A Femen protest in Milan against Vladimir Putin in October 2014. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty
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Inna Shevchenko of Femen on saying the unsayable

With Femen’s topless protests, we succeeded in frightening many patriarchal institutions by taking away women’s naked bodies from the shining world of advertising, and taking them back to the political arena.

About 40 people were in that little Copenhagen cafe that day. I prepared my speech a few hours before entering this place where Danish people were gathering to discuss freedom of speech and blasphemy. I wanted to speak about what I felt was unsayable. I believe that criticising religion, mocking it or not respecting it is a right that one should enjoy, as religion is simply one idea among many others.

I said that blasphemy and criticising religion are celebrations of freedom of speech and that to gain this freedom, there should be more criticisms and more blasphemy.

We have to break this taboo to be able to exercise freedom of speech. I continued: “When we talk about freedom of expression, there will always be a point of view that says: “Yes, we are all for freedom of expression, but…” Why do we continue to add this “but”?

And then my words were drowned out by the loud sound of an automatic rifle, I fell on the floor, under the stage, hiding behind chairs. What I had prepared to say in that little Copenhagen cafe was unsayable…

Let me confess something else. It has already been five years since I began to be involved in Femen’s activity, starting in Ukraine, and three years since I began to live in exile, leading the movement with its ten international branches, from France. Our activity could certainly be described as “saying the unsayable” or rather “screaming the unsayable”. We know how it feels to be judged and severely punished for saying the unsayable.

With Femen’s topless protests, we succeeded in frightening many patriarchal institutions by taking away women’s naked bodies from the shining world of advertising, and taking them back to the political arena. Here, women’s bodies are no longer serving someone else’s demands or pleasing someone else, but are instead demanding their own rights. We revealed and highlighted the double standards of a world which easily accepts the use of female naked bodies in commercials, but roars in anger when topless women bare their political demands.

When we started the Femen movement in Ukraine, we were young girls, not experienced in activism. I will be honest; we did not have much knowledge of politics or the media. We learned a lot and created our own feminist media machine by surpassing many obstacles and judgements.

We believed that the world would welcome us for saying what was unsayable, but we were mistaken. Being obsessed with its euphoria of tolerance, the world neglects what is important and what is true, twisting reality and changing its meaning.

With Femen, we denounced Ukraine’s bloodthirsty sex industry but were called prostitutes for doing it. We denounced the dictatorial regime in Belarus, where we have been kidnapped and tortured in the forest.

We even decided to tell our own stories to show the world how the patriarchal culture was deep inside us. We shared the story of a man who tried to take over our political brand as it was just getting known, and had been created and developed by ourselves. We revealed how he tried to tell us what to do by first advising, and later on trying to dictate. We agreed to tell this story through a film in order to show that men’s domination is not “past” and is not an “illusion”. We wanted to confess, to show our inner struggles, and to warn other women. For that confession we had to pay a high price: we were called puppets and accused of not being real feminists.

Later, we defended and finally succeeded in securing the release of a young Tunisian girl in jail, who faced up to nine years of imprisonment for posting a topless photo with a slogan on Facebook. For this, we have been called “white neocolonialists”. We have been accused of speaking for a culture that we do not know, as if any “culture” can justify putting a woman in prison for a political photo on a social network.  Those who called us neocolonialists totally ignored the fact that we were supporting the act of a Tunisian Femen supporter. We were saying what remains unsayable.

After all, we have been beaten up, jailed, tortured and forced to live in exile for not tolerating some of the system’s norms in order to defend freedom. We are saying the unsayable by addressing the issues we want to denounce, and it is further unsayable because we are using women’s voices to do.

Nevertheless, I can assure you that the day will come when what is now unsayable will be said loudly. It will be heard everywhere. It will be said by women’s voices, as there are more and more of us joining the fight every day.

By making our words unsayable they made us stronger and angrier. Victory will be ours!

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.