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© Bertrand NOËL

© Bertrand NOËL

Feminism: the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Now, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In fact, in the 21st century, this statement should be common sense. But for some reason, the word ‘feminism’ has become a term that needs to be justified or defended. Anyone who identifies as a feminist, to many, will invoke images of bra-burning, angry, man-hating radicals who will rant to anyone who will listen about how unfair the world is to the female half of this glorious species. Let’s be clear, sexism does exist. This is a fact and, hey, it can go both ways, but let’s face it the brunt of this vice is borne by women. The fight for women’s rights has been going on for decades, and while the feminist movement has brought about significant social and legislative changes that protect women from exploitation and injustice, there is still a long way to go, and a lot more to learn.

It is interesting to observe the developments in feminist movements across the world, from protests in India against rape and other forms of violence against women to Malala advocating girls’ education in Pakistan. Then there is FEMEN. In case you haven’t heard, FEMEN is a feminist group out of Ukraine that strongly believes in ‘sextrimisim’ (a.k.a. getting naked in public and causing a ruckus) as a viable means of promoting women’s rights. You may have heard of them flashing Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel at the Hanover Trade Fair earlier this year, or crashing a number of fashion shows across Europe exposing their bare chests with political slogans in black ink painted across them.

While their methods are quite radical and arguably questionable, I am reluctant to throw stones just yet. Before we direct any judgment towards these ladies, let’s take a look at their ideologies, shall we? Firstly, it may or may not be important to note that this group was started by a man; Viktor Sviatsky. Initially, it is easy for skepticism to build over the legitimacy of a breast-baring feminist group based on the ideologies of a man, but bear with me.

(Officially) FEMEN was founded by Anna Hutsol in Ukraine 2008 after her eyes were opened to the sex trafficking of Ukrainian women. It all started as skimpy-dress protests but things quickly escalated into topless protests. Basically, FEMEN’s ideology is sextremism, atheism and feminism. The mission is ‘complete victory over patriarchy and all its forms which are dictatorship, religion and the sex industry.’ Their main aims are political deposition of governments that enforce political, social and economic environments hostile to women (for example those that promote Sharia law); criminalising prostitution, and banning religion from interfering in the civic, sex and reproductive lives of women. Their rationale behind going topless is that it destroys the patriarchal understanding of the meaning of female sexuality thus benefiting their revolutionary mission. These stances, naturally, will elicit debates which, at their core, pose philosophical questions.

But the more universal issues they aim to highlight are Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Sex trafficking and slavery. According to recent estimates, 66000 women have undergone FGM and an additional 20000 girls under the age of 11 are at risk in the UK alone. Sex slavery is a billion dollar industry and most of the victims are women. These are real issues that need to be addressed, we can all agree on that. It’s easy to lose these important messages in the shock-factor and the media hype. Or maybe this highly aggressive form of provocation is moving people to do their research and understand these issues. Whether this later translates to actual change is up for debate.

It is true: FEMEN branches have staged a number of high-profile ‘sextremist’ acts targeting politicians, prominent religious leaders and fashion shows where they have not only exposed their sharpie-marked breasts but burnt Salafist flags and chain-sawed crucifixes whilst generally screaming at people. After effectively being driven out of Ukraine due to death threats and attacks, the organisation moved to Paris where they are now based and opened branches in 10 countries across Europe. FEMEN is now taking on the UK, calling for a radical feminist revolution on the other side of the English channel and urging British women to join the ‘naked army.’

So will British women answer their call? The British public is generally sensitive to women’s rights, at least officially. Let’s not forget the backlash that ensued from that now infamous ‘calm down dear’ gaffe by the beloved P.M. David Cameron. Due to the nature of the issues highlighted by FEMEN, there may be a number of recruits to this radical ideology but personally, I don’t believe FEMEN will be successful in the UK. Here’s why:

The political culture in the UK is very different to the political culture in Ukraine from which FEMEN was born. The avenues for expression and influencing change on these issues are a lot more accessible in the UK than in Ukraine, therefore the absolute need to take such extreme measures to prove a point is not present. The chances of affecting public opinion on women’s rights whilst topless and screaming at people on the streets of London are also pretty slim. Powerful organisations and government institutions have been set up to deal with FGM, human trafficking, domestic violence against women, and other issues. While these problems are still severe, work is being done. On the philosophical issues that affect the perception of women and their freedoms, the culture is changing, legislations in the UK have been passed to try and balance the scales. It is a matter of enforcement, perhaps law changing society. Social reforms are not going to happen overnight.

The UK is one of the most culturally diverse countries in Europe. FEMEN is not culturally diverse and doesn’t engage women from different cultural backgrounds. This is one of its greatest weaknesses. One moment they are preaching freedom for all women, but then proceed to tell Muslim women that they are oppressed and/or brainwashed if they choose to wear a Hijab. The UK is notorious for valuing political correctness. For better or worse, I seriously doubt such extreme views would ever take root here. FEMEN only recruit women that are willing to show their half-naked bodies to the world. What about those women (out of their own independent choice mind you) who are not? This is the fundamental problem with this movement. They are inadvertently defining the parameters of freedom based on their own subjective ideologies. This is why I think their movement is not going to stick with the UK majority. But hey, if they manage to get people talking about rights and fairness and justice, then that is positive news all round.

Written by Irene Kyomuhangi. © Photo Bertrand NOËL.

To see more photography from Bertrand NOËL, visit the links below.

www.bertrandnoel.com
www.facebook.com/bertrandnoelphotographie

To find out more about FEMEN visit femen.org