White doesn’t always mean privileged: why Femen’s Ukrainian context matters

Published on New Statesman, by Agata Pyzik, April 18, 2013.

The criticism of Femen and their topless protests as “fast-food feminism” ignores the postcommunist macho culture in Ukraine, the country from which the group emerged. Despite both the influence of the West over the impoverished ex-Soviet Bloc, and its westernisation after 1989, eastern Europe often seems worlds apart from its richer counterpart.  

That’s an important context to remember when considering the Ukrainian feminist collective Femen. They come from a country with an extreme and enormous sex industry, widespread abuse of women, and also “third world” levels of poverty. Femen’s performances often take place in eastern European countries known for their lack of respect for human rights, like Belarus, where they were beaten and abducted. But they are also increasingly demonstrating in the west, stopping various international summits and ceremonial affairs.

Recently, they started to “recruit” young Muslim women in France, criticising them for wearing headscarves, saying it limited their freedom as women, and conflating, stereotypically, Islam and misogyny. In doing so, Femen were neglecting the years of struggle that are behind defending the rights of women from non-European/white backgrounds.

Not unexpectedly, they were dismissed by western feminists for crypto- or even open racism and an obsession with nudity, regardless of the context. In this case, both sides misunderstood the delicate circumstances of Femen’s protests. Intersectional, progressive western feminists, concerned with the risks of racism and (post) colonialism, speak of Femen’s unhealthy obsession with nudity with suspicious disdain, not seeing that behind the admittedly “primitive” methods and controversial approach there’s a very specific reality that Femen are fighting.

Femen’s message and actions are not universal, and it would be good if the activists were aware of that. In a Guardian piece responding to critics, Femen organiser Inna Shevchenko gives a clear message of her obsession of her obsession with Putin, his regime and Ukrainian situation. This is Femen’s context: the post-communist desert of sex industry, sex clubs, girls at your wish every minute of the night and day. When you check into a hotel in Eastern Europe – and the more to the east, the more likely it is – you’re expected to be interested in the wide offer of sex infrastructure: you’ll be showered with dozens of leaflets with “gentlemen’s clubs” and other adult entertainment … //

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