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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