Femen: The topless feminist protesters who confronted Putin and Islam

Keith Wagstaff
The Week
Members of Femem protest in Berlin on April 4.

It's been a busy week for Ukraine's disrobed activists

When Russian President Vladimir Putin was confronted by a topless protester in Hanover, Germany, on Monday, the press treated it as a cheeky event, employing puns, GIFs, and even a caption contest. Putin's reaction: "I liked it."

The group responsible, however, takes itself very seriously. Femen describes itself as an "organization of topless women activists" looking to "undermine the foundations of the patriarchal world." In an op-ed in The Guardian, member Inna Shevchenko describes why the group protests sans shirts:

We believe that if women are left with little more than satisfying sexual desires as a life purpose, then our sexuality must become politicised. We are not denying our potential to be treated as sex objects. On the contrary, we are taking our sexuality into our own hands, turning it against our enemy. We are transforming female sexual subordination into aggression, and thereby starting the real war. [The Guardian]

Oleksandra Shevchenko, one of the Femen members who was arrested in Hanover, bluntly explained the group's mission to The Atlantic over the phone: "We simply expressed, laconically, what the whole world wants —for Putin to go or, even better, for him to go screw himself."

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But Femen's brand of feminism really came under fire after the activist group held "International Topless Jihad Day" in front of mosques in Europe last week. It was a response to the death threats made against the 19-year-old founder of Femen's Tunisian branch, Amina Tyler, who, according to The New Yorker, posted topless pictures of herself on Facebook with the messages "Fuck your morals" and "My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone's honor" written across her body.

Some Muslim women took offense to a feminist activist group telling them that they needed saving. A message on Muslim Women Against Femen's Facebook page read: "We understand that it’s really hard for a lot of you white colonial 'feminists' to believe, but — SHOCKER! — Muslim women and women of colour can come with their own autonomy, and fight back as well."

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Journalist Naheed Mustafa expressed her disappointment in Femen at Foreign Policy:

Look, I get it. Raging against conservative religions and sex trafficking and whatever else Femen rages against by stripping down is a stunt. But it is protest for its own sake and does a huge disservice to the difficult, persistent, long-term work in which feminists are engaged the world over. When women's independence becomes synonymous with nudity, then it's a snap for people — men — to dismiss it as unserious. [Foreign Policy]

In the New Statesman, Bim Adewunmi criticizes the group's "imperialist 'one size fits all' attitude," writing: "'Women!' they seem to be saying. 'Your bodies are your own — do with them what you will! Except you over there in the headscarf. You should be topless.'"

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Not that everyone is opposed to Femen's tactics. The Guardian's Jonathan Jones, commenting on a photo of a topless Femen protester in Paris, praised the movement's "gloriously crude" directness:

At a time of tight-lipped liberal relativism when even the president of the United States is damned careful what he says about Islam, here is a woman baring her body, quoting Tyler's anti-religious slogan, wearing a pseudo-jihadist black scarf over her face. [The Guardian]

One thing is for sure: Femen has everybody's attention.

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