The Radical FEMEN and The New Women’s Activism

November 2010
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We shall march, chest forward,
Into the kingdom of freedom.1

In Ukraine, FEMEN is regarded with skepticism. Local intellectuals  point out its problematic qualities, such as kitsch and inconsistency.

Western intellectuals are fascinated by FEMEN's vigor and radicalism, and the image of Ukrainian feminism is now associated with FEMEN.   

Ukrainian feminists are wary of any associations with FEMEN and prefer to distance themselves from the group: FEMEN, they say, capitalizes on the sexualization of female bodies. 

How can one understand FEMEN?

The Phenomenology of FEMEN

FEMEN is a radical women’s movement that originated in Kyiv about two years ago.2 National newspapers, magazines, television, and internet sites all beam with childlike exaltation savoring the appealing defiance of FEMEN’s street actions: activists protesting topless.

When after two years FEMEN’s protests did not stop – in fact, they became more frequent and more daring – when the movement did not join a political party, did not become a mouthpiece for a candidate at the next elections, and did not turn into a business project, then the claims that FEMEN was just a puppet organization somewhat dwindled.

Incessant attempts to uncover FEMEN’s financial benefactors dead-end with the evidence of financial asceticism. Three activists, for example, would often share one rented apartment, and it is not unusual for them to suffer from lack of money:

Sasha Shevchenko is pouring tea from a small pan. There isn’t a teapot in the small apartment she is sharing with two other girls. There aren’t enough cups, either. "I’ll pour you some tea into a jar, ok?" she alerts Ania Hutsol, her friend and comrade-in-arms. "Good thing the cookies are still around; my parents brought them. I’d been starving for a week before that. At least I lost some weight, which is good for filming." (N. Radulova. Ogoniok, No. 37 (5146).)

Whatever the outcome of the hunt for the ghost sponsors of the movement, or hidden political agendas, or clandestine projects (such an approach apriori belongs to the patriarchal paradigm), it cannot help find answers to the following questions:

How and why did this movement emerge now – precisely in a period of a neoconservative turn in our history, precisely in this post-Soviet state, and precisely in this form of a topless protest of young women? Is this a feminist movement? Or is it its prototype? Or its antipode? To what extent is this movement a protest movement, and to what extent is it conventional and opportunistic? To what extent is it a sexist practice and to what extent does it oppose sexist practices? What message, if any, does FEMEN offer? 

The Economics of Protest: Defiance, Popularity, Mass Audience

By 2008, it became obvious that the idea of gender liberalization in post-Soviet Ukraine lost the battle for cultivating mass gender and feminist consciousness. Even the “new left,” for the most part, shied away from feminist ideas and gender politics.

The women’s/feminist movement of the last few decades failed to reach a mass audience. Despite its (often super-human) efforts to jump-start the engine of “indoctrination” into gender politics, the movement remained backstage, local, and marginal. However, it did manage to create its own niche (adequate and powerful, but still rather isolated) in the space of civic organizations, along with a loose network among academics. The passing...

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka