‘FEMEN’s images and actions became increasingly daring and innovative’
Police stop FEMEN protestors in Kiev during the Euro 2012 cup final. Photograph by Dmitry Shakin
Any emergent social movement will faces obstacles, will proceed unevenly and with difficulty as it undermines people’s resistance toward cultural change. In Ukraine, the decades ahead will present ever greater challenges to the formation of a consensus on women’s rights, even as people’s awareness of the patterns of anti-woman discrimination increases. In the pursuit of gender justice, the one important thing to bear in mind is that, periodically, a cause must reinvent itself if it is to remain relevant to the requirements of the times. This is especially true in the fluid political atmosphere of contemporary Ukraine.
To extend and strengthen the level of collaboration, organizations committed to protecting and promoting women’s rights have begun to form; but many more are needed if Ukrainian women are to transcend the patriarchal constraints under which they live. The blatantly sexist administration in power since 2010, its values rooted in the dominant hegemonic patriarchy, presents severe impediments to gender justice, although it is not inconceivable that at some juncture its coercive measures will miscarry and inspire fierce resistance. As advocates of women’s rights take stock of their progress over the past two decades, they are realizing that the time is ripe for taking resistance to a higher plane.
In this state of new awakening, politically radicalized gender activists rose to prominence in Ukraine as early as 2008. They ushered in the beginnings of a new wave of opposition to the post-Soviet value system, rooted as it is in the neo-traditional views of women that replaced earlier communist ideals. In the words of Dorothy L. Hodgson and Ethel Brook, “age emerges as a fascinating dynamic location that shapes the modalities of activism”. It was the various youthful groups that were the ones to rise to the challenges left unmet by the previous generation, notwithstanding the latter’s best efforts. Current examples of disaffection are various, but they have one thing in common – they increasingly tend to be the actions of young people exhibiting radical shifts away from the views of the past. The new wave feminists now insist upon an increasingly proactive role in advocating solutions to social problems.
A FEMEN protest during the 2010 elections, Kiev
By the spring of 2008, Ukraine’s initial post-Soviet status quo was facing the prospect of being dethroned. This rearrangement began to loom in 2007, in the wake of a year-long, UN-sponsored, nationwide public information campaign titled “Ukraine 2015”. Although still in its declarative stage, change was clearly in the air. Riding the crest of this reforming surge, a unique (for Ukraine) cohort of activists – in the form of a grassroots organization of university students in Kyiv calling itself FEMEN – began its ascent to prominence, redefining the nature of public dissent. The organization turned to subversive parodies designed to destabilize a corrupt power structure. Unlike its predecessors, this postmodern group of radicalized young women had matured in an open, democratizing society. Visiting Bethlehem in 2007 on an exchange programme for leaders, Anna Hutsol came away persuaded that if the changes that were so desperately needed were to translate into reality, the women themselves would have to take the initiative and become the agents of their own transformation.
Hutsol founded FEMEN in May 2008. A group without organizational or historical antecedents in Ukraine, its motto became “Ukraine is not a brothel” and pink its signature colour. Hutsol’s stated objective was to encourage women to voice their protest against the destructive fallout from the host of injustices women faced. At the same time, Hutsol and her adherents rejected the feminist label (although their cause clearly supported its values). They began with rallies against prostitution, which soon gave way to a series of tongue-in-cheek parodies of misogynistic practices. Using street theatre to simulate physical attack, rape and exploitation of women, protest became for them a realm of play, creating a space for interaction with a wide variety of passersby. Although it would soon become the trademark of their protests, toplessness was initially not part of FEMEN’s dissident profile.