Conrad Steenkamp
Conrad Steenkamp

Femen: From enthusiasm to disenchantment

A wave of popular interest and sympathetic media coverage helped the “radical” Ukrainian feminist movement Femen, known for their topless “attacks” on symbols of the “patriarchy” (religion, “dictators” and pornography) to expand rapidly into Western Europe, the Americas and several Islamic countries. Recently Femen announced triumphantly that “Femen” has topped “feminism” in the Google rankings. Femen is the “feminism of the future”.

However, former supporters and volunteers have started to turn on Femen. “They are irresponsible,” says Laura-May, former Femen France self-defence instructor. “Sooner or later somebody is going to be killed or seriously injured.” Femen also stands accused of mercenary commercial motivations, opaque finances, xenophobia and Islamophobia, and Machiavellian manipulation of vulnerable young women.

Mounting opposition among former supporters and members amounts to a marketing problem — and this may be the crux of the matter. “Femen’s actions aim at promoting Femen as a brand,” says Leticia Bicicreta of “Feminists against Femen” (Facebook) in Brazil. Femen has been described as a “commercial media operation”, referring to relationships with business people dating back to its inception in 2008. These included Jed Sunden, then owner of a Ukrainian publishing and digital design company, KP Media; also Helmut Geier, a German DJ and fashion promotions expert. Could these links explain Femen’s professional digital marketing material and on-line presence?

Femen’s own online fashion shop sells branded T-shirts and related apparel. It links directly with Tide Stores Trading Company, a Chinese network marketing company, also established in 2008, which sells, among others, high-heeled shoes, a somewhat illogical Femen accessory during protests. Recently Femen contracted with the Chinese fashion company, Suwen International , giving them the right to sell “sexy” Femen-branded lingerie in Turkey. The “Femen-ists” appeared for a photo shoot at a Suwen branch before proceeding to “protest” in the streets of Istanbul wearing “sexy” Suwen undergarments. “They are selling protest,” thinks Bicicreta.

Femen’s finances are opaque, their management style authoritarian. “It’s their way or no way,” says Katja Kuehnrat (pseudonym), former Femen Germany member. “If you don’t agree with an action, they say you can leave. We knew nothing about the money they made through their online shop or donations.” Lyse Bonconseil (pseudonym), ex-Femen France, adds. The leaders “say they earn very little, but always had a lot of cash and wore fashionable clothes.”

Donations to fix Inna Shevchenko of Femen France’s tooth, broken in an “attack”, rolled in “long after it had been fixed by a dentist – free of charge,” alleges another former Femen member. “There are just so many contradictions,” comments Laura-May. “What Femen says is not what they do.” Bonconseil concurs. “Femen used the gay issue in France to attack the church. But Femen members themselves made homophobic jokes and discriminated against the lesbians. And when these women left, they said that they were fat anyway.” When invited to a party by a well-known lesbian journalist, Schevchenko said that she would “obviously not go as the woman was hitting on her, which was completely untrue,” alleges another ex-Femen.

“Femen wants only pretty women,” says Kuehnrat. “If you were ugly or over thirty they push you away.” Shevchenko has argued that one needs a “good physical condition” for the protests. However, in a Ukrainian-language video, sitting on rumpled bed sheets in an erotic Playboy-like pose, she explains that Femen has “high beauty standards” and “a strict selection process”. Several ex-Femen confirmed that this was indeed the practice and photographs of volunteers’ breasts were sent to Femen leader Anna Hutsol in Kiev for approval.

Laura-May experienced relations within Femen as “Machiavellian”. More than one ex-Femen spoke of the manipulative use of affection and disapproval, misrepresentation and lies to control the young volunteers. Some of these are “psychologically vulnerable or have a history of psychiatric treatment,” says Kuehnrat. Laura-May thinks that “they join Femen and suddenly have something of value. Then they are pressurised to participate in risky actions. Femen uses them and discards them.” “There are enough volunteers,” says Bonconseil. Kuehnrat and others experienced Femen as sect-like. “It’s a full-time job and if you want to leave, they cut you out. I was trolled and received a flood of abusive emails, stuff like ‘go hang yourself’. It was really ugly. Leaving Femen is not easy.”

Most ex-Femen exuded a sense of disappointment. “Initially some of the actions made sense. Then they turned to militant atheism,” says Laura-May. “Protesting against the Salafists in front of a liberal mosque in Paris, what sense does that make?” She was shocked by the violence with which Shevchenko pushed a striptease dancer from the stage, high heels and all, during an “attack” on a Parisian sexpo. “They have no respect for these women.” Femen’s anti-prostitution demonstration in the famous Reeperbahn, Hamburg, lasted only 15 minutes. “They just took photographs and left,” says Kuehnrat. “No effort to engage the prostitutes. What message does that send out?”

For Klara Martins of Femen Germany, simply getting one’s breasts on TV equals success. “We are creating awareness,” she says to a German TV station. One might ask: what awareness? “With all the media attention, Femen had a great opportunity to address serious female issues like the 70 000 women raped in France each year,” says Laura-May. “But all they do is promote Femen.”

The dissonance between Femen’s “radical” rhetoric and public perception is not lost on Men for Femen, despite strong approval of Femen’s strident atheism. “Fighting against patriarchy to establish matriarchy? The blood of men will be flowing? Does anyone have a good explanation for that?” he writes on FB after being pointed to an interview with Inna Schevchenko in Die Zeit.

In the same interview Shevchenko states that the Matriarchy would “maybe” be in place by 2017. If so, Femen intends achieving this without help. “They ignore the other feminist organisations,” says Bonconseil. Schevchenko and Hutsol seem to regard these as stale academic talk shops, with only Femen undertaking meaningful action. This disdain has not gone unnoticed. “When I hear things like classical feminism is dead, (…), I just find it completely insulting,” says Megan Murphy of Feminist Current on Al Jazeera. Inna Schevchenko’s response: a predictable and therefore failed effort to expose her breasts on “Arabic TV”.

Strangely, says Kuehnrat, “we never really discussed feminism at Femen. They really didn’t seem to know anything about feminism.” Murphy considers Femen to be “generally clueless about feminism, past and present”. Bicicreta comes with a blunt: “Femen are not feminists!” Kristen Hatten, a New Wave Feminism blogger comments: “It’s hard for me to write about the Ukrainian fauxminist organisation called Femen because I am laughing so hard at their website.”

A host of issues remain. “They attack all religions equally”, argues Men for Femen. Tara Martsenyuk, Ukrainian feminist and academic, disagrees. “Femen focuses especially on Islam. They singled out Turkish men as sex tourists, wanting to refuse them entry to the country.” In the case of Islam Femen simply crashes right through the subtle boundaries between cultural relativism and universal human rights. “In their eyes every Muslim is an ‘Islamist’,” says Bonconseil. “Femen is anti-immigration.” Several ex-Femen thought that Femen attracted “especially right-wing women”. “They are both cause and symptom of the anti-immigration sentiment in Europe,” says Laura-May.

A Femen Ukraine member poses suggestively in an SS-uniform amid a slew of semi-pornographic photographs. Former Femen Brazil leader, Sarah “Winter” (20), has an Iron Cross tattooed on her chest. This former prostitute once belonged to a white supremacy group and has links with a “neo-Nazi” punk rock band. “Femen accepted Winter and trained her,” says Bicicreta. Kuehnrat adds, “It was a natural fit.”

However, Femen is no neo-Nazi organisation. In a misguided attempt to equate prostitution with fascism, Femen activists wore wobbly plastic penises during an action on the famous Reeperbahn in Hamburg. They had Hitler moustaches, swastikas on their torsos and gave the Nazi salute (illegal in Germany). This disavowal of Nazism impressed few. Their slogan for this action, “Arbeit macht Frei”, misappropriated the Shoa and ignored the fate of many prostitutes in concentration camps. Not for Femen, it seems, any self-conscious western European political sensitivities.

Femen Exposed (FB), a Russian native, describes Femen as “conservative Ukrainian nationalists”, as is indicated by their choice prop, a traditional Ukrainian garland of flowers. Conservative Eastern European nationalism could explain Femen’s insistence on doing things the Ukrainian way and their insensitivities to western European cultural sentiment — also why all of the ex-Femen members interviewed self-identified as “liberal” or “left”.

Amid the smoke and mirrors, contradictions and lies, Femen’s actions have consequences. Their quest for media attention drives them to ever-more “radical,” divisive and risky actions. As “elite demonstrators,” as Die Zeit put it, descend on increasingly exotic locations, it is only a matter of time before somebody pays the price. “It’s almost as if they want this to happen,” says Laura-May. Arguably, Femen’s Islamophobic rhetoric already gives them at least partial responsibility for the recent attack on a pregnant veiled Muslim woman in Paris and the death of her unborn child.

Femen is a highly professional, successful and arguably commercial protest operation. However, the gap between their image and ugly reality will drive ever greater numbers of volunteers and supporters from enthusiasm to disenchantment, eroding the Femen brand and “network marketing” effort. It is not sustainable and ultimately, Femen will be cast back from their tits to their intellect, along with contemptuous laughter about what they have to offer: “Our tits are harder than your stones!”

Yea, right …

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    • Analyn


      This is the best summary about FEMEN I have seen. THE BEST! You hit every nail on the head and expose them!

      Thanks so much for this! I’m sharing this with everyone I know.

    • Feminist

      Overall an interesting article, and some good points made about the commercial operation, and the sex-workers, and the lack of actual engagement of Femen to help women instead of media-attention-seeking actions, as well as their lack of democratic structures.

      But many anecdotes do not make up for a big story. Although your article contains many interesting aspects, I do have the impression you are forcing your point a bit.

      For example, does the academic you are citing have any evidence for the these allegations? “In their eyes every Muslim is an ‘Islamist’,” says Bonconseil. “Femen is anti-immigration.” – because you are not presenting any.

      I understand that you want to give a certain spin to the article, and that is your right. But claiming that Femen is homophobic, “Islamophobic”, nationalist and right-wing based on two or three interviews, while not even mentioning Femen’s aggressive and persistent engagement against the Orthodox and Catholic church, for gay marriage equality and against fascists and Nazis makes it seem like there are nuances you want to gloss over. You also fail to mention that Sarah Winter from Femen Brazil, your only evidence of a right-wing activist, was actually kicked out of Femen.

      Again, as I said, someone needs to point out the blatant contradictions in Femen’s work and the extreme and possibly harmful actions of Femen. What you have done now is telling the story from only one perspective.

    • Feminist

      I think this summarises your way of dealing with logic and evidence pretty well:

      “Arguably, Femen’s Islamophobic rhetoric already gives them at least partial responsibility for the recent attack on a pregnant veiled Muslim woman in Paris and the death of her unborn child.”

      This is just plainly ludicrous. How can you claim that there is any connection between Femen and this case? Do you have only the slightest evidence for that? Have Femen ever called for attacks on Muslims? Or is Femen now responsible for every crime against Muslims in France? Crimes that have been taking place long before Femen ever existed?

    • Conrad Steenkamp

      Dear Feminist,

      It is difficult to cover everything in a 1000 word article. Much has been written about Femen’s alleged Islamophobia and I selected to mention it, rather than deal with that aspect in any real depth.

      I dont think it is far fetched to make Femen partly responsible for violence against Muslim women in France. Femen’s rhetoric feeds off and feeds islamophobic sentiment. They are “both symptom and cause” of the islamophobic climate in western europe as one of the former femen women put it.

      Critically in light of their “crusade” to protect muslim women from religion in islamic countries, they fail to say anything when the same women are subjected to violence in the streets of paris for exercising what should be a right: to wear what you want to wear. That bothers me as it bothers many Muslimah.

      Regarding Sarah Winter: the point is that she was accepted as Femen Brazil leader in the first place, which was described as a meeting of minds. Her split with Femen, furthermore, does not appear to have any foundation in ideological differences.

      I take issue with your claim that the article takes one side of the story. How many sides do you want it to show then? What side was ignored? Femens? I made several attempts to engage them. Also with your description of the experiences of ex-Femen as “anecdotal”. Does that mean that their insights have no legitimacy? This is an opinion piece, not an academic research project.

    • Feminist

      Dear Conrad,

      My sympathies go to you writing an article, but space limitations are hardly a good excuse to gloss over evidence that contradicts your narrative.

      Femen being “symptom and cause” of the “islamophobic climate” is just plainly ridiculous. So it’s not the Front National, not the Bloc Identitaire, not the MNR, not the NDP, not CIVITAS, not the people from Riposte Laique who have been the a climate of anti-Muslim sentiment long before Femen even existed. All organisations who have many more followers, political support (around 20% for the FN!) and much more financial or marketing cloud than Femen.

      Also, Femen women have spoken up in support of women who wear the hijab, something that you conveniently fail to mention. And just because they fail to condemn a crime they have absolutely nothing to do with does not make them supporters of the crime, as a matter of logic. They haven’t spoken up against the clubbing of baby seals either, in your logic that would make them implicit supporters of such atrocities.

      Conrad, any piece of journalism that deserves its name must at least attempt to bring in the sides of an issue, in this instance for and against Femen. It is hard to imagine that among the thousands of FB supporters of Femen you did not find a single one who would want to provide you with their story.

      You have missed a great chance to do a fair exploration of some of the contradictions about Femen. Instead you chose one and only one narrative…

    • Conrad Steenkamp

      Dear Chris,

      Using Muslimah Pride as an example does not mean that I approve of everything that they say. In fact, I have big problems with much of what they put out, their (in my mind) racist attitudes and analytical frameworks.

      Nonetheless, what you see on Muslimah Pride FB is a symptom of marginalisation, group-think that will intensify under the current conditions. They and a lot of “traditional” or more orthodox Muslims are legitimate stakeholders that one ignores at one’s own risk. They and their religion are not the enemy, as many seem to think.

      My “ideological motivation”, as you put it is secularistic. I would like to see a world in which people of different religions (and cultures) have a place. If you want to walk around wearing a hijab or whatever, it should be possible to do so without fear. Similarly, nobody should force you to wear one. From this perspective, aggressive and fundamentalistic secularism and iconoclastic methods is not the way to go. My initial intention was much more of a discourse-like piece, a juxtaposing of ideas. This, however, becomes difficult if only one side is willing to talk. i.e. Femen failed to respond to invitations and requests for discussions.

      As a result of the responses of you and a couple of others, I recognise that it was perhaps a mistake to gloss over the Islamophobia aspect as something already covered by others. However, it should also be self-evident that covering this is an article in its own right. There are…

    • Conrad Steenkamp

      I see the last bit of the paragraph did not go through.
      i.e. There are time constraints, but I will try to do a piece focusing on the Islamophobia aspect. Lets see where it goes.

    • Grant

      Conrad – precisely why should Femen not challenge Islam in the strongest possible terms? Islam by definition and practise degrades women; they are second class citizens, unclean and in many countries unable to vote, drive, express, educate themselves or worse. If you were a feminist, you would be pretty nuts not to be Islamophobic to some degree. Femen and Islam are polar opposites, incompatible.

      To blame Femen because some Islamic fanatic kills someone after their protest instead of blaming the person who actually killed is somewhat confusing to me and perhaps the key to your real feelings on this matter. I sense a conservative streak here that has been offended. You find their displays crass, aggressive and confrontational. Do their naked chests offend you; is that not how women are supposed to behave? Says who? You malign them for building a brand which is a completely logical strategy on their part and then your article turns into a sour ex-femen activist bitching gossip fest.

      I personally find their courage exhilirating and their message clear. For a woman to walk into an Islamic theocracy and bare her chest in solidarity with the utter disregard that these states have for women is nothing short of heroic. There may be a marketing angle, there may be hype and there may be big egos and personalities within the organisation but nobody ever erected a statue to a critic. They erect statues to people who take action against prejudice when others can’t, won’t or…

    • Grant


      Femen, as the battle arm of an ideological machine like Greenpeace or Umkonto we Sizwe, is not perfect. There are unpaletable aspects to their actions but sometimes actions are required that are so extreme, people are jolted out of their comfort zones and forced to think about these issues from first principles. People are forced to assess whether a woman showing her chest in public deserves to be stoned or shot or hanged. If your conclusion to the former is yes then you are a barbarian, a bigot and a misogynist of the highest order. If it is no, and knowing that millions of people out there will answer yes means that Femen got it right and stand alone as the organisation with the balls (so to speak) to put their lives on the line to prove it. I wager that takes a courage that no critic can muster. Furthermore, I predict that the radical actions of Femen have already planted a seed in the fringe of free thinking women of the Arab and Muslim world that will germinate in the next 20-30 years. They, in their way, will change the world. It will be messy and there will be mistakes and regrets alongside their many wins and achievements and here we are talking about it.

    • Mark

      I still believe Femen is misguided in their quest for shock value, because by parading around with their breasts exposed, they are pretty much showing chauvanistic males what they want to see in the first place. Nobody takes flashers at sporting events seriously, so why would you elevate a member of femen to the role of altrusitic female rights crusader.

    • Grant

      Mark – These women do not flash at sports games. They use the shock value that you and others like you assign to a bare breast in order to point out a greater social issue. It takes enormous courage and strength to do what they do. They are changing the world’s opinions about feminism, they are sparking a debate. If a few males get off on it, that is their issue. Femen are pointing out that to be a feminist, you need not be a dour, angry, academic woman with excessive armpit hair and no bra. They are pointing out that women can be feminine, brave, strong, sexy, angry, powerful and much more. They are showing women around the globe, especially those in hideous systems such as Saudi Islam or Taliban Afghanistan that they need not accept second rate citizen status. They are challenging very powerful religions that teach us that women are “unclean”, they challenge laws that are not equal for men and women.

      You can write as many articles and books about the philosophy of feminism as you like and you will never reach the audience that they have. I am not sure if it will get women rights in Saudi but it is making you hold up a mirror and ask yourself why you are negative or uncomfortable about them exposing their breasts in public. They are asking the silly little men that get flustered, excited, angry or insulted by their behaviour to ask why that is. Why does a pair of woman’s breasts cause such a stir? What kind of social balance could possibly be undermined by boobs?

    • Conrad Steenkamp

      @Grant. No Grant, Femen’s naked chests do not offend me. I’m not a prude. Further, I’m not defending Islam or any other religion for that matter, or approve of the gender practices in many Islamic (and non-Islamic) countries.

      However, there is a big difference between being critical of any such oppressive practices, on the one hand, and Islamophobia, on the other.

      Re. criticism: A large number of women’s organisations are active in these countries and grapple with it on a daily basis. They dont need femen to do it for them.

      Re. Islamophobia: there are several clear definitions of this as of xenophobia, most of which boils down to making generalised negative statements about an identifiable group of people. Go look it up yourself. Your statement that “Islam by definition and practise degrades women,” is an example of this.

      Generalised statements of this nature add little to one’s understanding of a situation. It merely serves to mobilise people on an emotional level and offers little in the way of solutions. In this, as in many other cases, whipping up emotions around the burqa is dangerous, especially in a context of misguided policy measures by governments.

      The notion that Femen “planted seeds” in Islamic societies through their action is also inherently problematic. Do you really think that Muslim women are unaware of the issues facing them? There are many womans organisations in the Islamic world. They understand local conditions much better than…

    • Conrad Steenkamp

      Femen does and will be left to pick up the pieces long after Femen’s misguided initiatives have come to an end, as they will.

    • James Blake

      Conrad. Is it really not fair to make generalizations about ideological groups such as Islam? The point for me is that if you accept the basic tenets of Islam there is a logical pathway leading to the conclusion that women are second class citizens. I’m not saying that this isn’t the case with other ideologies (though for whatever reason Islamic countries have surely the worst attitude towards women) or that Islam should be singled out but to me it can’t be ignored. Also, I don’t think it’s fair to equate Islamaphobia with xenophobia as you can choose your religion, you can’t choose where you come from.

    • Conrad Steenkamp

      Dear James,
      That is a tricky question, which cuts down to the nub of the matter and the answer(s) is/are probably rather complex as well.

      The two of us would easily agree, I think, that generalisation is part and parcel of studying anything and making a generalised statement about any particular religion is not problematic per se. Nor is it problematic to look at the ‘internal logic’ of any particular religion and to conclude that it structures gender and gender relations in certain (patriarchal/traditional) ways. Look at the analyses of women’s groups or gender equity groups and one will find many analyses along these lines. No problem with that. (caveat: there is a wide range of ideological positions out there).

      However, go and look at how women’s rights groups in Islamic countries deal with these issues. They generally present a nuanced perspective, highlighting the link between religion, culture and civic practices (the ‘toxic mix’). Gender issues in these countries are extremely complex and variable. Easy generalisation from the outside is dangerous – especially when those generalisations carry with them a certain cultural baggage and are linked in people’s minds with fears about immigration. It quickly becomes hateful.

      relations in the one hand, one can certainly make generalised statements about religion and about specific religions. On the other hand, We would, I suspect, have little disagreement when assessing religion at this…

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