I am in support of a woman's right to protest — even to do so topless. But there is a line between helpful and harmful protesting.
When two topless FEMEN protestors stormed the Russian embassy in Stockholm on Thursday, that line was crossed, and the women hurt their cause more than they helped it.
At the end of June, Putin signed an incredibly homophobic law against the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors." The law imposes significant fines of up to $31,000 for providing information about the gay community to minors, holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships. The law applies to Russians and foreigners alike, as well as media organizations. And it looks like gay athletes from all over the world will be subject to the law during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
FEMEN is a Ukrainian feminist organization based in Kiev and Paris, dedicated to "fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations — sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship, and religion." They often protest topless to draw attention to their causes, as they did on Thursday, when two topless FEMEN members climbed over a fence and scaled the Russian embassy in Stockholm. The two women waved a rainbow flag, held a sign that said "homosexual propaganda on Russian ground," and chanted, "Gay rights are human rights." The police arrived, removed them, and released them once they confessed to trespassing.
Following Thursday's events, FEMEN's website read, "F*ck dictators! F*ck Putin!"
But is this an effective way to "f*ck" Putin and dictators in general? No. FEMEN's actions may raise awareness about Russia's current crackdown, but the Swedish government already opposes Russia's reaction. Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted, "Hate-mongering against LGBT persons on the rise in Russia after recent law. Repulsive. Inhuman. So FEMEN is preaching to the choir on this one.
What about the Russian government, though? Will they change their stance? Probably not. If anything, the topless protests associate gay rights with indecency, trespassing, wall scaling, and lawlessness. In reality, the very basic right to exist as a gay person shouldn't be linked to the radical and disruptive tactics of FEMEN.
Some may liken FEMEN to Pussy Riot, the feminist punk music band, some of whose members were arrested and remain in jail for so-called "hooliganism." They, too, oppose Putin and his homophobia. Their tactics are extreme, and in the most famous case, consisted of delivering a "punk prayer" in a Russian Orthodox cathedral. But Pussy Riot isn't acting on anyone's behalf. They are protesting the policies and ideologies of the government under which they live, in a country in which they live.
FEMEN "sextremists" may feel good about themselves, but they're not helping the very people they claim to be supporting.