What is FEMEN? Post-Soviet "Sextremism," Not American Feminism

PolicyMic contributor Joseph Sarkisian published a piece Wednesday entitled “American Feminism Can Do More Harm Than Good” and used the story of Amina Tyler, the Tunisian FEMEN activist who received death threats and went into hiding after she bared her breasts in a Facebook photo with the words “My body belong to me” scrawled across her chest, to support his argument that American feminism can be and is harmful to non-Western cultures.

Sarkisian’s piece is only the latest in a long string of American or Western European blogs and news articles that misrepresents or misinterprets the activism of the Ukrainian feminist organization FEMEN. Even the title of his article is misleading given that the fact that FEMEN is not an American feminist movement and should not be labeled as such.

Rather, FEMEN’s style of feminist activism is a direct outgrowth of post-Soviet youth movements best represented by the youth-led 2004 Ukrainian Orange Revolution, the gender-based economic and political inequities that have made Ukraine a destination for international sex tourists and human traffickers, and the nationalistic return to Ukrainian socio-cultural traditions in the post-Soviet era. The original focus of the organization was to empower young women to become active participants in Ukrainian civic society in order to change the status of women’s rights in Ukraine.

FEMEN’s initial focus on transforming Ukrainian women’s rights and Ukrainian culture is best represented in images and videos of their protests from 2008-2011. In the majority of their protests during this period, FEMEN almost singularly addresses economic and political issues affecting young Ukrainian women such as sex tourism, poverty, unequal access to job opportunities and higher education, and the lack of female participation and leadership in Ukrainian government.

They used symbolism in their protests to highlight their focus on issues affecting Ukrainian women and culture: their bare breasts — the symbol of their femaleness — were often painted the colors of the Ukrainian flag. They wore colorful vinok, or traditional floral headdresses worn during pre-Christian era Ukrainian courtship ceremonies when women had the cultural and physical autonomy to refuse male sexual and romantic advances.

FEMEN’s goals and reach didn’t become global until early 2011 when the international media caught wind of the topless feminists from Ukraine and turned them into a spectacle without properly educating themselves on the form of protest the movement uses.

FEMEN has named their bare-breasted, confrontational performance style of feminist activism: sextremism. FEMEN defines sextremism as “…a new interpretation of modern feminism, where the naked body becomes an active instrument in confronting institutions of patriarchy — such as the church, dictatorship and the sex industry,” and “…use the sexist weapons of patriarchy against itself. Playing with stereotypical codes is a way of breaking the male domination notions about the nature of female sexuality in favor of its great revolutionary mission.”

FEMEN’s sextremist feminist activism seeks to disrupt what it means to inhabit a female body in a patriarchal society by calling attention to the subjugation, control, and destruction of the female body through over the top, satirical performance style protests. For example, in 2009, FEMEN activists donned Catholic schoolgirl outfits and pretended to perform sexual acts on male FEMEN supporters dressed as a professor, a dean, and the president of Kyiv University, in order to call attention to the sexual harassment of female university students by the male leaders of the institution.

FEMEN wants the female body to break free from patriarchal social structures that seek to define and control it by empowering women to use their bodies as a site and/or mechanism of protest (naked, topless, or otherwise). We have seen similar feminist protest styles manifest separately in the United States (i.e. SlutWalk), but unlike reactions to FEMEN, the satirical and confrontation style of protest used in SlutWalks has been embraced and praised in many American feminist circles.

Sarkisian’s snarky dismissal of FEMEN as a feminist movement shows how truly uneducated he is on both FEMEN and the feminist movement at large. If Sarkisian knew anything about the history of the women’s movement he would know that feminism has evolved and continues to evolve differently across countless cultures, regions, and socio-historical periods. Further, there is constant debate amongst feminists about how the movement has been and should be defined — or if feminism should be statically defined at all given the numerous ideologies, causes, and issues that exist within the movement at large.

Just as Sarkisian doesn't want FEMEN defining feminism or imposing ideas of what constitutes female empowerment and agency for a culture, religious belief, and/or region of the world, Sarkisian also needs to be careful to not define feminism for a movement he only appears to superficially understand himself.