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Berghahn Author Asks: ‘Quo Vadis FEMEN?’

FEMEN is a Ukrainian feminist protest group that has become infamous for its topless protests against patriarchy. The group, founded in 2008, has since grown to be a worldwide phenomenon, and not simply because its protests are often seen as “sextreme.” Marian Rubchak, editor of Mapping Difference: The Many Faces of Women in Contemporary Ukraine, takes a look into the history and meaning of the movement, and asks: Where is it going? 




Marian Rubchak

The year was 2008; 17 years had passed since Ukraine declared its independence and early advocates of change began to espouse high-minded ideals designed to promote women’s rights. These incipient feminists laid the groundwork for raising an awareness of discrimination against women, and were instrumental in advancing the passage of some of the most progressive pro-women legislation Ukraine had yet seen. Fast forward to 2008 — the promising beginnings were moving very slowly, too slowly. Clearly the work of reform would need to proceed to a higher level.


In response to this imperative, the first post-Soviet generation — young people who had come to maturity in a society that was free of the authoritarian constraints under which their predecessors had lived appeared ready to take center stage as catalysts for change. Among the advocates of women’s rights, the most colorful, if bizarre, response came from a group of female university students called “the most daring — and unorthodox protest groups around” by Jeffrey Tayler.[i] They styled themselves FEMEN, adopted pink as their signature color, and a goal that included reversing the exploitation of women — with an emphasis on prostitution, coerced sex, and violence. According to its founder Anna Hutsol the group also hoped to establish the most prominent women’s political party in all of Europe by 2013.


The nature of FEMEN’s challenges to the dominant patriarchal cultural code is without historical precedent in Ukraine. Initial protests took the form of street theater — daringly innovative tongue-in-cheek parodies of offenses against women, performed for passers-by on Kyiv’s main streets, with role-playing simulating prostitution, sex-for-grades, political corruption, etc. FEMEN’s leadership soon recognized the limitations of street theater in advancing the group’s cause and resolved on more scandalous displays of protest. Topless demonstrations were soon underway and rapidly became FEMEN’s hallmark. As the group’s visibility rose, media coverage expanded, while the initial agenda contracted, and FEMEN was evolving into an international phenomenon increasingly addicted to media exposure.[ii]


The question of FEMEN’s identity is still confusing. Can it be considered feminist? Or even a movement? In the beginning its leaders categorically rejected the feminist label, yet suddenly, inexplicably, FEMEN activists began referring to themselves as ultra-feminists, neo-feminists, and feminism’s shock brigade, appellations that the media rushed to exploit. Recently Inna Shevchenko introduced yet another descriptive term — sextremists. To paraphrase an assessment of FEMEN by Mona Chollet on the on-line site LE MONDE diplomatique:[iii] there is “no evidence of feminism” here. “Classic Feminism is a sick old woman … stuck in the world of conferences and books” declared Shevchenko in The Guardian. Her comments are portrayed as a unique display of the “greatness of imbecility” by an activist “… who pretends to be renewing feminism.” Does Shevchenko know who or what this “sick old woman” represents? She might were she to read some books, it is suggested. Ironically, Shevchenko has already organized a camp in Paris for training future feminists. Meanwhile, in their zeal to sensationalize FEMEN many media outlets uncritically rushed to adopt their self-descriptive terminology, and added the term movement to FEMEN’s profile, something the group has never been.[iv] What does FEMEN stand for? Can it claim a rational agenda when its protests have always exhibited improvisation? Whose interests does it serve?


A documentary film, Ukraine is Not a Brothel, produced by Australian filmmaker Kitty Green, recently (September 5, 2013) screened at the Venice film Festival, brought to mind FEMEN’s early agenda. It also illuminated many publicly unexplored facets of FEMEN’s history. Most startling was the leadership of a man, Victor Svyatski, who intimates (obliquely) that he might have founded the movement, a claim that Inna Shevchenko adamantly refutes. His interim tenure as a tactician is acknowledged, but without a plausible justification of how a male could rise to such a position of authority in an allegedly “feminist movement,” other than to explain that FEMEN’s members are products of a patriarchal society and he is a man, so this would not have been unusual.


The documentary portrays Sviatsky as the group’s “consultant,” “political strategist,” “éminence grise,” and a “bully”! When asked why he embraced FEMEN’s cause, he responded with: “These women are weak, they show submissiveness, spinelessness … and many other factors that prevent them from becoming political activists,” a disparagement that suggests a need for his guiding hand and even his harrying in the interest of advancing their cause. On a theoretical level the film can be interpreted as an allegory: FEMEN’s submission to Sviatsky’s “svengalian” role as the logical outcome for females living in a patriarchal society. His expulsion from the group might be viewed as emblematic of their micro-emancipation. The next stage lies ahead.


Murderous attacks by unknown assailants (identified by FEMEN as secret police, and by Sviatsky as agents of Presidents Putin and Yanukovych) have generated new problems. They left Victor Sviatsky with a face beaten almost beyond recognition, Anna Hutsol with cuts and bruises about her face, and other activists requiring hospitalization. These assaults have prompted FEMEN’s leaders (including Sviatsky) to flee Ukraine and seek asylum abroad, generating “conspiracy theories” about their flight having been orchestrated. Forces eager to see them gone, yet reluctant to resort to the kind of drastic measures that Putin adopted in dealing with the Pussy Riots in Russia, which would expose them as sexist tyrants, successfully created conditions that “encouraged” FEMEN’s exodus.


Where does that leave the group’s followers? Prostitution is alive and well in Ukraine, and Hutsol stepped back long since from her original intent to found a prominent women’s political party. FEMEN might have emerged as an unprecedented, perhaps even enduring form of opposition to the dominant patriarchal values, but these “media darlings” have moved on to become a self-styled global force for “combating patriarchy and oppression” as Shevchenko put it, again without offering a rational program for its execution. The FEMEN we once knew, whose actions we have followed for the better part of five years hoping for change, is no more, its legacy is reduced to memories of colorful protests designed to destabilize a sexist social order.




Marian J. Rubchak is a Senior Research Professor of History at Valparaiso University whose work focuses on reimagining Slavic identities in various contexts. She has written on the role of myth in shaping the identity of contemporary Ukrainian women, and the difficulties that they face in exerting agency in a transitional society with prejudices against women.




[i] Reported by Radio Liberty, “Femen. Ukraine’s topless warriors,” on November 8, 2013.

[ii] Trainees are instructed on how to make the most of the cameras.

[iii] A blog article on Le Monde diplomatique titled “The Fast-food feminism of the topless Femen” discusses Mona Chollett’s review of Femen.

[iv] For an alternative viewpoint see Jeffrey Tayler’s quote from Victor Yanukovych in The Atlantic.