The Ukrainian secret service have threatened to “break their legs”, members are continually arrested and imprisoned, and Facebook used to block their pages – all simply on the account of posing naked publicly. The group in question is Femen, the Ukrainian feminist movement conceived back in 2008 that has since reached global status. Femen started out campaigning for Ukrainian women’s rights, specifically anti-sex tourism and prostitution, but have recently switched their agenda to equality for women in general on a global scale. They initially protested fully clothed but nobody took any notice until one day, demonstrating in Kiev in 2009, one of the movement’s co-founders, Oksana Shachko, suddenly ripped off her top in a furious fervour. The press fell into a frenzy, and the women took note. One member explains: “You can see a lot of exploitation of the female body. On pizza flyers, on billboards – there’s always a woman. From that perspective, a woman’s body belongs to a man. We decided to win it back. We decided to use a woman’s body to promote our ideas. My body is a powerful weapon, and I will use it.”
Another member argues: “We have the right to use our bodies as weapons. It was men who made breasts into a secret.”
Oleksandra Schevchenko, another Femen co-founder, explains how the overtly visual protest style appeals to a generation accustomed to immediacy, thanks to the culture of instant social media such as YouTube and Twitter: “We stand with our legs apart. With our faces angry, not smiling. Our fists above our heads. This is not the pose of a woman trying to be sexually appealing.” Such strong visuals also ensure that their audience is maximised compared to the more archaic forms of feminism that were accessible only to the academic.
Nude protests possess a distinctly unique power in that they expose the completely farcical quality of authorities that resolutely endeavour to stop them. The protester has done nothing more than pose naked in a public environment, and therefore it is always the oppressive authorities who appear ridiculous – not the protester, regardless of their shape or size – when they respond so excessively in comparison with troops of men in uniform forcefully prohibiting something as harmless as nudity.
It seems misguided to brand the protest as counter to the cause on the grounds of further objectifying the female body. Yes, the naked activists inevitably provoked sexual thoughts and comments, but so does a fully clothed female body. It is arguable that nudity is not inherently sexual, but instead that it appears so due to social constructions. However, it is inarguable that nudity is always inflammatory when utilised in a rebellious manner. Whether or not this is ultimately a beneficial tactic is debateable, yet I for one would probably have much less of an idea about the exploitation specifically of Ukrainian women and the corruption of their government without it. Moreover, any movement that exposes the paradox of the patriarchy whereby the female body is at once possessed and objectified yet simultaneously hidden and branded unclean surely must be worth our attention.