Feminism | Posted by Julie Z on 01/31/2011

Femen: How Ukraine Does Feminist Protesting

Femen Ukraine

Femen Protesters

The relationship between feminists and our bodies is a complicated one. Where as our general goal is to have ownership of and the ability to make choices about our bodies, we’re stuck in a society that wants to take that control away. We’re bombarded with images of exploited bodies every day. We’re told what our bodies should look like (the anatomically ridiculous stick with giant balloons attached to our chests) and what we should do with them (be sexually available but, for the love of God, not slutty. But not prudish either).

The feminist body conundrum is perfectly exemplified by the Ukranian organization “Femen.” Essentially, Femen is a feminist group of about 300 women who believe the best way to spread their aversion to things like sex tourism and the lack of women in Ukrainian politics is by loudly protesting in the streets. Oh, I should probably mention that they do this topless.

Anna Gustol, the group’s 26-year-old leader, stated, “We thought we’d create an organization where young girls could come and help others like them and help society. And the format we picked was this extremely sexy, bright way of presenting ourselves.

When a friend of mine emailed me this article about Femen with the subject line, “LOOK, FEMINISM!” I can easily say the contents of the news story were not exactly what I expected. My first thought about Femen (right after “Holy Moses isn’t it really cold in Ukraine? Shouldn’t they be wearing long underwear and parkas?) was that though noble in their attempts to raise awareness about causes like sex tourism and human trafficking, wasn’t Femen playing into society’s traditional mode of objectifying women? Why did they have to use their bodies to get attention rather than their brains? It just seemed so cheap – I mean undressing in order to get media attention? While, clearly, their ploy has been effective on the surface, are we paying attention to the cause they’re promoting, or are we just paying attention to the crazy topless girls in the streets of Ukraine?

But, on the other hand, so much of what has caused this group backlash seems to be linked to our weird relationship with women’s bodies. Whereas (as of 2003) porn is a $57 billion global industry the bottom line is we’re freaking terrified of these women undressing on the streets in order to raise awareness about a serious cause. Ukranian authorities were so scared, in fact, that they began arresting these girls. As Gustol put it, “What we do is we get Ukrainian and international coverage and it shows that the authorities are scared of seeing bare breasts. And the fact that they are trying to arrest us and not let us undress now proves it.

Seriously, though, if men took off their shirts and wrote words of protest on their chests, would anyone give a shit? No – they’d probably just admire them for their dedication to the cause. While bodies are a point of contention for feminists and a central part of our battles, in the end, they’re just bodies. They’re just boobs. Half the world has them. Why are we still so shocked and offended by them?

And if organizations like the porn industry can use our bare bodies to further their capitalist cause, shouldn’t Ukranian women be able to use their bodies to raise awareness about causes that are actually meaningful? And couldn’t that also be a powerful experience of reclaiming our bodies (think Kathleen Hanna writing “slut” on her stomach as a way to reclaim the derogatory term…to the tenth power).

I honestly see both sides of the argument on this one. For me, it just comes down to the fact that I appreciate these young, outspoken women who are so passionate about feminism they’re willing to literally bare all. I think that passion is something to look up to. As Gustol (I really like her…) said, “I don’t have advice for women from other cultures about how they should protest but one thing I know for sure is that they should raise their voices.”

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  • Katherine C. @ at 11:04 am, January 31st, 2011

    Nice article- you do a good job of respecfully considering all sides of the issue.

    That said, not sure how I feel about the issue itself. I feel that I am more in the this-is-cheap camp.

  • Marlene @ at 4:31 pm, January 31st, 2011

    I really am gladyou posted this article. There way of getting the media’s attention is as contreversial as the topic being touched. It is also a reliving reminder of how a womens body doesnt have just one shape or look to it.

  • Liz @ at 4:50 pm, January 31st, 2011

    Really interesting! I love the quote at the end!

  • Tweets that mention Femen: How Ukraine Does Feminist Protesting | fbomb -- Topsy.com @ at 6:39 pm, January 31st, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Julie Zeilinger, Lily. Lily said: RT @the_fbomb: Femen: How Ukraine Does Feminist Protesting (Topless) http://twittley.com/r/59dcm74e0l5o #feminism #bodies […]

  • Marisol @ at 7:39 pm, January 31st, 2011

    I was wondering when the FBomb was going to do a piece on these girls! I’m with you on this issue; I can clearly see both sides, but I’m not sure where my opinion falls. Either way, I admire them for their passion and dedication for feminism!

  • Nano Muse @ at 2:15 am, February 1st, 2011

    I think women stripping down is a good thing. I’m really against this pointless double standard about women being unable to go shirtless in lots of conservative societies where men are allowed to do so. Flat chested women must be dressed at all times while men with breasts (from fat) are free to wander around showing all? This isn’t anything against breasts but trying to take away a woman’s choice about her own personal levels of exposure. It should be that everyone is allowed or no one is allowed to go topless. (And I’m the kind of person who leans to the former rather than the latter).

  • Quinc @ at 4:00 am, February 1st, 2011

    Fortunately they do seem to have a point they’re making. For officials in Ukraine to abhor something sexually low key as shirtlessness because it’s out where everybody can see them, and yet find the sex trade a-okay because it’s out of sight out of mind most of the time is quite hypocritical.

    I’m not particularly familiar with the situation but I suspect there might more forced prostitution/sex slavery than anyone cares to admit or think about. Something worth bringing attention to.

    So yes, I approve, and not just because I’m a heterosexual male…

  • Nick @ at 12:49 pm, February 1st, 2011

    Saved as a favorite, I enjoy your site! :)

  • krista @ at 9:01 pm, February 8th, 2011

    I think breasts have been sexualized. I feel that these women are more or less trying to get people to recognize them as just another part of the anatomy.
    Breasts are not genitals, therefore I do not understand why we are not allowed to show them.
    Why do you have to view women taking their tops off as bad? Are we not able to take back out bodies? Aren’t you doing the exact same thing to these women – if not all women – that society is doing? Narrowing the behavior of women and policing it?
    If people are unable to see past the fact that the breast’s primary function is breast feeding, and instead view them as sexual, isnt that their problem and not these young women’s – or any for that matter?

    Perhaps rethink the stance on this one.

  • Plasma @ at 8:55 am, February 15th, 2011

    The problem I have with it is that… well, I just don’t have faith that they’re ACTUALLY trying to make female breasts stop being treated as sexual organs. What I mean is that, while they do want to be able to go topless, I really don’t expect them to also say “it’s not sexual harassment” or “we don’t mind if you stare”. And without that, not only does it cause utterly massive social issues, but it’s even more of a double standard than it is now.

    …well no, that’s half the problem. The other half is that, really, it’s taking away from the cause rather than adding to it. An ordinary person who sees this doesn’t think “I see women wanting to be topless is becoming a bigger thing now, perhaps I should look into it more”. Rather, they think “These people are crazy! No way I’m even giving these people the time of day”!

    Also, I’m confused as to how the porn industry is relevant. Like, even remotely. Especially as body censorship was around waaay before, y’know, porn.

    Also also, for those of you who think only genitals get censored, I’d like to point out that you don’t reproduce through your ass.

  • rhea d @ at 11:34 pm, March 1st, 2011


    All the women are young and sexy, why not put a few hard-working breasts out there that have nursed five kids and don’t live up to the ‘standard’ for this sort of exposure? Perhaps they couldn’t find anyone over forty willing to strip for a cause?

  • Powerboo @ at 2:14 pm, September 5th, 2012

    U do stars over the breasts ? thats not feminism thats puritanism :( sorry that seems not consequent enough for me.

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