Where Femen Has Gone Wrong

Originally published at The Feminist Wire

Femen are a feminist protest group founded in 2008 and based in Ukraine. They have received international recognition through their direct and somewhat extreme methods of action. They engage in topless demonstrations, protests outside religious institutions and international marriage agencies and serve to push their new ideology of the women’s sexual liberation to the forefront. Their ideology; ‘Sextremism’, their goal; women’s liberation.

So, what’s so sextremist about sextremism? Well according to Femen, it means “to mobilize every cell of your body on a relentless struggle against centuries of slavery of women!” This I can certainly agree with. The attack on patriarchy warrants an un-relentless physical and mental effort. Yet, what is it about Femen that rattles the cages of so many people across the world? It is the fact that they so errenously equate “freedom” with “nudity”.


Now this is not to say that you cannot achieve freedom with nudity because hey, Feminism is about what is right for each woman. In her pursuit of liberation from patriarchy and its destructive force; she can use whatever methods she requires. As long as she is conscious and aware of the condition of society and the institutionalised bias against women; it is her choice what she does post-consciousness. This is because Feminism is not dogmatic. There is no blueprint on “how to be a feminist” and nor is there one on what says you’re “un-feminist” for doing such and such. As long as you believe in the basic principle of Feminism that is; no one should be treated differently, judged differently, afforded different rights or forced in society according to their sex”, then there is nothing you can do to be excluded from of the women’s movement.

For Femen, this has been their greatest shortcoming; approaching Feminism in a dogmatic manner and placing a monopoly on what is and isn’t freedom. This has rendered them an isolationist and largely intimidating group. Especially for those have just been introduced to them. They are chain linking themselves into a boxed section that includes the idea of: “our way or the high way” and if you happen to be a feminist and disagree with them, it must mean that you are not a “real feminist“. And if you are not a feminist and still dislike their way of thinking, it must mean that you are oppressed by “Islamism” and in immediate need of a dose of freedom (ointment administered by Femen of course).

If you subscribe to, or even just believe in the principle I mentioned earlier, there is no group or individual that can effectively exclude you from feminist ideology. As a group who claim to be inclusive, Femen have fallen short in including all women in their movement. If anything, they have further stiffened the already-existing divide between non-religious and religious feminists.


As part of their protest on the arrest of Tunisian feminist Amina Tyler who posted topless images of herself on the internet, with arabic writing across her chest reading: “My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honour“, Femen called an ‘International Topless Jihad Day’. This began on 4 April 2013 and was followed by staged demonstrations around the world, mostly taking place outside mosques in Berlin, Franch and Ukraine. These protests included the burning of Salafist flags and scuffles with the police.


Once again Femen prove that they sport a dogmatic ideology, associating Islam with coercion and lack of freedom. They are not only kidnapping the right of any Muslim woman to proclaim herself “free”, but they are then professing that the only way to relieve her of her shackles is by conforming to their ideology. Yes, I agree with their concept of sexual positivity. Yes, I respect and support their act of claiming their bodies back from a largely sexually repressive society. But, do I agree with their methods of promoting sexual positivity? Absolutely not.

Not only is it wrong to claim that all women under the sweeping brush of “Islamism” (an Orientalist term I frankly detest) are inherently oppressed, but it is even more thoughtless to claim that are in need of some sort of saving. Imposing a specific standard of freedom on un-consenting women is just another form of trivialisation. Are they not too independent, free-thinkers who possess independent will? Or are they defined by their choice of faith?  This is adheres to the neo-colonial idea of the Arab World as some kind of barbaric and uncivilised terrain unable to treat its women well. And again, this promotes a dogmatic approach to Feminism. Whether Islam truly does promote the mis-treatment of women in the Arab World, is really not a concern of Femen. It is a deeply sensitive and complex subject that requires study and revision, not a clamourous gathering of topless individuals shouting “Topless Jihad” as though it were some kind of panacea.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post! I think your arguments are well-thought out and well structured. But I disagree with most.
    Facebook blocked Femen’s page initially because they suspected the group might be pornographic. What? Let’s be honest, women are constantly groped, sold into sex slavery, beaten. And those aren’t even the worst of their horrors.
    Think back to the words of Martin Luther King, who most people would agree was a great man. In his “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” he asks the clergy of America why/how can they ask him to slow down his program of non-violent disobedience. How dare they? What happens between men and women in any house in any country is the worry of the world as a whole. “No man is an island, separate from the whole…” If we do not worry about a man in Iran or Iowa or Ireland abusing a woman, why should we care if they do it to a child? Or if they own slaves?
    I can understand you might be a bit sensitive to the idea that this happens in Islamic countries only. It does not. I lived in Ukraine and can tell you abuse is alive and well in this deeply religious Orthodox Christian country. The only way for Femen to get attention is to bare all, or bear all. And naked breasts keep them relevant. If not, they’d simply be some back page story that we would soon grow tired of. They haven’t resorted to other violent means. It is perhaps our own uncomfortable feelings around naked breasts that are the problem. I should know, we in America are only slightly less conservative than our Middle East brethren.

    1. Thank you!
      I really appreciate your insights. I know that in a lot of countries we deem “liberal” and “advancements” there are actually deep rooted patriarchal elements. In this sense, the argument that bearing breasts is really the only way to get attention, makes a lot of sense. It brings them the most amount of attention in the quickest time (One anectode I read today described them as “the fast-food of feminism”). They also receive attention in a sure manner, since it’s harder to be ignored when you’re topless given our highly sexualised society. But, i admire them for taking back ownerships of their body.

      They can improve in the sense that they fortify their aims, what do we really know about them apart from their topless demonstrations? They haven’t advanced anything new or spectacular and, below the surface, it really just appears that they’re a bunch of Islamophobic individuals getting topless. Naked breasts definitely keep them relevant.

  2. “Sex sells,” or “The oldest profession in the world,” or “She smokes she pokes,” or…let’s be honest, it’s in no way a level playing field. Each progressive ‘revealed religion’ has always taken away freedom from women-not given them more. Men cannot control themselves.
    Torah: “Don’t screw your neighbor’s wife.”
    Bible: “Don’t think about screwing your neighbor’s wife.”
    Quran: “Don’t look at your neighbor’s wife (so then you won’t want to screw her).”
    Here in the West, we do what others do-namely look at those people ‘over there’ and say they are the ones with the problem. The Pentagon says there are 19,000 sexual assaults in the US military per year. FIFTY TWO A DAY! We have as much of a problem as anyone. I would prefer for FEMEN to take care of business in Ukraine first-before they try and change the world…

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