The Limits of Femen's 'Female Revolution'

For a group committed to exporting its radicalism globally, it's surprisingly inarticulate about what it stands for.

femen banner2.jpg
Police detain a Femen activist in front of the Olympic stadium in Kiev on July 1, 2012. The group was protesting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's plans to attend the championship match of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

When the activist group Femen burst onto the Ukrainian protest scene in 2008, holding mud-wrestling matches on Kyiv's central Independence Square to protest the country's notoriously dirty politics, I was hopeful the stunts could succeed in kick-starting a serious discussion about sexism and gender inequality, problems that continue to plague the states of the former Soviet Union.

Four years and a new office in Paris later, the group, which professes to use "sextremism" to fight against patriarchy as manifested by dictatorship, the church, and the sex industry, more closely resembles a girlie show. More flash than substance.

Femen has raised eyebrows -- and certainly provoked salacious grins -- with its topless antics, which have made it the most visible advocacy group on women's issues. Now that Femen has successfully roped in the international media with its stunts, it's worth examining what exactly the "founder of a new wave of feminism of the third millennium" is advocating or contributing to contemporary feminist discourse.

Ultimately, a message is only effective if it is clearly conveyed. Though it would seem that there couldn't be a clearer message than one written on nubile, bare flesh, a closer look reveals that what Femen is actually proposing remains obscured.

In an interview with Gazeta.ru, Femen activist Oleksandra Shevchenko stated that the organization's goal is a "female revolution" but was sketchier on what that actually entails. The group's website offers little beyond somewhat garbled slogans and repeated references to "hot boobs." A survey of their protests fails to provide much insight into what the concrete goals are or what the contribution to feminism may be.

In sum, there is little evidence of any of Femen's protests having significant impact, either in terms of early local campaigns concerning, for example, protests against the tradition in Ukraine of turning off hot water in rotating districts of a city, let alone larger issues such as the international sex trade.

'Pop' Feminism

Radical feminism has clearly changed since the first calls for women's emancipation through suffrage were voiced in the first half of the 19th century. Suffragettes were prepared to go to great lengths for the sake of gaining basic human rights. As cigarette ads affirmed in the late 1960s, "You've come a long way, baby."

Twentieth-century feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem pushed the issue of reproductive rights and entered the arena of LGBT rights, both of which remain contentious in a number of Western countries. In the Eastern Bloc, communism was supposed to be the great social -- and gender -- leveler. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way. Now, domestic violence and trafficking of women persist as serious social problems in many post-Soviet republics.

Presented by

Joanna Rohozinska is senior program officer for Europe and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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