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This March the 8th is dedicated to FEMEN'S feminism

From thegroup's history to the current situation

This March the 8th is dedicated to FEMEN'S feminism From thegroup's history to the current situation

Today, March 8, 2022, is International Women's Rights Day. Officially recognized by the United Nations in 1977, but with a much more complex socio-political history, this day over the years has become a bit of a moment when we come to terms with the contemporary world. It is an anniversary when we confront ourselves with the milestones that have been achieved and on the issues that are still open (spoilers, lots of them). It means asking ourselves, for example, what rights are being threatened? Where do we stand on the economic gender gap? How can we support the struggles of other women around the world?

In activism, March 8 is often called March Fight, precisely because there are so many reasons to fight. Thinking about how the women of San Marino have just obtained the right to abortion which is still illegal in Malta (27 September 2021) it is impossible not to think about the role of feminism and women in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Seeing the strike called by Nonunadimeno for March 8 in solidarity with Russian feminist groups "in opposition to war, patriarchy, authoritarianism and militarism" we want to use the occasion to reflect on all that we are living, or rather seeing, in recent weeks in Ukraine, and we do it by recovering the history of women's struggles in Ukraine with a spotlight on FEMEN, framing them in the historical context.

The role of women in the current war

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which we are currently witnessing, has been called "the most social war ever," at least for now, and everyone is talking about TikTok's role in telling the story of events, how Gen Z is approaching them, and the reflections that are developing. In one video, by way of example, a guy called out feminists by challenging the fact that men should stay and fight, while elderly people, children, and women left the country. But is this really the case?


In 2014, after the Maidan Dignity Revolution, there was a military overhaul in Ukraine, so women were also included in combat roles. However, it should be noted that women have always participated in conflicts, not militarily, but in other capacities, such as rescue, support, intelligence, coordination and so on. Currently, women make up about 15-20% of the Ukrainian armed forces. At the same time, it must be remembered - as Élisabeth Moreno, French Minister for Gender Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunities, has done - that women and girls are always the first victims of crises and that, despite this, they are a category excluded from diplomatic discussions, political discussions and strategic exchanges on security and peace. According to Jenny Mathers, a lecturer at Aberystwyth University in Wales, specializing in gender and war, the active participation of women "is a psychological and symbolic change." In fact, Ukrainian women were part of the Orange Revolution between 2004 and 2005, built barricades between 2013 and 2014, fought in Crimea, Donbass, and now this one.

On February 22, two days before the Russian invasion, a FEMEN activist demonstrated in front of Kyiv's Central Railway Station, wearing an "angel of death" scythe, skeleton makeup, and a sign that read Don't Panic. Panic, however, is something Ukrainian feminist movements have had to endure repeatedly. From the violence on the FEMEN group, to the civilian women involved in the clashes. Today, March 8, 2022, Amnesty International organized "The First Wreath: The Reunion of Women's Solidarity," dedicating it to the Ukrainian women's movement, also in remembrance of how in 2018 the women's rights demonstration organized by activist Vitalina Koval was subjected to violence by right-wing extremist groups, which led to Koval suffering chemical burns during the attacks. 


What is FEMEN?

Feminism is an extremely political concept and the currents that derive from it are deeply circumscribed in a hic et nunc, that is, in a precise historical moment and in a clear geographical region. As we can imagine, in fact, the women's movement in Liberia (a state in West Africa, between Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast), recounted in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008), is completely different from RAWA (the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan) or from Latin feminism. As is "our" white feminism, with all its internal facets, including Ukrainian protest feminism.

FEMEN is a Ukrainian feminist protest movement. It was founded in Kyiv in 2008 by Oksana Šačko (Оксана Шачко), Hanna Hutsol (Ганна Гуцол) and Aleksandra Schevčenko (Олександра Шевченко), three twenty-somethings who wanted to subvert the male chauvinist society and the passive role of Ukrainian women; there was no organized activism. In 2009 Inna Schevčenko (Інна Шевченко), 18 years old at the time, joined the group and became the main reference point of FEMEN. The activists are recognized worldwide for their provocative methods and have always been a strong focus of both media and audiovisual productions. Their motto is "Our God is a Woman! Our Mission is Protest! Our Weapon are bare breasts!", that is to say that their god is the Woman, their mission is to protest and they have no weapons but their bodies, or rather their breasts. The main feature, in fact, is to demonstrate topless, writing clear slogans on the skin. During the first protests actually dressed in pink, and they talked about Pink Revolution, then in August 2009 it happens that Oksana undresses and this act has a huge echo. From there all demonstrations involve undressing in front of cameras, and almost always wearing traditional Ukrainian flower crowns.

FEMEN fight for major feminist issues, from the lack of representation of women in government to oppressive religious policies. Let's take some examples: they have demonstrated against the Belarusian dictator Lukashenko, against the Pope, against Berlusconi and in 2012 also against fashion, defined as fascist and pro-anorexia, during a Versace fashion show.

Ukraine is not a brothel: the role of the body

Ukraine Is Not a Brothel is a 2013 documentary presented out of competition at the 70th edition of the Venice International Film Festival. The director, Kitty Green, followed the activists for a year, interviewing them and showing the protests, parents' concerns, arrests and also Viktor Svyatskiy's role within the movement. 

The documentary clearly understands FEMEN's position, which is entirely against the sex industry and sex work. FEMEN's first intervention (July 31, 2009), in fact, was to protest "the rampant prostitution." The movement was formed primarily in opposition to the growth of the phenomenon of sex tourism in Ukraine, which was also increasing in relation to sporting events, mainly football. But the association "Ukrainian-prostitution" arose from the fact that, after the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine slipped into a very deep economic crisis. Many Ukrainian women emigrated to Europe because of poverty, to prostitute themselves. Thus was born the historical prejudice for which every Ukrainian woman was seen (and often still is) as a prostitute; stereotype that FEMEN want to overturn, so that Ukraine stops being perceived as the brothel of Europe. But then why undress? Inna Schevčenko answers by saying that no one in Ukraine wants to listen to women, "no one takes a woman seriously, but everyone wants to look at them. Everyone wants to see a beautiful, sexy, naked woman." The body then is used as a tool to get attention, and "female physicality becomes adversarial discourse in itself" (Treccani). 

FEMEN want the world to look at Ukraine as a country where naked girls protest and do not sell their bodies. At the same time, however, the "topless method," which falls under the concept of political porn, has been widely criticized; the self-sexualization proposed by this femenism is often considered counterproductive, as it reproduces patriarchal norms. Kira Cochrane (the first who spoke of fourth-wave feminism), like so many other feminist theorists, so wondered if the breasts of female activists did not obscure their message.

The Problems of FEMEN Theory

Some of the main problems with the FEMEN group, from an intersectional feminist perspective, include: opposition to sex work, Islamophobia, and simplistic slogans. All of these characteristics can be contextualized, which however does not mean condoning them. We have already talked about sex work in relation to stereotypes about Ukrainian women, but to better frame FEMEN's position we can add that between 2010 and 2014 (a period when FEMEN's activity intensifies quite a bit), President Victor Janukovyč was publicly making sexist remarks "appreciating" Ukrainian women, especially those who are unclothed (i.e. undressed):


"our women, beauties that attract entrepreneurs to invest in the country".

So we are not too surprised by the resulting reaction of feminists, but more by the failure to recognize the agency of Ukrainian women. It is also true that between September and October 2010 FEMEN demonstrated in support of the former porno actress Wiska, because she was in danger of being arrested - pornographic material is illegal in Ukraine since 2009 - and of losing parental authority over her children. Thanks to the help of FEMEN Wiska was granted political asylum in the Czech Republic.


The same argument can be applied to Islamophobia, i.e. underlining the lack of recognition of freedom of choice of Muslim women, and all this is exacerbated by the generalized hatred towards religion. The last point concerns simplistic slogans, which also brings us back to the "Fashion is Fascism" mentioned above. By writing words, or very short phrases, on the body or on small signs, you don't have the space to argue your thoughts. In this way FEMEN often resort to exaggerated comparisons, for example in Germany a group of FEMEN had compared the sex industry to Nazism. 


Brief historical background since 1991

Ukraine has always been regarded as a buffer state between the two blocs of Europe and Russia. The very name, Ukraine, means on the border (u-kraj); and for its borders and independence it has fought for the past three decades. After the dissolution of the USSR, on December 1, 1991 more than 90% of the Ukrainian electorate supported the Act of Independence. Years of strong economic instability and political tension followed. During the presidential elections of 2004 there were several protests (which today are remembered as the Orange Revolution), because there was the suspicion that Janukovyč - at that time prime minister with pro-Soviet leanings - had influenced the results through electoral fraud. The victory was thus assigned to Juščenko, a pro-Western leader. The resulting government was initially led by Julia Tymoshenko, one of the main organizers of the Orange Revolution, and who on this occasion had been associated with Joan of Arc. Prior to entering politics Tymoščenko was a very wealthy businesswoman in the gas industry, and in 2005 Forbes listed her as the third most powerful woman in the world.

In 2008 a new political crisis broke out due to the war in South Ossetia, a region of Georgia, which also led to events not entirely clear, such as the poisoning of Juščenko (who will remain disfigured in the face for this). In 2010 Janukovyč became president (who, let's remember, was the one who talked about unclothed women), and remained until 2014. The FEMEN in this period intensify a lot their protest activities and the Ukrainian government in 2011 asks Facebook to remove their page. Since 2013 it is a continuous tumult, Janukovyč rejects the agreement with the European Union to sign with Putin, and the popular uprisings begin, first peaceful and then increasingly violent, which will be remembered as Euromaidan (told in the Netflix documentary Winter on Fire).


March 8 is a day of rights, peace, equality, self-determination, freedom of expression and defense of the life of every woman, as well as every other person. We dedicate this day to Ukraine.