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!

Getty Images.
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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.