevchenko calls for the politicization of sexuality. She explains that she and her comrades are aware that they might be treated as sexual objects, but states, “We are not denying our potential to be treated as sex objects. On the contrary, we are taking our sexuality into our own hands, turning it against our enemy. We are transforming female sexual subordination into aggression, and thereby starting the real war.

“Make no mistake about it: We are at war. This is an ideological war, a war of traditionalism against modernity, oppression against freedom, dictatorship against the right to free expression. We are targeting the three principal manifestations of patriarchy: religion, the sex industry, and dictatorship.”

She adds, “Machismo can be defeated only through feminine rebellion.” According to her, “A woman’s body has always been a tool in the hands of the patriarchy. It is used by the sex industry, the fashion industry, in advertising — it is always in the hands of men. We realized that it was time to give it back to its legal owners, the women, and give a new meaning to nudity.”

From burned bras to no bras at all

Shevchenko’s essay garnered countless responses. Many commentators said Femen was only getting responses because they were showing their tits, and their behavior, in fact, was only serving to bolster sexism. “Men aren't listening to the message," wrote Louise Pennington in the Huffington Post. "They are wanking to the image."

And the controversy over the use of bare breasts is also showing up among the feminists themselves. In an interview, Shevchenko said, “We take off our clothes so that people can see we don’t have any weapon but our bodies. We live in world controlled by men, and this is the only way to make them pay attention.”
Muslim feminists have leveled criticism at Femen as well. After members of Femen demonstrated in support of Amina Tyler, the young Tunisian woman who, inspired by them, photographed herself topless and was sent death threats in response, female activists in Tunisia and its surrounding countries said such demonstrations do more harm than good. They were seen as a Western critique of Islam and a misguided way to fight for freedom of expression and women’s rights. Their comments were reminiscent of the criticism of the SlutWalk protest marches, which has been voiced in Israel as well.

But the women of Femen say that if they didn’t expose their bodies, they would never get their message across.

In one interview, Shevchenko addressed Muslim women directly.

“Sisters, we don’t care how many times your men are praying, but we care a lot what do they do in between. We care a lot about violence and aggression, we care a lot when your fathers, brothers and husbands are raping and killing, when they call to stone your sisters, we care a lot when they burn embassies, etc., and all that for Allah! In our actions the people we are attacking are the ones who are constantly oppressing women, covering them, disrespecting them, raping them, beating them whether they are religious or not,” she said.

The members of Femen come from a conservative society where young women are brought up to marry men who will support for them, and they get a lot of criticism from both their societies and their families.

Where are the unsexy women?

Another criticism against Femen, leveled by people who doubt the effectiveness of their protests, is that the women who take off their clothing are always young, slender and pretty. Femen responds that their activists are women of various ages who vary in appearance, but the media chooses to photograph and show the sexy, blonde women.

The idea to demonstrate topless, members of Femen have said, came about by accident. In one of their early protests against the sex industry, they decided to demonstrate dressed as prostitutes. They got the idea to protest topless when the shoulder strap dropped on one woman’s tank top.

Since then, they have demonstrated for gay rights at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, at Milan Fashion Week against super-thin models, in Davos against male control over the world economy, in Moscow against Putin, in Paris against Dominique Strauss-Kahn and in Rome against Silvio Berlusconi.

People in quite a few countries are paying attention. Femen, which was founded about seven years ago, now has hundreds of members in Switzerland, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Brazil, the United States, Canada, France, Germany and Italy. It even holds “training camps” for female activists in Kiev and near Paris.

You say you want a revolution

In Ukraine and Belarus, the women are harassed by the authorities. Some have “disappeared” for several days after protesting against the Euro 2012 games being held in Ukraine as part of their fight against the sex industry. (They even hid the cup briefly, and screamed “Fuck Euro!” when police arrested them.) After several days of being held incommunicado they were released.

They suffered a more serious incident in 2011. Shevchenko and two other activists went to Minsk, in Belarus, to demonstrate against President Alexander Lukashenko, whom many regard as a dictator. They were kidnapped and driven to a forest where they were held at knifepoint, ordered to undress and kept tied up for hours. In the end, they were thrown out in the snow.

On the day the verdict against the punk group Pussy Riot was to be given in Russia, Shevchenko, wearing red denim shorts, boots, leather gloves and a face mask to protect her eyes, cut down a four-meter wooden cross overlooking Freedom Square with a chainsaw. When it fell, she spread out her arms in imitation of Jesus on the cross, showing the slogan painted on her chest: “Free Pussy Riot.”

Afterward, she had to flee the country, first to Warsaw and then to Paris, where she continues to operate today.

Since its inception, Femen has suffered attempts at delegitimization and hints that the members are the tools of other political groups. For example, Ukrainian television recently broadcast a report by a female reporter who joined them undercover as a volunteer. The reporter said that Femen’s members received $1,000 per month, three times the average salary in Ukraine, and that the money came from German businessmen who decided where the protests would be held.

It seems that the patriarchal establishment finds the women of Femen much scarier than conventional feminists. The members of Femen are completely fed up with the treatment of women. They know very well that words and gender theories aren't enough to stir up a revolution. So they take the tool that is always used against them — their own bodies — regain control over it and direct it against their oppressors.

Despite the masculine, militaristic terminology, it seems that their tactics are effective, at least when it comes to raising awareness. True, their style of feminism is not appropriate for every culture or every woman, but that’s why there are many forms of feminism.

At any rate, in a world full of violence against women, the minimization of women in every possible way and oppression in more or less sophisticated forms, in every field, we can only take off our hats (if not our bras) to these courageous women and hope they will spark a revolution. We all need it, men and women alike.

Activists from women's rights group Femen take part in a protest in front of a mosque in Sao Paulo April 4, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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