The Ukrainian women’s group are anarcho-feminists who aggressively expose their bodies to the male gaze. Many of them (but not all) embody the beauty norms more familiar in porn and pop stardom. They preach women’s independence, yet are criticized for not being sensitive to the “modesty” values of Muslim feminists.
And now, the greatest contradiction of them all: Femen is apparently run by a man. Or so that’s what everyone rushed to believe, when The Independent reported troubling revelations about to be screened at Venice in Kitty Green’s documentary about the group:
Ukraine is not a Brothel, directed by 28-year-old Australian film-maker Kitty Green, has “outed” Victor Svyatski as the mastermind behind the group. Mr Syvatski is known as a “consultant” to the movement. According to the Femen website, he was badly beaten up by the secret services in Ukraine earlier this summer because of his activities on behalf of the group.
However, Ms Green reveals that Svyatski is not simply a supporter of Femen but its founder and éminence grise. “It’s his movement and he hand-picked the girls. He hand-picked the prettiest girls because the prettiest girls sell more papers. The prettiest girls get on the front page… that became their image, that became the way they sold the brand,” she says.
The internet was quick to judge, and throw their former darlings under the bus. I’ll admit that I was shocked to think that some dude was pulling all the strings. But in this age of wildfire memes and snap group judgements, not all is always as it seems.
Today, in The Guardian, Femen’s most outspoken member, Inna Shevchenko, wrote a response that was both heartbreaking and credible:
Yes, Svyatski was part of the Femen movement. He is not a founder of Femen, nor a creator of our topless strategy and ideology. But he did lead the movement some time ago. This story is not so much about how the movement was born. It is rather the story of how the struggle began.
Femen was founded by group of young female students in a culture in which men talk and women listen. In which men decide and women accept their decisions. In which men dominate and women accept that domination. And this explains why Svyatski could become Femen’s leader. After Femen became a known movement in Ukraine, Svyatski, a supporter, took control of Femen’s team. Why and how could he do this? Because he was a man. The story described in the film – by Svyatski himself – amounts to nothing other than patriarchy. He is sexism, male domination, and oppression against women personified.
When he presented himself as the father of our new feminism, I was taken aback by such a brave declaration – one that only a man could make in my country. I was surprised: why have we suddenly acquired a father? Where is the mother? Having been born in a country in which feminism was unknown, in the best traditions of patriarchal society we just accepted the fact of a man taking control of us. We accepted this because we did not know how to resist and fight it. From that moment on, I realised that the patriarchy was not somewhere outside. It was right in front of us, in Femen’s office. And our global fight with patriarchy started with the fight in our own private life.
Wow. But I’ve been burned before by knee-jerk reactions. While I shared the scandal, I thought people (myself included) should hold fire.
Today, Inna spoke. And it was exactly when I suspected.
This is when I decided to leave Ukraine for France to build a new Femen. A Femen in which women decide and follow their own ideas, not someone else’s demands.
Femen are gifted when it comes to their own PR. Every time they are attacked, often physically, they turn it into even more global publicity. They provoke confrontation, document it, and broadcast it as another triumph against the patriarchy.
Inna’s op-ed leaves some questions unanswered, however, and many of them revolve around official founder Anna Hutsol. According to Femen’s site, both she and Victor Svyatski have fled to Paris after being raided and badly beaten by Ukrainian police. But if Inna started Femen International to get away from Victor, then how will they relate to each other in Paris? If Anna is still close to him, what are her feelings about the whole “scandal”?
When I interviewed Anna in 2011 (in writing, through an interpreter who is a male mutual Facebook friend) she was adamant about Femen’s independence from men:
“We have many men who support us and even help in our work. Men who are ready to see women as strong people can help FEMEN girls. We have many supporters who help FEMEN with donations. Also we have photographers help us [by donating services] and even some men who come to our performances to protect the girls from police. So we are not against men, but we want to be independent from them.”
She also alluded to Inna’s later global initiative:
“We want to create a new style of living for women that will mean to being active and developing themselves. For that we are planning to go to Europe to open branches in each European capital. We will teach all women to be free and always get all they need. Soon FEMEN will be an international movement.”
As I said before, Inna’s explanation is very credible. But I also remain curious about the internal politics of Femen, and how all the pieces fit together. A secondhand outing is based on a movie that is about to premiere at a major international film festival. Inna and her team were already on their way to Venice to hold a press conference about the documentary. A day after, Inna is ready with a tidy editorial that ties up all the loose ends. (Except for how Victor, Anna and Inna will move forward in exile together.)
But the other question is why the social media world was so anxious to damn these women. While not everyone may agree with their tactics or their targets, surely having a real diversity of voices is to the long-term benefit of feminism — or any other progressive movement.
The original ideology of Femen remains as we created it, but now we are applying it the way it was originally intended. This change has already paid off: Femen has inspired women all over the world.
We have come to the Venice film festival to tell our story because this is the patriarchal reality that we all live in. Criticising us for our fight against men’s domination in our own lives is like criticising the fight against all patriarchy in the world. Today we tell our story hoping that we can inspire women suffering the same oppression in their fight against it tomorrow.
And the show goes on.
See all past Osocio posts about Femen here.