If women have to get their tits out to make a point, so be it

The campaign group Femen, which has been protesting topless since 2010, is doing feminist activism in a way that's cynical, knowing, and effective.

A Femen activist at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Photograph: Getty Images

As I write, there’s another topless photo doing the rounds on the internet. No change there, you might think, but believe me – this one is different. It shows a 19-year-old Tunisian activist, known only as Amina, her hair cropped close and her lips cherry red. She is smoking a cigarette and reading a book, frowning slightly, her eyes directed towards the page. Across her bare breasts, in Arabic, are these words: “My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honour.” It looks like art. In a second image, she defiantly flips off the camera with both hands and has the words “Fuck your morals” scrawled in black across her chest. There’s only one word to describe how Amina looks and it’s “badass”.

Both pictures were posted on the Facebook page of the Tunisian branch of the feminist protest group Femen, shortly before it was hacked and emblazoned with writings from the Quran. That was not the strongest reaction: the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Salafi cleric Almi Adel, somewhat predictably called for Amina to be stoned to death. “Her act could bring about an epidemic. It could be contagious and give ideas to other women,” he said, perhaps also recognising how badass Amina looks. In response, her family has reportedly placed her in a psychiatric hospital. At the time of writing, more than 86,500 people had signed a petition calling for her protection.

Adel is right to be afraid. Although the fight for equality hasn’t reached epidemic proportions yet, images of Femen protests have repeatedly gone viral. The internet’s ability to spread information quickly makes it a force to be reckoned with. Amina’s plight will not be ignored, especially not by us impressionable women, who are, after all, so susceptible to persuasion.

Those who condemn Femen for supposedly encouraging Amina to put herself in danger are guilty of the same crime as that of clerics such as Adel – denying a woman ownership of her body. The same can be said for the thousands of commenters with something to say about Amina’s breasts. But then that’s what it’s like, having tits: everyone’s got an opinion.

Femen has been protesting topless since 2010, when it realised that this was the most effective way of getting noticed by the mainstream media. “When we weren’t topless . . . [we] were just ignored,” Inna Shevchenko, one of its leaders, once said. The group was initially formed in response to the sex tourism that was resulting in constant male harassment of women in Ukraine but since then it has staged a number of disruptions, protesting on a range of issues, from the imprisonment of Pussy Riot to pornography and organised religion. Photographs of thewomen (Femen argues that newspapers always select those showing the most conventionally attractive members) have appeared in both the tabloids and the broadsheets. In the latter, they are often accompanied by long think pieces questioning whether the protesters’ determination to show their areolae is obscuring the message.

Egyptian activist Aliaa Elmahdy and members from Ukrainian feminist group Femen demonstrate against the Egyptian constitution in front of the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm. Photograph: Getty Images

Femen’s use of breasts as a way of garnering media attention is both cynical and knowing. Those who argue that flashing nipples undermines the central, anti-patriarchal message seem to forget that the nipples are the message. Not only does Femen’s assertive toplessness show women reclaiming and taking control of their bodies, but it’s also a very effective way of commenting on the vagaries of our sexist society. “Oh, look, how tediously predictable,” the activists seem to be saying. “All it takes for some media exposure is, well, some exposure.” They’re manipulating what they call (rather brilliantly, I think) “the beasty lust of patriarchy”. Boobs obscure the message only if you’re conservatively determined to view them as uniquely sexual body parts. Perhaps that’s why Femen has had more success in France, a country that has historically found tits less scary, than in the UK.

Even if you are determined to objectify Femen, it won’t let you get away with it that easily. The “male gaze” is so frequently in - terrupted by radical protest slogans that any attempt to perv must be a tad frustrating. Fittingly for a movement that disdains organised religion, there is something appealingly pagan about the stance that members take at protests, crowned with garlands of flowers, fists pumping in the air. It’s no wonder that they have been called warriors. Femen fits in to a long line of direct-action groups blurring the boundary between art and politics and it refers to its disruptions as “actions” or “performances”. It has also had the kind of coverage that Guy Debord and the situationists could have only dreamed of.

Many of Femen’s acts are witty, too: its protest against the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko involved wearing fake moustaches. For their trouble, the activists were reportedly taken into the woods by the security services, doused in petrol and threatened with cigarette lighters. Mercifully, they survived. Say what you will about these topless freedom fighters, but they ain’t half got balls. (Or perhaps that should be “ovaries”?) And Amina more than many. Femen’s work, like the best art, is entirely dependent on your response. If you care to react abusively or pig-headedly to what amounts to several pairs of naked breasts being used for the most noble of goals – the emancipation of women – then go ahead. All you’re doing is proving Femen’s point, over and over again.

Amina has proved her point perhaps more starkly than most. I sincerely hope that, wherever she is, she’s OK.

Fuck your morals, indeed. I may even get my own out in solidarity.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, of the Vagenda Magazine, blogs for the New Statesman at The V Spot