Ukraine’s Ladies Of Femen
Established by a group of Kyiv university students in 2008, Femen a radical feminist movement, see its primary challenge as fighting to improve the role and prospects of women in a country which they deem: a male-dominated, post-Soviet society. To date, the movement has become internationally known for organizing protests against sex tourists, international marriage agencies, sexism and other social, national and international ills. Femen’s MySpace site declares that amongst its core goals are: "To develop leadership, intellectual and moral qualities of the young women in Ukraine", "To build up the image of Ukraine, the country with great opportunities for women” and "to shake women in Ukraine, making them socially active; to organize in 2017 a women's revolution.” The movement comprising of over 300 members(mainly student activists) with an email and internet support base of approximately 25,000. Yet, despite the movement’s worthy and sincere message, What makes FEMEN controversial are the tactics they employ to draw attention to these issue. These include theatrical public displays with partial or complete nudity and provocative dress.
The movements imaginative protests -- which leave little to the imagination -- have discovered that local and international media alike find their charms difficult to resist. Inna Shevchenko, 20, a spokeswoman for the group, admits that at the movements inception, the idea of semi-naked protest was not on the agenda. However, after realizing no one was listening to their message, they choose to make a drastic change:"At the beginning, we were not protesting topless but we realised we had to do something really radical. We don't have people to promote or help us, or big money. Everywhere – from TV channels to magazines – you see naked girls selling something. We are trying to say: 'You should not show your body like that; you should use it to protest and fight”. The organisation plans to become the biggest and the most influential feminist movement in Europe.
The movement of Femen regards itself as one of the key organisations which continues to fight against a number players and social ills that are today plaguing the contemporary social and political landscape of the Ukraine.The first of these key players is that of the Sex Industry:
1. Sex Industry: Femen repeatedly conducts its actions against the thriving sex industry and female prostitution in Ukraine under the slogan "Ukraine - not a brothel!". According to Inna Shevchenko “Ukraine is a very patriarchal society. Our sex industry is fueled by poverty and, let’s face it, ignorance. It’s a completely immoral, exploitative business”.According to a sociological study examining the sex industry in Ukraine, unofficial numbers suggest there are approximately 250,000 prostitutes in Ukraine. According to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) approximately one in eight prostitutes is a university student. However, Anna Hutsol of FEMEN argues that the numbers are much higher in Kyiv, estimating that 60 percent of prostitutes are university students. According to U.N. and U.S aid workers (and the prostitutes themselves) “sex trafficking through the city [Odessa] has moved away from being an industry run on fear to one driven by voluntary, if desperate, participation.” Shevchenko states the press are slowly beginning to realise that the "Ukraine is not a country of prostitutes, but the country of naked girls struggling against prostitution and sex tourism".
2. Foreign Buyers: Femen recognises that it is just domestic constructs that fuel the sex and prostitution industry, but the increasing number of foreigners, or ‘sexpats’ that are coming to the Ukraine purely to engage in with this industry and fuel its demand. Notably ,In 2007, 23 million foreigners visited Ukraine, up 22 percent from 2006. From 2008 to 2009 this number increased another 2 million. According to Hutsol, Ukrainian women are already equated with prostitution abroad. This, coupled with Ukraine’s reputation as a prime destination for sex tourists, has lead to negative assumptions about Ukrainian women in general. A survey conducted by FEMEN and KIIS showed that 2 out of 3 women in Kyiv between the ages of 17 and 22 were solicited for sex from a foreigner. Hutsol states,
“I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve spoken to a girl who was treated like trash by some sex tourist who has decided that Ukraine is his personal playground. It can degenerate into street harassment. Now, I’m not talking about foreigners who come here to work or study or whatever, I’m talking about those people who are deliberately here to take advantage of women. We have groups of young Turkish men literally shouting at women in the street.”
3. Ukraine Government: One of the key players in the struggle to increased the status of Ukrainian women in society is undoubtedly the Ukraine Government.Regarding the sex toursim industry, Hutsol argues that the government has no intention of removing its lax visa laws or vigorously enforcing its law on prostitution, as the industry itself brings with it too much revenue for the state. Estimates suggests that profits from the Ukrainian sex industry have nearly doubled, from $700 million to $1.5 billion from 2006-2009. Furthermore, the combination of a weak currency, high rates of unemployment and poverty, cheap flights and relaxed borders has essentially created a “greenhouse” for sex tourism in Ukraine and an economic boost for a country that has been stagnating since 2008. As Hutsol explains, “The problem was bad before the crisis, but now it’s booming” and not only does it provide revenue related directly to prostitution, but is also bring high amounts of revenue for airlines, hotels, nightclubs, restaurants, local business etc. Indeed, what is a worrying trend is that the owners of Ukraine’s brothels are beginning to enjoy an increasing semiofficial relationship with local law enforcement. This according to FEMEN is one of the most worrying trends.
Tools and Tactics:
1. Unique Style: The movements style of protest is unarguably one of its core tactics . Although, its choice of protest style is highly controversial amongst the Ukraine public and indeed highly divisive amongst various feminist movements, its theatrical public displays with partial or complete nudity and provocative dress has undoubtedly been a major cause in its ability to gain national and international media attention. Other tactics employed by FEMEN have included dressing in revealing faux police uniforms with batons and shields conducting mock beatings (including on reporters) to mimic police behavior or dressing in skimpy school uniforms and having men dressed as teachers spank their bottoms to represent the mistreatment of students. FEMEN also protested at an event promoting Iranian culture against the death-by-stoning sentence handed down to an Iranian woman for adultery. Members of FEMEN stripped down, threw stones on the ground, and shouted slogans against what they called court sanctioned murder. Hustol argues that this is an effective strategy; “It gets people talking. Our sexy image causes debate. You need to have debate if you are going to move forward.”
Hustol however does recognise that protesting in this manner is indeed controversial, but continues to advocate that it is a key tool in which to get thr message heard. As stated previously she said that:"At the beginning, we were not protesting topless but we realised we had to do something really radical. We don't have people to promote or help us, or big money. Everywhere – from TV channels to magazines – you see naked girls selling something. We are trying to say: 'You should not show your body like that; you should use it to protest and fight”. To date due to primarly their unique style of protest, the movement has garnered national media attention, primarily in the Kyiv Post and the Ukrainian Business News and more recently,from the international media attention such as the German publication Der Spiegel, and U.S. publications such as AlterNet, The Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the World Affairs Journal blog.
2. Continuous Activity: FEMEN seeks to constantly work on its campaign and provide uptodate information for its members and the public. Its members gather in cafés and brainstorm new campaigns, make placards, and design pamphlets. FEMEN also relies extensively on email and social networking sites to communicate. Its membership is primarily female university students and has a 5-member executive board. Funding for the movements activities comes from member donations, which allows it to secure a number of full-time members to work on its cause. Additional funding comes from what FEMEN describes as those “closely connected with us: they help us, fond of our ideas and deliver them.” The movement, believes that continuously providing information about its causes and regularly planning new events, is vital to its success.
One of the primary stumbling blocks is the deeply ingrained societal constructs that pervade the Ukraine. Alexandra Shevchenko, a member of FEMEN and a 22-year-old economics student told Reuters that the Ukraine is patriarchal nation on every level, from the home, to school, to the the workplace and that the place of women in the Ukraine " is seen as in the kitchen or in bed. Houtsel speaking on this ingrained culture states: “Ukraine is a very patriarchal society.We never had a sexual revolution to speak of. In the Soviet days, we were all repressed. We’re still reaping the consequences of that. You know the old saying: “there’s no sex in the Soviet Union.” On one level, that was true. Sex was largely unacknowledged. I don’t think that things have improved so much in recent years. We don’t have decent sex education in this country. And we’re still very sexist”.Thus, these deeply ingrained societal notions are primary obstacles that FEMEN face and present a continuous challenge for the movement to achieve its aims.
Another obstacle for the movement, is the controversy it creates and its divisive nature amongst other feminist organisations, both nationally and worldwide. Its controversial tactics have been labeled by many outside observers and women’s organizations as “unfeminst.” Speaking on this, Urszule Nowakowska, the director of the Women’s Rights Center of Warsaw, Poland, commented, “If there is a negative attitude towards feminism in the country, I think such provocative methods may have a negative impact on feminism as well.” However, it should be noted that FEMEN itself rejects the feminist label. When asked whether or not FEMEN is a feminist organization, Hutsol, replied “No. We use eroticism in our approach and our dress. That’s not sanctioned by feminism.” However, FEMEN’s divisive nature, especially amongst feminist organisations is indeed an obstacle for the movement and perhaps denies it vital support which it will undoubtedly need, if it continues to campaign for its causes.
Over the last two years FEMEN’s has undoubtedly achieved success in raising awareness of the increase in sex tourism in Ukraine. Its unique style of protests, has garnered it global media attention and highlighted not only Ukraines domestic ills, but also broader international issues. However the movements tactics have also, on occasion, forced the Ukrainian government to explain its actions in response to international criticism. For example, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was forced to explain himself after a FEMEN demonstration outside the Cabinet of Ministers against his all-male cabinet calling attention the to the lack of leadership positions for women in government. Yet, while the movements increased media attention has compelled the Ukrainian government to take some notice, this attention has not all been positive. According to an op-ed piece written in the Kyiv post by Hutsol herself, many FEMEN activists have been harassed and threatened by the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU).
FEMEN states that is will continue to fight for its core aims, but recognises that as a movement it is a crossroads. It realises that over the last two years its primary success in raising awareness of the increase in sex tourism in Ukraine has rested on its main tactic of shocking and controversial public displays of protest and resistance. Many of the members realise that as time progress, the shock value of their protests decreases and perhaps a new tool or tactic will be soon needed. Notably FEMEN has expressed an interest in transforming itself into a political party and running for parliamentary seats in 2012 to affect change from within.
Links to Check out:
Have a unique style. Developing a novel way of protesting increases the movement's chances of gaining both media and public support.
Leveraging the power of existing social networks, helps to generate awareness and mobilize additional supporters.
Constantly re-inventing a style of protest. Remember that if your movements protesting style is unique or novel, the inital 'shock' factor of the protest may die away, so constanly re-inventing or changing your style of protest may be necessary in order to keep media and public attention.
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