“The only way to get attention”? FEMEN discussion at The Stream

Chrissy D revisits the politics of FEMEN after a discussion on Al Jazeera’s social media community TV show.

I couldn’t turn down the offer to speak with Inna Shevchenko of FEMEN on Al Jazeera last night, along with fellow feminist bloggers Sara Yasin, Meghan Murphy and Ariana Tobin. Despite getting cut off while characteristically waffling, hearing a leader of FEMEN explain and often defend the politics and activism of her movement, now based in Paris, both clarified and confused me. The general support for FEMEN was undeniable on Twitter and in the studio, but the pushback couldn’t be ignored.

Recently in The Guardian, FEMEN reiterated that exposing their naked bodies is “the only way to get attention”, a message I’m still tired of hearing from them. However, Shevchenko’s statement on The Stream last night that “our bodies are not in our hands” did go some way to explaining to the US audience how culture clearly determines the way a woman’s body is viewed. She went on to talk about how they transformed their bodies into political instruments for their battle against patriarchy, “once we took off our T-shirts… society was shocked”.

But, as Darakshan tweeted, “Women’s empowerment isn’t as simple as wearing or removing a piece of clothing. If it was we would have been free a long time ago.”

The number of objections I have to women walking around with no shirt on is nil, breasts or no breasts, but there’s a sense that radicalising the action of removing clothing for attention detracts from the greater global issue of women’s oppression.

As the discussion continued, it seemed, in equal measure, to expose the very general and media-pleasing version of feminism that FEMEN promote, as well as emphasise the huge publicity-courting aspect of their movement. What they are trying to achieve remains unclear to me.

Shevchenko’s focus was still – despite Chloe Angyal‘s defence that the way the mainstream media is set up to focus on the objectification of women is not FEMEN’s fault – their tactic of centring their movement on the aesthetic of the female body and using the titillating image of the female body against patriarchy. She did this without really explaining how this works or suggesting any measure of its effectiveness, seems conflicting.

Like Angyal, I have no desire to participate in the “Feminism: you’re doing it wrong” conversation. I’d bet that almost every feminist has been on the receiving end of that accusation. It’s tired, it keeps us apart and we know our politics are beyond that. It’s also something the mainstream media encourages. But I need to understand how public nudity in itself is a feminist action, other than the media-attention-for-the-cause value, which was what I’d hoped to glean from hearing Shevchenko last night.

I also wanted to hear more about the rationale behind their London Olympic protest at Saudi athletes competing in hijab. Or competing at all. Or Muslim women keeping their clothes on. Or whatever that protest was about. I’m still confused about how they were trying to help the struggle of those women (or not help it), considering the flack they apparently received back in their own country for competing in international sport. What was that protest meant to achieve other than more censored tits in newspapers?

Lisa Fletcher’s comment that “…FEMEN takes off its clothes as part of what it does” just about summarised the need for differentiating between radical feminism and radical methods of protest. Persisting in describing FEMEN as radical in their feminism surely isn’t helpful to radical feminism or their own movement. If radical is losing our shirts, I’ve overestimated just how radical radical is.

Since my last post about FEMEN, they have moved their army to Paris, where they now operate a training camp for future FEMEN members to skill-up, hone their bodies to meet the FEMEN standard (being able to run away from police during a protest) and get into the FEMEN mindset. France’s rich history of Feminism makes this seem like an intelligent move. I wondered how this has allowed FEMEN a more global platform and am interested to watch how they add to the long tapestry of French feminism.

I was disappointed the conversation had to end with Shevchenko taking off her shirt (after taking off her flower headband) because I felt we all had so much more to say, but if “to get attention” is FEMEN’s ultimate purpose, in this cultural moment they have succeeded.