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Freedom Smells Like French Perfume

Angela Nagle

Femen, by Galia Ackerman and Femen, Polity Press, 240 pp, €16.95, ISBN:0745683223

Kramer and Newman, in the TV show Seinfeld, sit on the New York underground, balancing a military strategy board game on their knees. Newman protests: “I’m not beaten yet. I still have armies in the Ukraine.” This attracts the attention of a tall, broad man with a winter-worn face and a Ushanka hat, who watches them as they play. When Kramer, taunting Newman, says Ukraine is a sitting duck and Ukraine is weak, the man angrily interjects “You not say Ukraine is weak!” Kramer tries to defuse the situation by explaining “We’re just playing a game here, pal” but the passenger thunders back “Ukraine is game to you?”, lunging towards them and smashing their board game with his fist, sending pieces flying everywhere.

The controversial topless Ukrainian protest group Femen fills the Western observer with a similar liberal cringe on encountering an almost comical gulf of cultural understanding. These blonde Ukrainian women are known not for any sophisticated political position but for going topless. In the first section of Galia Ackerman’s new book about the group, simply called Femen, the four main members describe their early lives and how they came to meet the other members of the group. Inna writes of her schooldays: “A lot of boys fell in love with me … There were lots of girls who wanted to be my friend because I was the leader of the class.” A typically humourless, irony-free boast, not designed to provoke a reaction but simply a statement of fact.

Online images of the women, wearing tight jeans with bleached blonde hair and porn-star makeup, turning up topless in public places, make little sense to feminists from the liberal tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued for woman’s ability to reason and thus take part in the democratic process, or to second wave American feminists, highly critical of the cosmetics industry and sexist beauty conventions. Surely a woman taking her top off is the least effective way of having her message taken seriously? Yet these women don’t seem to see their image, or anything else, in quite the same way that western feminists do. Group members may have white skin but the more you get to know about them through this book the more profoundly different their cultural perspective seems.

The introduction and conclusion are written by the author Galia Ackerman. The former begins in celebration ‑ “Is this the beginning of a global feminist revolution?” ‑ but by the conclusion the tone has become more critical and pessimistic: “the situation appears more mixed and uncertain” with “actions that caused offence even among Femen supporters”. The rest of the book is a mixture of first person plural exposition and individual first person accounts of each of the core members, Oksana, Inna, Anna and Sasha.

As well as lacking a familiar sense of humour or frame of cultural reference, Femen have no sense of political correctness. In the West we are so steeped in this cultural trope that to be politically incorrect usually involves some knowing subversion. But Femen’s actions are too earnest to be a knowing subversion of anything. Their insensitivity to other religious groups and nationalities has left guilt-ridden liberal and left-wing feminists in the West aghast. Once, for example, they protested outside a mosque in Paris and burned a Salafist flag while wearing joke-shop beards and sporting the words “Topless Jihad” across their naked chests.

When Ukraine was still behind the Iron Curtain, Western feminists were exposing the inequalities of the 60s sexual revolution and criticising Western pop culture for its objectification of women. Today, continuing in that tradition, those problems still rank high on the feminist agenda, while pressure over issues like female genital mutilation, stonings and honour killings around the world is considered by many a form of cultural imperialism. Veteran second wave feminist Germaine Greer has said that such issues are relative: “One man’s beautification is another man’s mutilation.” Among younger feminists who came of age during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, in which the liberation of women was cited as a reason for war, this tendency is stronger still. Anti-Femen blogs, articles and Twitter storms angrily declared that Muslim women were proud to be Muslim and didn’t need these topless white saviours.

To most western sensibilities it goes without saying that there is a natural antagonism between feminism and the ideals of female beauty that come from the porn industry, the cosmetics industry, men’s magazines and fashion magazines. To Femen no such antagonism exists. Anna writes: “We’re accused of practicing inverse sexism. This isn’t completely false. Our girls have to be sporty to endure difficult trials and beautiful so they can use their bodies for our noble purpose.” Camille Paglia has argued that beauty, like sport, is nothing if not ruthlessly hierarchical and that feminism’s desire to impose values of fairness on it is futile and, in the case of art, philistine. Unsurprisingly though, Femen’s embrace of conventional beauty standards and of a look that would read to the Western eye as trashy, have not impressed everyone and they have been slated for an image that seems white, heterosexual, thin and conventionally beautiful.

While the feminism of their critics regards “Western” as a synonym for “oppressive”, “white”, “imperialist” and so on, the women of Femen, who were born in a repressive Soviet Union and came of age in an impoverished post-Soviet Ukraine, write with giddy excitement about the freedoms and achievements of Europe. When they were arrested in Switzerland, having previously endured prison in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Turkey they wrote: “They confiscated our placards adding that we could pick them up the next day and they let us go. You should have seen how surprised Sasha was! The free world is an extraordinary place!”

The women’s early meetings developed out of a radical reading group where they read August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism and rediscovered Marxism, as distinct from the Stalinism they had known. It would be a stretch however to call them Marxists, as they have claimed. Their analysis of women’s inequality in this book never comes across as particularly rooted in economic production or the division of labour. Their politics, like most contemporary radical politics, really descends from Rousseau. To them, woman is born free but is everywhere in chains. They look back nostalgically, adorned with their folksy floral wreathes, to matriarchal pre-modern societies and to some alleged natural female power. They call themselves “Amazons” and express hope for total human freedom, viewing the ills of society as manmade constraints, as evidenced either in the institution of the church or in the corruption of governments. Their tactics of performance and spectacle suggest a belief in shock and radical consciousness-raising, in the tradition of Dada or punk.

Femen’s earnest talk of the power of woman has not endeared them to the younger generation of social media-centric feminists, who increasingly stress the fluid and socially constructed nature of gender. Influenced by postmodern, transgender and black feminism, the new generation of intersectional feminism – stressing the intersections between various forms of privilege and disadvantage along the lines of race, gender and sexual orientation – is eager to make an ideological break from the second wave establishment of Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer.

Femen have protested against the enormous sex tourist trade in Ukraine. Within the strong anti-Femen sentiment, the accusation of being CIA-funded has often been made. If this turns out to be true, the agency would appear to have been ill-informed, as the group push against every dominant trend and offend every sensibility in the new intersectional feminism, which is in favour of the full decriminalisation of prostitution, preoccupied with dethroning a feminism based on white privilege ‑ despite the notable pallor of so many of its online exponents ‑ and is extremely defensive of Islam and the veil, regarding white feminist criticisms of non-white cultures as a form of cultural imperialism. Unaware of this minefield they have walked into, Femen’s actions always provoke angry responses from this generation of western feminists and an equal measure of schadenfreude when something goes wrong for them.

One of the group’s actions, carried out in solidarity with Pussy Riot, involved taking down a large crucifix with a chainsaw. Their online detractors claimed that this had in fact been a memorial to the victims of Stalinist repression. According to the book, this claim is untrue: there was such a memorial nearby in stone, but the crucifix was unrelated. The allegation, nevertheless, passed into internet fact and was gleefully blogged and tweeted. Kitty Green made a documentary about the group, Ukraine is not a Brothel, which they feel misrepresented them in portraying one of their close friends and advisers, Viktor Sviatsky, as their patriarchal puppeteer. Viktor is mentioned throughout the book in the first person accounts, written before the very unflattering documentary was released, as a longstanding ally and helper who himself was the victim of violent attacks for his association with them. Again, Green’s version of events has now passed into online fact and it has dealt their reputation a near fatal blow. Inna made things worse when she wrote a clumsily phrased article for The Guardian arguing that Viktor had indeed tried with some success to take over and that they were not forceful enough in stopping him; this seemed more like an admission of guilt. Again, their detractors wrote with some satisfaction that the group had finally been damaged to a point of no return.

But the reaction to Femen has not been so hostile elsewhere. They have a base in Paris and have developed support there, from militant secularist formerly Muslim women and from white French women. They have also supporters in Brazil and Italy and did, for a time, in Tunisia. Maryam Namazie, the Iranian-British secularist and communist has been among their vocal supporters and has engaged in similar naked protest against sharia law. Femen also claim to have received floods of heartfelt thank you letters from Iran and Belarus after their actions against stoning and dictatorship. The personal risks they have taken, described in the book, can’t be easily dismissed. They have aggressively confronted powerful religious organisations and dictatorships in countries with some of the world’s most brutal prison regimes. In the entire history of Western feminism few can claim their level of personal sacrifice or to have faced down such a high level of violent opposition. In Belarus, for example, the women confronted the secret police, staging a protest against Lukashenko, the leader of “Europe’s last dictatorship”. They were arrested and lived to tell a terrifying tale of being taken out into a forest, tied, beaten, blindfolded, covered in dye and feathers, told they would be raped and “butchered” before being eventually released into the wilderness to find their way home. They have been in prison in Ukraine, Russia and Turkey, been punched and kicked by prison guards, had highly invasive strip searches performed on them and been attacked by mobs.

Their formative years in Ukraine are full of stories of violence against women, the mafia, state repression, oligarchy, poverty, corruption and poor uneducated girls going into the sex trade largely for foreign sex tourists who can afford what they like in the destroyed economy of post-Soviet Ukraine. Migrating to Europe can be difficult and avenues of opportunity, such as university, are reserved for the rich and well-connected. They claim: “In Ukraine, a woman who is not married at my age, twenty-two, is seen as an old maid.” In March 2010 they staged a protest against the new government formed by Mykola Azarov, because out of a cabinet of thirty or so, there were no women. Azarov justified his decision by explaining that women were not able to say “no” firmly. But the suffering of Ukrainian women and the oppressive environment Femen emerged from is of no concern to the Americanised cultural politics of their detractors, who understand all political, social and economic issues only in terms of “white” on the one hand and “people of colour” on the other, masking, in apparently radical language, an utter ignorance of the world. Their apparent cultural relativism is highly selective: it will extend its understanding to some of the most brutal forms of misogyny in the world today, but will not extend it to Ukraine.

France offered Inna political asylum and the group remains based there. It is easy to see why Femen is at home in the country that gave us Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, with its tradition of laïcité and the legacy of French feminism. “In France, when you go into a bookshop you can see shelves full of feminist literature. In Ukraine, it’s unimaginable. People don’t even know such literature exists.” At home they have been critical of Tymoshenko, arguing that she became powerful through upholding patriarchal values and not taking a principled stand on feminist issues, and critical of Yanukovych for corruption. They have said that for Ukrainian women, “freedom smells like French perfume, and not like the boot of a Russian soldier”.

When Sakineh Mohammadi Ashanti was sentenced to death by stoning in Iran, Femen protested at the Iranian embassy in Ukraine, explaining: “We supported her because we believe that feminism knows no borders. We have chosen to defend the rights of women in all places. In Iran, the treatment suffered by women is despicable. How can we tolerate this?” A good question. This simple expression of international solidarity, once the cornerstone of left-wing politics, is now seen by the left and by many feminists in the post-September 11th world as Western arrogance and meddling. Today we are more likely to think of George W Bush making the case for the war in Afghanistan or Iraq than, for example, the mass unveiling ceremonies in early Soviet Uzbekistan or international feminist solidarity movements.

Whether Femen’s story ends where the book ends remains to be seen. In the closing chapter, Ackerman describes the group as politically isolated and living in a precarious way, relying on the ever-diminishing kindness of others to provide them with as much as a place to stay. Those in the West who hated them at first sight had their prejudices confirmed when they protested outside the mosque or again when the unflattering documentary about them was released. Indeed they quickly took to their laptops to declare them both Islamophobes and puppets of the patriarchy. Attacking a church however, which they have also done, seemed to offend no Western liberal sensibilities. But the women of Femen may be somewhat harder to get rid of than those who dismiss them realise. “I’m prepared to go to prison, to be disfigured or killed,” writes Oksana in the closing section. “I lived through a nightmare in Belarus, I know what I’m talking about.”
19/05/2014

Angela Nagle is a researcher at the School of Communications, Dublin City University. She is an Irish Research Council Scholar and has written for publications including The Atlantic and The Irish Times.

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