Society » Politics, Culture, Sexuality: "The Rise of Modern Sextremism"
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The Rise of Modern Sextremism

Jenny Swallows
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Although it has minimal presence in the US and the UK, FEMEN is one of the fastest growing feminist activist groups in the world. One whose activities, although even many feminists disagree with them, have raised the international movement’s profile to staggering new heights.

  Breasts, Not Banners

FEMEN remain unbowed. Their methods have not changed, and their insistence that “this is the only way to be heard” is difficult to argue with. True, some women’s organizations have spoken out against FEMEN’s in-your-face approach, arguing that toplessness only contributes to the objectification of women; and it is true, if the organization was staffed only by overweight seniors with saggy breasts and toothless faces, a lot of the editors who currently plaster FEMEN’s photographs across the media would probably not look twice at them.

But that, surely, is the point. Our bodies are our own; we all agree (I hope!) with that sentiment. And they are ours to employ as we wish, whether we choose to use them to make a point or make a living. A beautiful girl standing topless on the front page of the newspaper will naturally attract the attention of men. But so might the words that are written on her chest and if just a fraction of the viewing public is moved to find out more, then the gesture can only be considered a success.

Those traditional symbols of protest, placards, chants and marches are all very well, and may once have served a purpose. But, as the Occupy movement (to name but one) has sadly discovered in recent years, more often than not they are not enough. In a society where law enforcement demands that the most vociferous protestors must first acquire licenses and permits before they can set foot on the street, the very act of protest has been diminished. FEMEN believe that it is only by abandoning such self-castrating niceties that any real point can be made.

“If we staged simple protests with banners,” they say, “then our claims would not have been noticed." Or, to put it bluntly, people rarely stop to look at banners. They do stop to look at bare breasts, and although it is unspoken, surely another major element in FEMEN’s struggle is precisely that. When is society going to stop regarding a woman’s breasts as so inherently pornographic that we have to cover them up to avoid corrupting every poor soul who is forced to look at them? My own boobs aren’t big, but I think they’re kinda pretty. I’m sure you feel the same way about yours’. How many hapless strangers have your nipples condemned to the slippery slopes of hellish degradation?

The approach is working, too. Yes, the sex trade is alive and well, despite sundry well-meaning attempts to rein it in. Yes, women’s rights are regarded as absolutely wrong in far more countries than actually support them. Yes, religion continues to keep women down, and so do politics, culture and bullies.

But when Amina Tyler disappeared... a Tunisian activisit who appeared on FEMEN’s website with the words "I own my body; it's not the source of anyone's honor" written in Arabic across her bare chest... it was not her country’s media who informed the world of her disappearance. It was not Tunisian law enforcement who moved heaven and earth to discover her whereabouts; nor, following her escape from imprisonment by her own family just last week, was it the Tunisian government who hustled her into safe keeping, a refuge in which she could no longer be beaten, drugged and lectured about morality. It was FEMEN.

femen amina

As Inna Shevchenko said following Tyler’s escape from captivity, "Amina has became a symbol of liberation of women in the Arab world.” Again, that is a role that we in the west cannot help but admire, even if we do not fully understand all that it entails. The phrase "Topless Jihad" has now entered our language, and it will remain there until it is no longer required.

FEMEN’s other most recent coup, of course, was the sequence of photographs taken on April 8 in Hanover, Germany, when five activists ambushed Russian President Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, their bodies daubed (in English and Cyrillic) with sentiments that included the very pointed “Fuck Dictator.” No matter how much of the ensuing news coverage seemed more interested in the expression on Putin’s face... which, in the face of five pairs of nubile breasts, really did look as though all of his Christmases had come at once. The message was put across regardless.

femen putin

FEMEN is not to every woman’s tastes, and it is certainly not a movement that either governmental or law enforcement agencies are likely ever to tolerate. Regardless of whether or not we agree with the laws and practices against which FEMEN fights, particularly those that would have no place in our own society, the fact remains that much of FEMEN’s activism is illegal, and there are those among us who would argue that no law should ever be broken, no matter how repressive, irrelevant or just plain stupid it may be.

All of which is true.

But as our own Suffragettes proved a hundred years ago, and the abolitionists before them, laws and customs that need to be changed should be changed. Particularly if, by changing them, you will improve the lives of countless people. And if the only way to make certain they are changed is by breaking a handful of others, then they all should be shattered into a million pieces.


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