The radical, topless feminist group, Femen, are spreading across countries like wildfire. Is this flesh-flaunting the only way to bring the sometimes dusty topic of feminism to the forefront?
By Kim Harrisberg
Her lavishly-painted, red lips reflect the flash of the camera. Her mouth has been caught half way between a smile and a cheer. Her brown locks cascade down her bare shoulders in a messy tangle, framed by the garland of colourful flowers on the crown of her head.
She is topless, and faces the camera with a stance that is both confident and natural, as if she was not standing bare-chested at all. Her right hand grips a sickle, glinting as sharply as her lips. Dark, crimson blood is caught mid-drop as it trickles down the handle of the weapon. Her left arm is raised victoriously, displaying with pride the aftermath of her heroic sickle-swipe. Gripped between her delicately painted nails is a severed pair of male testicles, dripping with blood.
For the relief of readers, male and female alike, this image is not in its natural form. The bare-chested woman is real, yet the stomach-churning image of the severed genitalia is, one could say, a marketing technique. This is one of the many images on the website of the radical, topless feminist group established in the Ukraine: Femen. Their tagline: “sextremism”.
Their website’s manifesto includes the following: ‘FEMEN – is the new Amazons, capable to undermine the foundations of the patriarchal world by their intellect, sex, agility, make disorder, bring neurosis and panic to the men’s world. Be FEMEN – means to mobilize every cell of your body on a relentless struggle against centuries of slavery of women!’ The poor grammar can be attributed to the fact that their original Ukrainian manifesto has had to be translated and re-translated as their radical, topless protests gain both momentum and viral publicity. They have planted little Femen seeds in Germany, France, Greece, USA, Tunisia and more.
They pledge to fight the sex industry, the church, anti-abortionists, homophobes, Sharia law, female genital mutilation and anything even remotely smelling of patriarchy. They have cut down wooden crosses, burnt flags, barbequed Barbie Dolls and even started physical training camps to prepare for future protests. They thrive on their extremism, and feel its legitimacy with such vehemence that their protests continue despite arrests, claims of abduction and even torture.
Needless to say, the objections to Femen’s methodology have been deafening. Critics claims of Femen’s middle class eurocentrism and orientalism are so profuse they require another article on their own. For now, Femen is of importance as a case study of radical reaction. For them, they are a reaction to years of silencing patriarchy.
Despite what anyone may think of their methods, the questions spill forth unrelentingly: How on earth did we get here? Why is it that the only way these women feel they can gain true ownership over their bodies is to use them as weapons of mass attention? Are they dramatic, extremist, sensationalist? Or are they on to something?
Let’s attempt to answer these questions by taking a few steps back.
Feminism is seen as a movement whose set of beliefs and ideas aim to achieve equality for woman. In an ideal world, such a movement would not need to exist at all.
In Gayle Binion’s academic article, ‘Human Rights: A Feminist Perspective’, she begins by stressing the ways in which women’s human rights have been and, in some countries, are continuing to be abused in patriarchal societies.
“In a world in which it is acceptable, inter alia, for women to be raped by their husbands; for female detainees to be raped by the police; for women to be educated at half the level and literacy of men; for women to have no access to birth control or abortion; and for women to have no unilateral freedom of movement domestically or internationally, disempowerment is clearly social.”
Shereen Essoff, a Zimbabwean activist, feminist and academic, believes that the need for this movement, specifically in South Africa, is just as urgent as ever. “One in every three women in South Africa is in an abusive relationship, a woman is killed by her partner every six days, and there is a rape every 35 seconds,” writes Essoff in the Opendemocracy website.
Although Essoff feels that women are continuing to fight for equality, she believes we need a change of tactics. Creating platforms for women in male-orientated environments means things aren’t getting better. Yet her article is riddled with questions and very few answers.
Jonathan Jones, a journalist for The Guardian, thinks Femen is at least attempting to find them. When Femen declared April 4th 2013 ‘International Topless Jihad Day’ Muslim women around the world retaliated by telling Femen to stay out of their religion.
Jonathan thinks they hit the nail on the head because of the urgency around which their breasted protest was focused. This specific protest was triggered by the attack on a young Tunisian girl by Islamists after she posted images of herself topless with the words “My body belongs to me”. This young lady, Amina Tyler, soon reported threats and even physical assaults.
To Jonathan, this International Topless Jihad Day was ‘gloriously crude’. A topless woman, wearing a Muslim head covering and Amina’s slogan across her naked torso could not have been more refreshing in a time of ‘tight-lipped liberal relativism’, says Jonathan.
Debby Edelstein may not agree. Edelstein is a South African entrepreneur, speaker and writer on women leadership. She has been organising women leadership conferences for almost 8 years and has seen the transformation of opinions and connotations affiliated to feminism.
“Femen’s radicalism can be seen as a sign of desperation and ultimately, a symptom of an unhealthy society,” says Edelstein.
“Yes, they definitely get people talking and maybe that is a good thing, but perhaps starting a less spectacular type of conversation is equally bold. Initiating conversations in homes and in communities that may shape a more egalitarian environment, that is radical too.”
For Edelstein, topless protesting is similar to the Slut Walk that takes places each year in South Africa. This walk gathers together men and women alike who don miniskirts and high heels to promote the slogan: ‘There is never an excuse’. This is in defence of rape victims who are told “they asked for it” by rapists because of how they dress.
“This type of feminism runs the risk of entrenching these existing stereotypes, especially because women are sexualised as it is,” warns Edelstein.
“Radical feminism runs the risk of scaring off other feminists, and some people are uncomfortable with the term “feminist” in general. Only now are female CEO’s feeling ready to describe themselves as feminists.
“They used to affiliate this with man-hating, bra burning and ‘libber’ behaviour. South Africans can be quite conservative so I use the term ‘women empowerment’ rather than ‘feminism’,” says Edelstein.
The merging of feminism and the workplace is a topic of concern for feminist, both radical and moderate.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, writes openly about this in her article titled: ‘Why woman still can’t have it all’. Anne-Marie was the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department for two years before she decided she needed to start ticking the “typical mother” boxes.
Being away from her children for extensive periods and leaving her husband to fulfil most of the stereotypical womanly roles left her itching to write this article explaining why the modern woman success story has to come with sacrifices.
Slaughter’s honesty may not be as radical as Femen’s, yet she peels away the façade she feel so many successful woman of today feel they have to put up in order to keep up with men. She admits to making ‘millions of woman feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life’.
This mentality, says Slaughter, is linked to women of her generation feeling the ‘feminist credo’ of their generation has to be true: women can and must have it all. Not today, not with the way America’s economy and society is structured, says Slaughter. To her, the nature of competitive work places with long hours means less time at home to fulfil that intrinsic ‘maternal imperative’.
This desperation to ‘have it all’ can be seen as new type of subversive sexism. She acknowledges that her article is written for women lucky enough to benefit from previous, pioneering acts of feminism, and also women lucky enough to even have jobs. Yet she feels the battles of the past have metamorphosed: now it’s about being truly honest about the woman’s capabilities.
Women can and only will have it all if the values of society and workplace begin to change, says Slaughter. When an employee’s commitment to family is placed on par with commitment to work, then women can be realistic about being the modern-day superwomen.
Despite feeling that Slaughter may have generalised across too many professions and too many households, change in the workplace is something in which Edelstein strongly believes.
As a co-founder of QualityLife, Edelstein organises conferences and forums for people who want to combine both their work and home life. “People are slowly realising that gender equality can also make good business sense.”
“At a recent conference,” reflects Edelstein, “Mamphela Ramphele spoke and put human rights and women’s rights in the same breath. She spoke about combing both her race and her feminism. These are steps in the right direction.”
Edelstein feels that progress like this could be ‘swept away in a wave of oestrogen’ if radicalism were to rule the show.
“Extremism leaves no space for moderates to voice their opinions on feminism and we need moderates to be a part of the conversation. This is how truly egalitarian households are created.”
It seems it may be a naïve rationale that any movement has only like-minded affiliates. There seems to be a place within feminism for varied opinions and methods of protest. Lifestyle choices, women leadership conferences and topless rebellion are only a few streams in this eclectic reaction towards patriarchy.
Indeed, Gayle Binion’s earlier mentioned article goes on to explore the potential for specific female jurisprudence. Adopting a purposeful female lens through which to interpret the law would allow for a more tangible and practical progression towards female inclusion in legal, political and economic power, argues Binion.
In an ideal world, there would not be a need for feminism. Yet as the statistics seem to shout: we are not there yet, and may never be. A vocal society that does not portray a monopoly of ideologies is a good first few steps. And luckily so, because it seems neither the “sextremists” nor the moderates are going anywhere.