Photo courtesy of: komitet12.org.ua
By: Shannon Clarke
Now several days into the 2012 London Olympics and security there has been a hot topic for weeks. The international sporting event is as much about politics as it is sports. While the greatest concern is likely terrorism (especially poignant now, on the 40th anniversary of the slayings of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich), the city is on high alert for any hint of disruption – and for good reason. The games would be the ideal platform for Femen, a radical feminist group out of Ukraine that has been making headlines around the world since forming in 2008.
The group, now over 300 members strong, has stormed the streets of Europe to protest rampant sex tourism and exploitation of women in the Ukraine and across the continent. They’ve even taken on the likes of Ukraine president, Viktor Yanukovich, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi, their focus broadening to corruption at the highest levels of male-dominated European government.
The group originates in Kiev, the country’s capital, meeting in coffee shops to plan and strategize. They have been arrested, fired from their jobs, and allegedly kidnapped by the KGB, beaten and threatened with death.
Their style is controversial and polarizing. They crash events and other high profile venues, topless. The tactic has been called annoying, inappropriate, tasteless and insincere. Their attire (or lack thereof) is emphasized in media reports: headlines screaming of “half-nakedness” and scantily clad, angry feminists. Made up chiefly of university students, the response to Femen, in their home country and abroad, has been one of skepticism and they are often dismissed as disruptive “girls”.
Perhaps the most common word used to describe them is “scandalous”.
Female nudity or partial nudity independent of the male-gaze for purposes other than titillation is often considered “scandalous” or “indecent”. Even the simple act of breastfeeding in public is cause for pearl-clutching of late.
But the frosty reception, taunting and vitriol hurled at the women seem to be achieving the end goal. The media coverage of Femen has meant increased attention to the condition of women in post-Soviet Ukraine.
Reuter’s journalist, Gleb Garanich, spent time with three of Femen’s most high profile demonstrators earlier this year: Oleksandra Shevchenko, Inna Shevchenko and Oksana Shachko. He describes Femen as a Ukrainian brand, akin to Chernobyl and chicken Kiev, and couldn’t resist mentioning the jealousy in the newsroom whenever a select few are sent to cover a recent protest.
Invited into their apartments, riding with them on the train, even stopping into a McDonald’s, Garanich’s depiction is quite different, and probably more accurate than most of what is written about the group and its members.
“I think they are normal girls with normal problems, ideas and ideals who manage to break out of the routine and desperation during their protests,” he writes, adding: “I think they have done more for Ukraine and its European aspirations than all the politicians and all the expensive adverts ordered by the government.”
According to a 2008 report out of the United States, Trafficking in Persons, Canada “is a source, transit and destination country” for sex tourism. The victims arrive primarily from Asia and Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, and many more are Aboriginal women. A more recent report from Project SECLUSION, focused exclusively on sex trafficking in Canada, found that former Soviet states have organized the entry of women into Canada for purposes of sex work, typically against their will. According to that report, a majority of these women work as escorts throughout the GTA, and in massages and escort services in parts of Montreal.
Charging gates, kicking authorities, flanked by guards, Femen is changing the way Ukrainian women – if not all Eastern European women – are viewed. They are fetishized as ultra-feminine, docile, sex kittens and commodities.
Sex trafficking out of the Ukraine flourishes as the country continues to be slammed by worsening the economic situation. Victims are usually poor women and children lured by promises of legitimate work and steady pay.
Forbes’ Katya Soldak offered her take on the group, summing up their actions with restrained snark as “attempting to empower women by showing your boobs in public”. Flashing crowds and stripping on the streets may seem like an odd way to represent your country, but it’s not unreasonable.
When the issue at hand is the objectification of female bodies for male pleasure and profit, using that body to create a disturbance instead, and to humiliate a system that perpetuates that objectification, seems right on track.