Throughout February 2013, FEMEN activists have staged protests in over ten countries spanning two continents, making their presence known to a multitude of news outlets as a result of their savvy and well-orchestrated use of the media. Most recently, on February 24 2013, three FEMEN activists, including the leader of the French FEMEN chapter Inna Shevchenko, have been detained by the Italian police following their protest at a polling station in Milan where the ex-premier and current prime minister candidate Silvio Berlusconi was going to cast his ballot.
FEMEN is a self-described “global women’s movement” whose aim is to “defend with their breast, sexual and social equality in the world” by acting as “democracy watchdogs attacking patriarchy, in all its forms: the dictatorship, the church, the sex industry.” The organization was created in 2008 by Anna Hutsol, a 24-year-old marketing student. She created it to urge women to “develop a social consciousness” in reaction to the ever-growing sex industry in Ukraine. Hutsol’s marketing background plays a key role in FEMEN’s framework and protest strategies. Their website is constantly being updated with blog posts detailing the organization’s latest movements and with telling video footage documenting their actions, which Hustol describes as belonging “somewhere between performance and the market.”
The organization has been criticized by various groups of people belonging to different parts of the political and social spectrum within and outside Ukraine. Feminists from both the left and the right of the academy are having difficulty placing FEMEN within Ukrainian feminist discourses on gender because of their controversial use of the female body, which some academics regard as exploitative.
Ukraine’s Social Context in Regards to Gender
It is impossible to fully comprehend and appreciate FEMEN’s mission and strategies when it is taken out of the Ukrainian, and arguably the Eastern European, context as a whole. The evolution of gender relations in the post-Soviet era in countries such as Ukraine has created an environment in which distinctions between men and women are marked and inflexible. As stated in the World Bank Gender Review for Ukraine in 2002, “Lenin promised equality to women; Stalin mobilized a massive workforce of women while reversing many of Lenin’s reforms directed at benefiting women; and Gorbachev, through perestroika and glasnost, unintentionally lowered the standard of living and intentionally promoted the return of women to the hearth in order to “save” the Union from perceived social ills...”
According to the 2001 Human Development Report, 7.8 percent of the seats in Parliament were held by women, and 38 percent legislators, senior officials and managers were female. The second number, however, is seen as largely symbolic because the major decisions on the country’s most important laws and national policies are reached in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament. One of the reasons put forward by the Gender Review for the lack of female involvement in these matters is “the belief that in Ukrainian society, politics are the province of men.”
The way this is reflected in Ukrainian society is complex and extremely different from the way gender relations operate in Western societies. One of its outcomes that pertain to FEMEN in particular is the lack, or complete absence, of dialogue about gender roles. There is a commonly held belief that, “Men and women play on different teams and follow different rules.” Interactions between men and women are pre-determined by the roles conceived by traditional gender norms.
There is no such thing as the belief in every individual’s freedom to live the way they want. Regardless of their gender, “different norms guide their behavior.” This is a viewpoint taken by many Ukrainian and Eastern European women who look down on efforts such as FEMEN. Although a lot of women agree that their culture is patriarchal, there is a noticeable deference towards women in many situations. Gestures of respect and admiration, such as men opening the door for women, or paying the bills, are very common. These gestures serve to validate and reinforce gender stereotypes; men fulfill their masculine role, and by accepting this treatment, women “fulfill the appropriate feminine role.”
FEMEN’s Disruption of Gender Roles Through Civil Disobedience
"Our society isn’t used to protests and strikes, and doesn’t understand these acts are a way to pressure the authorities. Yet we must protest. No one in power will give us anything otherwise." In this quote by FEMEN’s creator and leader Anna Hutsol, she refers to her society, namely its culture of shaming any disruption to the status quo, and the resulting lack of discourse on relevant social issues. Dialogue is the necessary initial step towards any kind of social evolution.
As for the tactics FEMEN employs to begin this dialogue: it can be debated that the group is too radical or offensive, but the main point is that the discourse has begun, and is receiving worldwide coverage. The FEMEN activists are being seen, and sometimes heard, whether people like it or not; whether it is at the 2013 Davos forum where three activists donned “S.O.S Davos” slogans across their chests and called for the world leaders involved to stop “pretending” like “they care about the women question” or at the Vatican in protest of the Pope’s statements on Gay Adoption, where they sported slogans such as “In Gay We Trust.”
Each of these protests consists usually of no more than three or four activists, and yet cause a disruption that receives worldwide attention. These women claim to be the shock troops of a new feminism. When you have been brought up in a society where raising your voice about an issue that concerns you is looked down upon, but showcasing your body and its feminine attributes is viewed as a requirement, it is only logical that that latter loses its meaning if the former does not exist.