A Femen protest in Milan against Vladimir Putin in October 2014. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

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!

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.