We, FEMEN, have transformed our bodies from masculine pleasure instruments into feminist political instruments.
In September 2012, exactly five years ago, FEMEN launched its French branch. I was fleeing the Ukraine, threatened with imprisonment by the Yanukovich regime and death by nationalists and religious fanatics, who are often the same. I could not really anticipate or prepare for what was going to happen in the land of the Revolution of 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the Enlightenment, Simone de Beauvoir, the MLF… in the country which represented par excellence the ideas of secularism and gender equality. I had not predicted that France would become the new citadel of FEMEN and its ideals. Nor did I estimate the support our fight would get here, as well as the number of battles we won, almost equal to the number of public polemics in which we were involved. I had not prepared myself for the attacks and betrayals that awaited us. We were not prepared to be threatened to be spoken to in the country of freedom of expression, nor were we ready to be labeled as “Islamophobic” (an expression that has become scandalously synonymous with racist) in the country of freedom to believe or not to believe. More importantly, I was not, and could not, be ready to see FEMEN activists accused of “sexual exhibition” for our topless protest strategy, in the country of woman-man equality.
Today, on 20 September 2017, nine FEMEN activists will appear in court in Béthune for protesting twice in the first and second rounds of the presidential election near the polling station of Marine Le Pen in Hénin-Beaumont. The activists demonstrated against the nationalist and xenophobic threat of the FN, topless, with slogans painted on the chest (tactic of FEMEN which has been repeatedly repeated by various militant groups). These accusations which lead us almost systematically to the court have been pronounced only in France. The sexual exhibition is mentioned as an offense in an article 222-32 of the Penal Code: “the sexual exhibition imposed on the sight of another in a place accessible to the public is punished by a year of imprisonment and a fine of 15,000 euros “. As the sexual exhibition is not defined in the law, this leaves the prosecutor a blind spot to use against FEMEN activists. Any type of nudity can be considered a “sexual exhibition”, which encompasses any nudity whose purpose is sexual satisfaction.
None of us are seized with a frenzied and insatiable sex drive at the sight of the Pope, Putin, Le Pen or Strauss-Kahn! The naked chest of FEMEN, since the origins of the movement, is an integral part of our political communication: “our body is our weapon”, a slogan that has been taken up by many other women in the world. The topless manifestations have become examples of creative and non-violent manifestations that allow women to express themselves and directly demonstrate the injustices of patriarchy. We have transformed our bodies, from instruments of male pleasure, into feminist political instruments. We have reappropriated our bodies. They have become actors, means of expression, they are not victims. Our chests full of slogans are our version of the Beijing Democracy Wall. This may irritate those who benefit from the patriarchal system, I agree.
It is striking that the law is used only against FEMEN. Male protesters are never bothered by police or prosecutors. Just a week ago, a man again demonstrated completely naked, with his guitar, against the Labor Law, going several times to meet the police. He was able to fully enjoy his freedom of expression, with his genitals unveiled. We will not reproach this man, whose good nature is ready to smile. The problem is elsewhere: there would be nothing obscene in the bodies of men, while a woman’s breast deserves long and lengthy trials in court. Marlène Schiappa, secretary of state for equality between women and men, says in an open letter sent to FEMEN:
“The persistence of sexist stereotypes is leading our society to consider women’s nudity as offensive, even when women’s nudity is seen as militant.”
As the nakedness of men in demonstrations and happenings never disturbs the authorities, but the FEMEN activists are being sued for sexual exhibition, I see logically a means of political pressure against FEMEN. This pressure takes the form of sexist charges that suggest that women’s bodies are sexual, obscene and dangerous by definition. When we say that women’s body can be political, the state tells us that it is criminal.
Today, as many times already, FEMEN activists will defend their non-violent freedom of expression in a court. This game of cat and mouse with prosecutors will not prevent us from continuing to militate. So far we have obtained relaxes. But FEMEN, with its lawyers, is fighting a radical battle against sexism. Our recent initiative to clarify the definition of sexual exhibition in the act not only protects our right to manifest and express, but also to protect the right of any woman to own her own body in public space , like the men. My body is sexual when I decide, it is political when I decide!
By Inna Shevchenko