White doesn’t always mean privileged: why Femen's Ukrainian context matters

The criticism of Femen and their topless protests as “fast-food feminism” ignores the postcommunist macho culture in Ukraine, the country from which the group emerged.

Despite both the influence of the West over the impoverished ex-Soviet Bloc, and its westernisation after 1989, eastern Europe often seems worlds apart from its richer counterpart.

That's an important context to remember when considering the Ukrainian feminist collective Femen. They come from a country with an extreme and enormous sex industry, widespread abuse of women, and also "third world" levels of poverty. Femen's performances often take place in eastern European countries known for their lack of respect for human rights, like Belarus, where they were beaten and abducted. But they are also increasingly demonstrating in the west, stopping various international summits and ceremonial affairs.

Recently, they started to "recruit" young Muslim women in France, criticising them for wearing headscarves, saying it limited their freedom as women, and conflating, stereotypically, Islam and misogyny. In doing so, Femen were neglecting the years of struggle that are behind defending the rights of women from non-European/white backgrounds.

Not unexpectedly, they were dismissed by western feminists for crypto- or even open racism and an obsession with nudity, regardless of the context. In this case, both sides misunderstood the delicate circumstances of Femen's protests. Intersectional, progressive western feminists, concerned with the risks of racism and (post) colonialism, speak of Femen’s unhealthy obsession with nudity with suspicious disdain, not seeing that behind the admittedly “primitive” methods and controversial approach there’s a very specific reality that Femen are fighting.

Femen’s message and actions are not universal, and it would be good if the activists were aware of that. In a Guardian piece responding to critics, Femen organiser Inna Shevchenko gives a clear message of her obsession with Putin, his regime and Ukrainian situation. This is Femen’s context: the post-communist desert of sex industry, sex clubs, girls at your wish every minute of the night and day. When you check into a hotel in Eastern Europe - and the more to the east, the more likely it is - you’re expected to be interested in the wide offer of sex infrastructure: you’ll be showered with dozens of leaflets with “gentlemen’s clubs” and other adult entertainment. 

Femen's protests before and during the Euro 2012 football tournament in Poland and Ukraine alerted many to the degree that the event would increase the exploitation of Ukrainian women, whose bodies would be in high demand. Ever heard of the "Ukrainian Bride"? Ever seen the objectifying treatment east European women get in western films or serials, from The Sopranos to The Wire, where we encounter a container full of stuffed Ukrainian women, sold for prostitution? When I arrived in Britain, I was told "but Poles aren't really 'white'", which means there are degrees to whiteness/caucasianness, and we're definitely the "lesser" white, for many geopolitical reasons.

Easterners may be white Europeans, but the western feminists have often refused to see varieties within that. Few westerners see the abuses of post-communism.

Femen are an example of a interesting strategy, powerful in its own right, which may outside of its context, go wrong. Their stripping not only makes them resemble the women who are exploited and who they’re defending, they symbolise women’s position in the society, whose presence and often meaning is reduced to their bodies.

In addition to that, wearing the ridiculously over-the-top, kitschy folk wreaths on their heads, they’re deliberately evoking male fantasies: those of sexy peasant women, coming from folk fairy tales. They mock the idea of an ideal folksy bride who is there at the mercy of men, created according to their most reactionary, primitive desires.

Femen have perfectly nailed the contemporary post-communist macho mood. The terror on the facesof the politicians they confront proves they manage to touch something visceral, something that they can’t even openly address. Their fearlessness, or flippancy, disrupted and disclosed the hidden meaning of situations that otherwise would have gone undisturbed.

Yet the recent scrap seems a typical case of mutual misunderstanding, with each side blind to each other’s concerns. Femen doesn’t see the racism behind labelling patriarchy as "Arab culture". On the other hand, the western pro-underprivileged women of colour feminists see in Femen only the distasteful theatre of naked boobs, which overlooks their needs. They don't see how they remain blind to the post-communist reality Femen represent.

White doesn’t always mean "privilege" - especially for in the UK, given how many Eastern European Women are working in the sex industry in here, because they have few other choices, or clean and serve in restaurants and do other unqualified jobs, despite often holding degrees in their native countries. Funnily enough, this happens because of a similar experience of "colonialism", though in a much wider sense than the obvious.

Femen and their critics should recognise each other's mutual underprivilege and abuse. it is painful to see the notions of "postcolonialism" only in the most obvious places. The post-communist “east” had and still has its own share of colonisation and suffering, which should be recognised.

The accusation that Femen are “fast-food feminism” suggests that those women come from some areas full of bling and money, when in fact this should stand only for how precarious they really are.

Femen activists demonstrating in Kiev before the Euro 2012 tournament. Photograph: Getty Images

Agata Pyzik is a Polish writer publishing in Polish and English in many publications in the UK and in Poland, including the Guardian, Frieze and The Wire. Her main interest is (post) communist Eastern Europe, its history, society, art. She's finishing a book on postcommunism called Poor But Sexy for Zero Books. She lives in London and has a blog.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle