The inconsistency of Femen’s imperialist "one size fits all" attitude

You cannot dismiss the aims of Femen altogether - they are a group of women looking to change society - but Bim Adewunmi fears the execution of their protests leaves much to be desired.

 

There was a time in 2011, when you couldn’t walk in central London without bumping into sluts. I am of course, referring to the Slutwalk march that took place in the capital that June.  Following the example of Canadian women – who in turn were sparked by the throwaway comment of a policeman who advised women to “avoid dressing like sluts” to remain safe from rape – women took to the streets to protest rape culture and slut-shaming. I heartily approved, even as I sat it out. Slutwalk, with a message of genuine goodness and worth at its core, was not something I could whole-heartedly join in with. Because I had to consider an extra element: the fact that I inhabit a black body, and that body and the term "slut", or variations thereof, have a long and unsavoury joint history. I understood the appeal and value of Slutwalk, but decided that its execution was not for me. 

For the last couple of months, I have been watching the rise of Femen, the naked feminist protest group formed in the Ukraine in 2008. 4 April has been named "International Topless Jihad Day" by the group, (“our tits are deadlier than your stones!”) inspired by Tunisian feminist Amina Tyler, who posed topless for the Femen Tunisia Facebook page, with the words ‘fuck your morals" written across her chest. The act triggered a cleric, the chair of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, to allegedly call for her death; she apparently “deserves to be stoned to death". More than 100,000 people have signed a petition to charging the Tunisian government with Tyler’s safety. Richard Dawkins has signed it too – make of that what you will. I watched a clip of the Femen activists disrupting a sex show in Paris, pushing over the performer on stage and disrobing to send their message. Once again, I cannot dismiss the aims of Femen altogether. They are a group of women looking to change society, and make the place of women – at the top table, alongside men, in equality – a reality. But, like the Slutwalks, I fear the execution leaves much to be desired.

During the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre last month, African-American photojournalist Miki Turner gave an anecdote in which she’d asked writer and activist Nikki Giovanni why more black women hadn’t been involved in the ERA movement in the US in the early 70s. Giovanni’s response: “Because that was not our struggle.” Later that weekend, in a Q and A session, author and activist Alice Walker was asked a meandering question about the responsibility of Western feminists to turn their gaze on their sisters in the developing world in particular. Her answer brought forth a spontaneous whoop from the audience: “part of the problem with Western feminists, I find, is that they take after their brothers and their fathers, and that’s a real problem. And that is where, generally speaking, the loyalty is and the solidarity.  So, the struggle for many of these women has just been to get what these men have and to share it with them and naturally that means that they don’t connect very much or very deeply with the women in the other cultures of the world. And that’s really a problem.” 

Watching the antics of Femen has reinforced this Walker view starkly for me. Founder Inna Shevchenko’s words: “Muslim men shroud their women in black sacks of submissiveness and fear, and dread as they do the devil the moment women break free...” and “topless protests are the battle flags of women's resistance, a symbol of a woman's acquisition of rights over her own body!” are filled with a rhetoric very much formed by her Western life. Like much of the feminisms that have been exported from the West, it does not seem to take into account the obstacles to carrying out this form of protest. It rides roughshod over grassroots organisations and the work they may have been quietly and steadfastly engaged in over years, and stipulates that this feminism, the one where you  bare your breasts and sloganise your skin, is the feminism. It does not take into account community mores, and, in this case, incorporates more than a little Islamophobia. (Last year, Femen France organised a "better naked than in a burqa" event in front of the Eiffel Tower.) 

Naked protest is not new: I grew up partly in Nigeria, where the famous Women’s War in 1929 (an anti-colonial and anti-taxation protest by Igbo women), a culturally specific and sensitive form of protest, was on the school curriculum. Only last year, women in southern Nigeria protested community invasions using the same method. People who are being oppressed are rarely strangers to this fact. Do you have to tell a woman who is forced to drink the water her husband’s corpse was washed in, or the one forced to marry her late husband’s’ brother that she is being oppressed? And furthermore, will a topless Ukrainian with black ink on her chest and back change her condition? As Zanele Muholi said about Africa and ally activism, the key is partnership: “I personally believe in transparent collaborations. Come to my space, respect the people in that space and negotiate their space. Do not come and project.” 

Femen’s imperialist "one size fits all" attitude shows a deafening inconsistency in their own ideology: “Women!” they seem to be saying. “Your bodies are your own – do with them what you will! Except you over there in the headscarf. You should be topless.” It can’t work like that. It won’t work like that. It simply doesn’t work like that.

Femen activists demonstrate outside Tunisia's Embassy in Paris on 4 April 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses