Naked truth: topless Ukrainian feminists say their next target is Middle East

The radical Ukrainian protest group – FEMEN has been causing a stir around Europe for a while now. After spectacularly bashing the likes of Putin, Berlusconi and Dominique Strauss Khan, protesting outside the Vatican and launching off-shots in the US, has the movement gone global? The ladies say next target is Iran

Founded in Kiev in 2008, Femen captured the international media attention after staging a series of spectacular topless protests against women discrimination, the widespread practice of sex tourism and the sexist nature of Ukrainian politics.

Since the 2004 Orange revolution that effectively drew the country from authoritarianism, Ukraine has been going through pretty much the usual post-communist scenario of a fragile transitional-democracy, burdened with corruption and stagnant economy. Under President Viktor Yanukovych, the state has taken a more conservative course which many have viewed as a path back to authoritarian rule.

Disrupting a polling station where presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych was due to cast his vote (February 7, 2010)

In such a climate, Femen’s agenda quickly moved from strictly sexist issues to other local concerns such as the tax code, freedom of speech and government spendings, before going international and staging protests against foreign political leaders by the likes of Putin and Berlusconi.

Last week, they visited the Vatican. This young activist takes Madonna’s Like a Prayer to a completely different level:

In sharp contrast to gender neutral-looking feminists of the old school, a typical Femen activist looks like the ultimate “Eastern European prostitute” fantasy: forever twenty-one, with a face of an angel and a body of a supermodel, the kind of woman Western men imagine paying for a lapdance in a five-star hotel while listening to her whisper in soft ‘Russian’ accent. Is this what makes FEMEN truly radical?

Yes, beauty is a weapon. But in this case, many have asked: does it work?

(Voulez vous coucher avec Dominique ce soir? Femen dressed as housemaids protesting outside the residence of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, previously accused of raping a hotel maid)

According to the group, there are 20 topless activists and another 300 fully-clothed, working behind the scenes (including a few men). Anna Hutsol (hair cropped, boobs tucked in), the founder of Femen, represents the group on an official level, while activists like Aleksandra Shevchenko take part in topless performances. The average age of the group is 22 as most of the women are university students.

In late April 2011 Femen claimed it was setting up international branches in Warsaw, Zurich, Rome, Tel Aviv and Rio de Janeiro and recently announced it might form a political party to participate in the Ukraine elections.

In front of Ukraine's Education Ministry in Kiev denouncing sexual harassment of students by some university professors in the country (November 16, 2009) / Photo AFP

However, despite global media popularity, it seems the movement failed to gain wider support. As one of Ukrainian gender studies experts argued in The Guardian, most women are “unimpressed” by Femen’s actions. (Would it make a difference if the girls were fully clothed and average looking?) On the other hand, most of the men’s “support” remains overtly misplaced in relation to the group’s cause (“dude, bitches flashing their tits in front of the Pope!” etc).

Protesting against Russian PM Vladimir Putin during his visit to Ukraine (October 27, 2010)

So what’s wrong with Femen? Nothing, apart from a sad truth: if you are a beautiful 20-year old with tits, no one will take you seriously. Not even other women. The world is ruled by rich middle-aged men, and the women inside have a designated place, one way or another. That is precisely the world Femen is fighting against.

Fighting in mud on Independence Square in Kiev, in a symbolic protest against dirty politics in Ukraine (October 19, 2008)

Chances are slim that a Femen political party – if it ever sees the light of day – would be successful, but why not spreading this radical feminist protest beyond Ukraine borders? At least further through Eastern Europe and the Balkans, a region known for political upheavals and hot women. Ladies, please, step up.

In the meantime, Femen activists are keeping themselves busy. After performances in Paris and Rome, Alexandra Shevchenko told the Russian news channel RT that the group is considering Middle East as their next target.

“We receive lots of letters telling us to continue fighting religious injustice towards women, especially in Muslim states. That’s where we want to develop. We are even ready to go to Iran or any other Islamic state to stage our topless protests…”

That’s a joke, right?