(Femen)ism? by Kile Jones

Kile Jones, atheistAs most of us are aware by now, there is a “feminist-sextremist” group from Ukraine called “Femen.”  This group has been very controversial by their public demonstrations of nudity, the words they paint on their bodies, and their explicit condemnations of political structures and organized religions.  They were started by Anna Hutsol in 2008 and have now spread throughout Europe and the Middle East.  The question I pose for this post is: Does Femen harness or hinder the power of the feminist critique?

Image from Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters

Image from Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters

Femen is precisely the kind of movement that pushes us in our understanding of feminism, the means by which it is best expressed, and the issues surrounding moral condemnation and religious sensitivity.

First: Our Understanding of “Feminism”

Femen shows that the feminist community is not homogenous; some love them, some hate them, and some are simply undecided.  A few of the criticisms I have heard are that they are simply promoting themselves, their bodies, and not bringing about any serious social change.  The critics think Femen are just young girls wanting to be seen naked in public.  Either that, or they are damaging the image of feminism that took countless more “respectable” women to accomplish.  After all, isn’t genuine feminism the kind that pursues advanced degrees, promotes dressing modestly and professionally, and uses “brains over boobs”?  This kind of feminism, they might argue, is simply conceding to a sex-obsessed male dominated society by going topless and scantly clad.

On the other side, many see what Femen is doing and consider it absolutely necessary.  I mean, radical times call for radical measures, right?  For supporters of Femen, feminism is about sexual freedom and liberation from the norm and not puritanical chastity.  These types harken back to the 60’s sexual revolution in the United States (and if you look at many of their pictures, they often wear what resembles hippy flower headbands).  Many think they are doing important work by raising issues of prostitution, sex tourism, patriarchy, and women’s issues in Ukraine and abroad.  As Maria Mayerchyk from Lviv University said, “Femen is a “positive, radical and important phenomenon that is able to raise social issues.”

Second: The Means by which (feminism) is Best Expressed

In my opinion, much of the controversy within feminism surrounding Femen is one of pragmatic means.  Are nudity, painted bodies, and public demonstrations the “best means” for achieving their stated goal of protecting women’s rights?  Femen’s brand of activism is often referred to as “hooliganism,” which is exactly what “Pussy Riot” was charged with.  This same question of means was also asked of the now (in)famous “Slutwalks.”

The main problem that I find when the public discusses means is an either/or mentality.  It assumes that both cannot be beneficial for women in different ways.  In fact, given different cultures and societies, it is strange to even think of one way as being “best.”  However, if we put “better” on one end of the spectrum, and “worse” on the other, we can begin to evaluate Femen’s means.  We can ask ourselves, in a consequentialist manner, whether the outcomes of Femen’s activism outweighs the problems some find with it.  We can ask an even more basic question as well: Is it better to have groups like Femen or not?

Third: Issues surrounding Moral Condemnations and Religious Sensitivity

One of the frequent criticisms of Femen is their lack of religious sensitivity.  Let’s see how many people we can offend with some of what they paint on their bodies: “Fuck your morals,” “No Islamism, yes Secularism, “No to Hijab,” “Fuck God,” “No Sharia,” “No Church,” “Muslims lets get naked,” “Pope No More,” and “Islamist Sadist.”  They have dressed up as half-naked nuns and sprayed canisters labeled “Holy Sperm” and “Jesus Sperm” in protest of those against the legalization of same-sex marriage in France.  They had a “Topless Jihad Day” where they wore beards and burqas and spoke out against “Islamism” in solidarity with Amina Tyler.  All that to say, many have a problem with these kinds of tactics.

It is obvious that Femen has a strong anti-religious perspective.  They belong to a kind of feminism that has long condemned organized religion in its myriad of forms.  But does this kind of no holds-barred, visceral expression harness or hinder the power of the feminist critique?  As far as I am concerned, I consider Femen a radical exercise of free-speech.  And since they are not inflicting physical pain on anyone, I cannot find any good reason to oppose them, other than simply disagreeing with some of their tactics and choosing not to conduct myself in a similar fashion.  Certainly, if we consider what they say religiously insensitive hate-speech that ought to be censored, we would also have to throw in a large list of other satirists and feminist authors that have said similar things.  Other than exceptions like shouting “fire” in a theatre, I tend to think that the possible negative effects of free-speech outweigh the evils of censorship.  But that is just me.  What say you?

Kile Jones holds a Bachelors of Theology (B.Th.) from Faith Seminary, a Masters of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) and a Masters of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) from Boston University, and is a current Ph.D. in Religion student at Claremont Lincoln University.  He also holds a Certificate in Science and Religion from the Boston Theological Institute. He is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Claremont Journal of Religion (www.claremontjournal.com). His interests include religion and science, atheism, secularism, and philosophy of religion.  He also reviews books for Reviews in Religion and Theology (RRT) and is a Contributing Scholar for State of Formation (www.stateofformation.org), an academic blog for emerging religious and ethical leaders.

Categories: Abuse of Power, Activism, American History, Belief, Body, civil rights, Ethics, Feminism, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, General, Hierarchy, Human Rights, Identity Construction, In the News, Patriarchy, Politics, Reproductive Justice, Resistance, Sexual Ethics, Social Justice, Violence Against Women, Women's Agency, Women's Rights

14 replies

  1. It’s important to understand that most organized religion is patriarchal and in order to achieve equality women need to oppose it. The men that currently control the message in monotheism are very resistant to allowing women an equal role in society, and many women suffer horribly as a result. I commend anyone willing to dedicate herself to raising awareness of this issue.


  2. I absolutely support them. We need extreme measures in times of desperation, and patriarchy has created desperate times.


  3. Kile,

    I think you’ve posed excellent questions for feminism in a multicultural and *connected* world. I’m not sure how I feel about Femen, but I’m certain I don’t like it when women attack each other, and I’m appalled when activists of any cause purposely or unwittingly are insensitive to or ignore cultural contexts.

    I think feminism has probably always taken many forms of expression and has been understood contextually within different countries, cultures and religions, but the internet is only 20 years old and some of our most-used social media outlets only 5-10 years old. We couldn’t learn of other forms of expression as easily as we can now, and I think that makes a big difference. It opens feminism up for more critique and examination (specifically the argument that feminism is for white, western, middle and upper-class women and is another form imperialism–just read this open letter to Even Ensler today: http://chiefelk.tumblr.com/post/49527456060/an-open-letter-to-eve-ensler) and gives us just as much opportunity for unity as it does for separation.

    Notice the letter to Ensler is on Tumblr. I don’t know where the original dialogue the author refers to took place. Another example of disconnected connectivity: I learned about Femen’s “Topless Jihad Day” through a friend of a friend of a friend’s post on Facebook about the COUNTER-protest from Muslim women, some of whom identify themselves as feminists. And now that I’m skimming through a book about women and the veil in Islam, I can’t say wearing a veil willingly is a step backwards for women.

    I think feminism, in its goal of equality, sometimes overlooks the importance of sisterhood. There must be ways to go against patriarchal and capitalistic power structures without tearing down other women.


  4. I lost my best friend and a lot of friends when I expressed myself as a feminist. Equality is in my last name. my moms and my dads are hyphenated . anyway, its a shame that believing in human rights and reproductive rights I have hate groups that I have to smile at everyday to show a good example. ;o talk about misogyny and misandry ;o


  5. However, if we put “better” on one end of the spectrum, and “worse” on the other, we can begin to evaluate Femen’s means. We can ask ourselves, in a consequentialist manner, whether the outcomes of Femen’s activism outweighs the problems some find with it. We can ask an even more basic question as well: Is it better to have groups like Femen or not?

    -I think the approach as you have described in this quote entails either than one can know the consequence of her/his actions and therefore create a better or worse movement or one does not know for certian the outcome of his/her action and in such case have no ‘power’ over the kind of statement that she/he would make. Therefore I think that basing whether Femen is better or worse on a consequentialist scale leaves out the possibility of intention. I think intention also conveys meaning in any movement. Therefore if a consequentialist theory breaks down, at least partially, a notion of intention I dont think it is the only signifier to use to describe the betterness of worseness of the movement.

    I am full on board with your comments about free speech! And as a feminist and bisexual individual whose family is strictly Roman Catholic, I know that (at least for my family) to tell them that I have these beliefs is so far from their “central doctrine” that they do not understand, or react strongly in opposition to the words. I think an interesting question to ask this movement is “are they causing more disconnections between different groups by being so visceral. or is the visceralness used intentionaly by the group another way- to present the argument of feminism in alternative way to gain acceptance. ”

    One last note: maybe the different views of this movement vulgarity, freedom, rights, and an attack on religon could be better understood by looking at the outcomes and the intentions because both have positive lenses to view through. (and i think this was taken up, in part, in the religous section)


  6. Kile, Interesting having a man respond to Femen here. As an artist/theologian/feminist, I have to side with freedom of expression. Of course, as you say, they are not causing physical violence, but intentional thought-provocation which is what much performance and static art is about. Art provokes us by stretching the boundaries, albeit that Femen’s message is more about political social justice for women and about freeing minds through a bodily expression that shocks and provokes on many levels, than creating an art piece. But it is close to performance art because this art form is often about political issues. Women running naked as their own choice is different than baring yourself in prostitution or pornography for the pleasure of the ‘other’ because you are forced to for economic reasons.

    Those reactions by others is something as Chelsi noted not predictable completely. How another responds to the provocation is that responder’s responsibility, not the person creating the action.

    Feminism is about raising awareness to injustice of all kinds, marginalization, silencing, defining others according to your-one-and-only truth, these are all issues that women deal with in patriarchy. They are moral issues,and Femen is raising consciousness about them,using whatever means of ‘getting the word out’ to the greatest number of people. I another way this can be seen as brilliant marketing and one that in the hands of men would never be questioned. It would be seen as great success!!

    In theology and religion, women are described as immanent, not transcendent; earthbound, not sky bound, corporeal, so in essence they are using their immanence as a means of expression.

    Remember the furor over Rudi Gernrich creating the topless swimsuit!! He was lauded for his great accomplishment by ‘allowing’ in a fashion context for women to bare their breasts. He was not denigrated for making women objects of another sort!!!

    Femen demonstrates the inequities that abound in society and also in religion because they have mostly been constructed by men and they are questioning those constructions and in the process creating a new paradigm of understanding about who women are and what they can be with or without men. Remove the male and what are we? We are living, breathing, faith-full human beings that hold up half the world and we deserve to be respected,heard, counted and read. You are one male among many who are thinking about this and responding with your own questioning and thoughts about it because it has provoked you in some way!


  7. Think of Nelson Mandela going on a nude male version of a slut walk to win freedom for black south africans. Think of Martin Luther King in a nude protest at the Lincoln memorial. Think of all the male leaders of male freedom movements doing this stuff, and then photo shop the nude images of these men and put them all over the internet. Then ask if this would have achieved freedom for marginalized men. If you can say yes to that, then you have your answer about whether this will achieve freedom for women. And incidently, feminism and the sexual revolution were not the same thing in the 60s. Men promoted the sexual revolution to get sexual access to movement women. The feminist movement was a protest against all of that.

    Always put men in the place of women, and see if it adds up. Make male bodies objects, or just show the penises of famous revolutionary men— if you can do that and call it revolution more power to you.


    • Agree to this one hundred percent!


    • I must say you make a good point TW!


    • I disagree. One of the aspects of women’s liberation is gaining control over our bodies, and of our perceptions of our bodies. Patriarchy hates and seeks to actively destroy a woman’s body. In patriarchal worldview, a woman’s body (not a male’s) is a doorway to hell. A woman’s body is seductive, dangerous and disgusting at the same time. A woman’s body must be subjected to men’s will and be owned by men. It is the only way it is accepted into a patriarchal society. By doing with their bodies what THEY will, Femen break out of this prison.


      • I agree with you, Oxana. Men think they own women’s breasts and uteruses. They can barely tolerate seeing a woman breast-feed her baby in public, because they want those breasts only for their own sexual purposes. Men decide whether and when women can use birth control, because they want to control our uteruses. It’s time for women to stand up and say that WE control our own bodies. That is Femen’s message.


  8. To Quote Ex-members of Femen on their Anti-Femen Facebook page. ‘EXit FEMEN The truth about Femen’ (This is pretty much my only insiders look at the movement I’ve come across so far and from an outsiders point of view so far it seems pretty constant but time will hopefully tell)

    We are a collective of ex-members of Femen. We want to show that Femen is NOT a feminist movement and that their actions are ruining feminism as well as they ruin the life of young women.
    Our mission is the truth!

    We support all women who leave the movement and fear threats from other members of Femen.
    Femen was founded by models and economists.
    They care much more about marketing than human rights.
    When they discovered they can become famous as “sexy feminists” they decided to hire professional PR-managers for that cause.
    They also started photoshoots to sell their pictures in the media.
    The most powerful tool for Femen is Facebook – they have thousands of fans who buy their stuff and like their promo pictures…

    What is dangerous about Femen is that nobody knows who sponsors them and that all the activists are used by the few persons who know.
    It’s still not clear what will happen to the pictures of women who joined Femen:
    Some of them are still used as promotion and can be photoshopped over and over again to be used by them.

    Femen expands and is represented in many countries now.
    But there is a strategy in building up the branches which you can’t imagine:
    At first they give the impression that they are feminists who care for women’s rights. They pretend to accept all body images and all lifestyles of their members.
    But then comes the selection…
    They start to throw people out by deleting them from mailing lists or facebook groups and always say “Oh, sorry – it was a mistake” when somebody starts to ask or to complain. And if anyone criticises anything about Femen, she can be sure to be a victim of psychological abuse from the whole group after a while and face the fact that it’s tolerated by the leaders.
    The members are so fanatic that they abuse people verbally to keep them silent about Femen. Even physical abuse was mentioned by some people.
    Femen works with psychological pressure.
    They prefer young girls who can be easily isolated from their social life to be part of the inner circle of activists.
    The tactic of Femen is to make the girls feel guilty when they refuse to show their breasts for an action or don’t want to protest.
    To get the professional made model photos and their name mentioned in the newspaper, the activists often quit their jobs and leave their partners, because they are afraid to be slowly thrown out if they don’t. Most of them lose nearly all their friends and have no more private life left – just Femen.
    Also none of the activists is allowed to become pregnant or have children, the same with being a lesbian or a punk or…
    Femen will get rid off them slowly or do everything to make this person feel as much uncomfortable as possible at the meetings.

    But some facts about Femen are the most horrible.
    It is true that many of them are nationalists and homophobes – the protests against homophobia was just planned to get as much media attention as possible.
    Also the members think that fat women are ugly and should diet – just a few ones can accept a size 1 or 2 besides size zero.
    If an activist is not thin, she won’t be invited to photoshoots or to some protests.
    Femen doesn’t talk to prostitutes, they’re also not interested in helping them.
    They make their naked protests in front of the brothels for the media and they leave quickly when the photographers took enough sexy pictures of them.
    When it comes to abortion rights Femen has quite no idea what “pro choice” means – for them children seem to be non-feminist. And when it comes to legal prostitution or sex work, they compare it to genocide.
    When Femen is confronted about these issues, they quickly hire a new activist to show, the are not fat phobic, homophobic or racist.
    These promotion activists come to one or two protests and are not seen again with Femen after the media lost interest in the topic.”


  9. While trying to wrap my head around this post, I kept coming back to the one way that I could easily summarize my feelings, my good friend over at the highly popular PhD Stress Tumblr blog. Here is a link to the ways in which queer scholars (as well as many others) feel about FEMEN, that I think perfectly summarize my points. Although this is an interesting read, I agree that it should fit under free-speech but not feminism (at all!)

    Great points TW!



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