The Femen movement came into existence in 2008 in the capital of Ukraine, Kiev. It united a small number of young female students from nearby universities who were disappointed with the social, political and economic situation of women in Ukraine. Their main goals are: to raise awareness of the issues affecting women’s lives in Ukraine and to demand immediate improvement of women’s conditions by the government; to promote and defend democracy and freedom of speech as the only system in which women can flourish and be equal. Their motto: ‘come, get topless and win’. Femen activists can not only be recognized by the topless protests and the clear message written on their bodies or being held above their heads. Paradoxically the old Ukrainian symbol of feminine purity and virginity, the wreath, has also become an integral part of Femen’s image.
Femen campaigns have increased awareness of many different issues. One of the first and the most controversial has been ‘Ukraine is not a Brothel’. The series of protests under this title has criticized and opposed the international reputation of Ukraine as a country of “easy” women and “internet brides”. On the February 28, 2011, a New Zealander named Greg won a radio competition titled ‘Win a Ukrainian Wife’. “The Rock FM” radio promised to cover the cost of Greg’s travel and living expenses including 1080 Euro’s spending money. This would give him an opportunity to search for a Ukrainian wife. Dressed as brides, Femen activists were among the first to speak out against the arrival of the New Zealander. During their protest Femen activists chanted “Ukraine is not a brothel”, “Welcome to hell”, “Bride for Wildman”. The later refusal of Greg to travel to Ukraine can be partly attributed to the Femen’s actions but more importantly to the international media criticism. Even stronger and more frequent Femen protests under the title ‘Ukraine is not a Brothel’ have followed the preparations to the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, a perfect environment for the growth of the sex tourism which Femen opposes. Their demands are twofold: the Ukrainian Parliament must introduce a law which would criminalize the actions of the buyer of sex services as well as demanding of UEFA that they fund a global anti-prostitution campaign.
Femen did not stop in Ukraine. Since 2008, the movement has grown in size and has expressed its international ambitions with the Femen Euro-tour to Italy, Switzerland, France and Austria this summer in addition to Russia and Belarus this December. Furthermore, topless protest in the name of Femen has taken place in the USA during the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. The issues raised by Femen have grown to include nuclear power and Saudi bans on women driving where the slogan “Cars to women, camels to the men” is used. Some of their controversial protests have been directed against national leaders such as Vladimir Putin(slogan “God chase away the king”), Silvio Berlusconi (“Finish Berlusconi”) and Aleksandr Lukashenko. These small and brief (due to the arrival of the police) topless protests have received wide domestic and international media coverage by renowned newspapers such as Der Spiegel, Die Welt and The Independent. A number of documentaries about Femen activists and their protests have also been aired on Belgian, Finnish and Polish TV.
Indeed, the use of topless protest has been very effective in attracting attention, promoting the movement as well as helping to raise considerable funds and many older grass roots movements can only envy them. Yet their power is their integral flaw. While the issues raised by Femen are indeed very urgent, very credible and lack passionate campaigners in times when even the Ukrainian President seems to be promoting sex tourism (through his controversial invitation to the foreign investors to come to Ukraine in the spring, when the beautiful Ukrainian women start undressing) their methods may be counterproductive. Marianna Soronevych, the main editor of the Ukrainian newspaper in Italy, has expressed her strong disapproval of Femen actions in Italy this summer. “While the Femen Euro – tour has made them world famous, it is the reputation of Ukrainian women in Italy and Ukraine that will be damaged by their topless protests”, worries Soronevych. The paradox of protesting topless against prostitution and sex tourism can be compared to fighting ‘terrorism with terror’. The question remains how long the movement will continue to go topless since its founder and main leader Anna Gutsol has on a number of occasions expressed the wish to further Femen’s political ambitions by turning it into a political party. Could this mean they may one day run for the Parliament as topless Mps? These are the fundamental questions the movement’s leaders will have to address. As for now, there seems to be no slowing down Femen and those who are interested in the movement can keep on looking at the pictures and watching the videos on the internet.