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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How the Standing Rock fight will continue

Bureaucratic ability to hold corporate interest account will be more necessary now than ever.

Fireworks lit up the sky in rural North Dakota on Sunday night, as protestors celebrated at what is being widely hailed as a major victory for rights activism.

After months spent encamped in tee-pees and tents on the banks of the Canonball river, supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe finally received the news they’d been waiting for: the US Army Corps has not issued the Dakota Access pipeline with the permit it requires to drill under Lake Oahe.

“We […] commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing" said a statement released by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II.

With the camp’s epic setting, social-media fame, and echoes of wider injustice towards Native Americans, the movement has already earned a place in the history books. You can almost hear the Hollywood scriptwriters tapping away.

But as the smoke settles and the snow thickens around the thinning campsite, what will be Standing Rock’s lasting legacy?

I’ve written before about the solidarity, social justice and environmental awareness that I think make this anti-pipeline movement such an important symbol for the world today.

But perhaps its most influential consequence may also be its least glamorous: an insistence on a fully-functioning and accountable bureaucratic process.

According to a statement from the US Army’s Assistant Secretary of Civil Words, the Dakota Access project must “explore alternate routes”, through the aid of “an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis”.

This emphasis on consultation and review is not big-statement politics from the Obama administration. In fact it is a far cry from his outright rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project in 2015. Yet it may set an even more enduring example.

The use of presidential power to reject Keystone, was justified on the grounds that America needed to maintain its reputation as a “global leader” on climate change. This certainly sent a clear message to the world that support from Canadian tar-sands oil deposits was environmentally unacceptable.

But it also failed to close the issue. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, has remained “committed” to the project and has embroiled the government in a lengthy legal challenge. Unsurprisingly, they now hope to “convince” Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s position.

In contrast, the apparently modest nature of the government’s response to Dakota Access Pipeline may yet prove environmental justice’s biggest boon. It may even help Trump-proof the environment.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do”, said the Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works.

Back in July, the same Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over domestic pipelines crossing major waterways) waved through an environmental assessment prepared by the pipeline’s developer and approved the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe subsequently complained that the threat to its water supply and cultural heritage had not been duly considered. This month’s about-turn is thus vital recognition of the importance of careful and extensive public consultation. And if ever such recognition was needed it is now.

Not only does Donald Trump have a financial tie to the Energy Transfer Partners but the wider oil and gas industry also invested millions into other Republican candidate nominees. On top of this, Trump has already announced that Myron Ebell, a well known climate sceptic, will be in charge of leading the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maintaining the level of scrutiny finally granted for Standing Rock may not be easy under the new administration. Jennifer Baker, an attorney who has worked with tribes in South Dakota on pipeline issues for several years, fears that the ground gained may not last long. But while the camp at Standing Rock may be disbanding, the movement is not.

This Friday, the three tribes who have sued the Corps (the Yankont, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes) will head to a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to increase pressure on the government to comply with both domestic and international law as it pertains to human rights and indigenous soveriegnty. 

What the anti-pipeline struggle has shown - and will continue to show - is that a fully accountable and transparent bureaucratic process could yet become the environment's best line of defence. That – and hope.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.