After a protest against the “anti-propaganda” law staged at the Russian Embassy in Stockholm last August, two members of the feminist activist group Femen have been charged with trespassing.
Femen, a feminist protest group founded in the Ukraine in 2008, relocated to Paris, France after receiving death threats in response to their political actions; the group organizes against sexism in political and cultural systems.
Identifying sexism as a product of patriarchy, Femen fights against perceived social injustices towards women with their bodies, baring their breasts in public protests in order to reclaim the representation of the female form and call attention to the political issues they chose to protest.
Their slogan, “my body is my weapon,” reflects their commitment to “sextremism,” which they articulate as the use of female sexuality to rebel against patriarchy and its political and institutional repression of women’s rights.
During the Gay Pride festival in Stockholm, two Femen activists stormed the Russian Embassy, which had refused to fly the rainbow flag, in protest of the anti-propaganda law which imposes fines on Russian citizens for speaking in defense of gay rights.
They were detained by police while attempting to break in and enter the embassy compound, shouting “gay rights are human rights,” while topless.
The connection between Femen’s commitment to feminism and the fight for LGBT rights in Europe stems from a political viewpoint that equates repression of diverse sexuality, which includes homosexuality and queerness, with patriarchal rule.
Some critics have expressed dismay at the radical demonstrations held by Femen, and question the group’s effectiveness in getting their message across, citing their public displays of exposure as going too far, and advocating for more traditional forms of effecting political change.
A member of Swedish political party Feminist Initiative (FI), Stina Svensson, told The Local that their group has “other ways to protest.”
“We in FI see that political change is needed both in Sweden and also in the EU. We see that conservative and fascist parties have politics that wants to restrict human rights. Feminism is needed in political parliaments,” she continued.
Others questioned Femen’s goals for protesting Russian policy in Sweden, where the government already supports LGBT rights and has publicly denounced the anti-propaganda law as “hate-mongering against LGBT persons on the rise in Russia after recent law,” according to NY Daily News.
However, later on that same day, a group of 150 to 200 protesters stood outside the same embassy to call attention to Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation.
The problem with Femen isn’t that they protested the Russian embassy in Stockholm, or that they chose to protest topless, but that their fight against patriarchy, in all its forms, needs to be further refined in order to be effective. The causes that they choose to advocate for are representative of groups of people that they seemingly do not have a connection with, such as the LGBT community, or the Muslim community.
The group was called out by Muslim women for their “International Topless Jihad Day” action, which was called “completely wrong and misconstrued,” and spurred an online campaign for “Muslimah Pride Day,” to show that not all Muslim women were being oppressed by the traditional practices of Islam.
“Contrary to what many non-Muslim women are claiming, they aren’t being oppressed by Islam but instead, are offended by FEMEN using them to propel their own Western-liberal agenda,” wrote Areej Elahi-Siddiqui for PolicyMic.
“By making it seem like the hijab is a symbol of oppression, FEMEN isn’t giving the millions of Muslim women around the globe who choose to cover their heads and their bodies freedom,” she continued.
Similarly, some in the LGBT community have already vocally bristled in response to Femen’s support for their cause.
What is unknown is whether Femen has an actual ties to the LGBT community they are advocating for, or whether its basis for protest is based in ideology alone.
As a self-identified feminist, I have no problem with groups such as Femen advocating for LGBT rights, and I acknowledge the historical and contemporary ties between feminist thought and the LGBT cause.
However, there has been some talk about political groups advocating for the Russian LGBT population without any knowledge, awareness, or tie to that group. Sir Elton John, in an article published by the Huffington Post, recently advocated for listening to the Russian people, instead of letting outside groups influence the politics in that state.
“There was a lot of speculation about whether I would go to Russia this year. Many people outside the country thought I should boycott Russia because of its new homophobic legislation. Others said I must go to challenge the government,” he wrote.
“I decided in the end to be guided by what Russian people wanted me to do. The message, from even the most marginalised Russian groups we work with at the Elton John AIDS Foundation, was ‘please come.’”
Following John’s lead, a more effective strategy moving forward to call out the homophobic legislation is getting in touch with the LGBT population in Russia, and listening to what that community is currently struggling with, and ways they would like to be advocated for.
Otherwise, groups like Femen run the risk of being seen as nothing more than a group of women who like to call attention to political struggles that are not their own, via their exposed breasts.