And how FEMEN cleared the way for #MeToo


Shachko protesting in nudity during a FEMEN protest in support of Aliaa Magda Elmahdy on March 2012.  (Photo by Joseph Paris)

By Nadia Kaneva

This has been the summer of celebrity suicides. When the tragic passing of fashion designer Kate Spade hit the news, she was lauded for having created a brand that helped women be “both feminine and feminist.” A couple of my feminist friends confessed on social media how much their first Kate Spade bag had meant to them and how it made them feel special. A few weeks later, when chef, author, and TV star Anthony Bourdain was found dead in a hotel room in France, a real outpouring of emotions flooded American media. As they reflected on Bourdain’s cultural influence, many commentators noted his pro-feminist values and his outspoken support for the #MeToo movement.

In contrast, the death by apparent suicide of Oksana Shachko, one of FEMEN’s co-founders, went largely unnoticed by American media this week. Sure, there was the obligatory story in The New York Times, but, in general, the news coverage was scant and hardly ebullient. My social media feed did not explode with aggrieved commentary either — just a handful of teary-eyed emoticons cropped up under a link I posted on Facebook with The Guardian’s obituary of Shachko. Even my feminist friends were mostly silent.

Image obtained from Oskana Shachko’s Instagram feed.

Oksana Shachko’s face became well known to the world via the media between 2011 and 2014. Born and raised in a small, provincial town in Ukraine, she became an international media icon as one of FEMEN’s topless activists. She commanded the gaze of the cameras with her defiant stare and her fearless, even reckless, willingness to thrust her exposed, fragile, young body into the hands of meaty, merciless men in security uniforms in order to fight for her political beliefs.

She had been more than a transnational feminist activist. She had been a real woman warrior, a radical revolutionary, a political prisoner who had endured arrests, abduction, beatings, torture, and had been ultimately forced to seek political asylum in France because of her commitment to fighting against patriarchy and dictatorship. Now she was dead, at the age of 31, and it seemed that the world didn’t care. How could that be?

It is not very hard to imagine why American feminists may not be deeply moved by Oksana’s death. In America, the Ukrainian-born group FEMEN never acquired the mainstream, consumer culture sheen that was granted to Pussy Riot, the other radical feminist collective to emerge from the post-Soviet space. FEMEN’s activists were never “endorsed” by Madonna, featured on 60 Minutes, or on the pages of Vanity Fair. Sure, FEMEN’s topless protests got plenty of media coverage, but the group was often derided for sexualizing political activism and for being too radical, too controversial, too brash.

FEMEN protesters in Ukraine in 2012
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

For many American feminists, the picture-perfect looks of FEMEN’s original activists meant that there was something suspect about the group’s feminist credentials. How could these women possibly be fighters against patriarchy if they looked like poster girls for patriarchal beauty standards?

And then there were reports that FEMEN had been founded and funded by men and accusations that the group’s “sextremists” were performing crazy publicity stunts for money. All of these critiques may be valid. Or not.

Nevertheless, American feminists should mourn the death of Oksana Shachko and pay tribute to FEMEN for helping clear the way for a more assertive, fearless, and media-savvy expression of feminism right here in America.

Here are three reasons why:

  1. FEMEN was one of the first radical feminist groups to command transnational media attention. It recognized the media’s insatiable hunger for images of objectified and sexualized women’s bodies and used this to its advantage. By pushing women’s sexual objectification to an extreme, FEMEN’s activists exposed that no woman — no matter how privileged she may have been due to her whiteness, her thinness, or her beauty — was ever safe in a world ruled by misogyny. Think about it. If there had never been FEMEN, would you have felt as much sympathy for those glamorous Hollywood stars who shared their stories of sexual abuse?
  2. FEMEN helped make radical feminism look cool and relevant. They did that by using promotional tactics and the power of visuals. The group’s ability to insert itself into international controversies that were already in the media’s eye made it look bigger than it probably ever was. FEMEN knew how to boil down its message to simple slogans and a logo that any woman could hand-paint directly on her body. Suddenly, feminism was not something that your mother did once. It was happening now and it was dangerous, global, and exciting.
  3. FEMEN exposed the truth that patriarchy and dictatorship go hand in hand and that misogyny is the norm in global politics, even in the so-called democratic West. Initially, the group targeted political dictators close to home — Putin in Russia and Lukashenko in Belarus. Soon it took its brand of protest on the road and attacked powerful men wherever they were — from Davos, to Vatican City, to Rabat, and more. This landed many FEMEN activists in jail and, ultimately, forced its original leaders into exile.

You might say that, in hindsight, FEMEN’s protests did not achieve much. You might argue that Oksana and her fellow sextremists were senseless and self-destructive to put their lives and bodies on the line. Oksana had stated herself that, after moving to Paris, FEMEN had lost its radical edge and its meaning. You may question their methods, their style, their motivations. You may even say that Oksana’s suicide demonstrates the dangers of radicalization and shows the dire consequences of turning yourself into an international target for powerful men.

But before you dismiss Oksana’s death as irrelevant and return to your life, just ask yourself this: Would the #MeToo movement have gained as much traction and media visibility today if we had never seen the spectacular courage and the fragile beauty of radical feminists like Oksana Shachko?

I know what my answer would be.

Image obtained from Oskana Shachko’s Instagram feed.

FEMEN on Twitter

Nadia Kaneva describes her self as a woman, author and scholar.  This was originally published in her blog entitled Meantime.