Femen: From enthusiasm to disenchantment

Herewith a link to my newest Weekly Mail & Guardian Thoughtleader blog on the Ukrainian “feminist” organisation Femen, a shortened version of a much longer article.

Femen attracted my attention because of the novel that I am working on, “The Ordeal”, in which the main character becomes a member of a radical feminist separatist organisation (more about that some other time). Having worked in the Ukraine I had at least limited insight into the context from which these women came, and therefore empathy.

However, the rather wild rhetoric served to me as an indicator that something was amiss. Herewith a sample:

“We are Femen. You can feel how deep our anger is by looking into our eyes. We are feminism’s shock troops, a spearhead unit of militants, a modern incarnation of the word ‘fearless’(…) Make no mistake about it: we are at war. Every day we find new ways to destroy the patriarchy.”

Thus spake Inna Schevchenko of Femen France earlier this year. She also claimed that the Matriarchy would be in place by 2017. There will be blood in the streets, male blood.

The more I scratched the more questions there were. Their website and newspaper interviews revealed a surprising lack of depth in their thinking. They were into action, not theory and reflection. At the same time, their website, the posters and logos, their entire marketing effort is professional. That is clearly where their energies go.

And then there was the increasingly strident anti-Muslim rhetoric. They are supposedly “anti-religion” and have launched several actions against Christian churches, but Islam is clearly the target of choice. My main concern with Femen is that they will undermine the Feminist and Women’s Right organisations in the Arabic and Muslim world. Also that they are contributing to the alienation of the Muslims in Europe.

I eventually managed to get hold of a number of former Femen members for Skype discussions. Some of them felt strongly that they had a story to tell and were keen to talk. Have a look at the Weekly Mail & Guardian blog.


About one month after writing this article, the figurehead of Femen’s campaign in Tunisia, Amina ‘Tyler’/Sboui, announced that she is parting ways with the organisation as a result of their Islamophobia and issues such as funding. Some have argued that she is under pressure to do so as a result of her court case. This is of course possible, but I doubt that as her damaging comments go further than they would have to under those circumstances. Judge for yourself whether this is fear or disenchantment speaking.

A few weeks later, however, Sboui meets with Femen in Paris – and recants, on radio:

Journalist : “Amina, you said Femen is islamophobe, right ?”

Amina : “… No, no…”
Journalist : “You didn’t say it ?”
Amina : “No…”
Journalist : “So it was a wrong translation then ?”
Amina : “Yeah, yeah, that’s it.”

Some time later, also, this article appeared in the Independent, focusing on Svetlov’s role in Femen and the film on Femen being shown in Venice. Utterly bizarre…  Femen was indeed founded by a male who reigned supreme over the women, inspecting the volunteers’ breasts to determine whether they were fit for protest.  And then, Inna Schevchenko says, they kicked him out.  Really?  Just to mention him as their “ideologue” and “strategist” many months later?

With these revelations the last shred of Femen’s credibility evaporates like mist before the morning sun, leaving behind only the naked truth: a bearded man behind Femen, pulling the strings – exactly how they portrayed the Muslim women that did not accept their liberatory tactics.  Read Die Zeit for an excellent analysis of the Untergang of Femen.



14 thoughts on “Femen: From enthusiasm to disenchantment

  1. Coleen says:

    I read the article you linked and I was with you until this:

    “Arguably, Femen’s Islamophobic rhetoric already gives them at least partial responsibility for the recent attack on a pregnant veiled Muslim woman in Paris and the death of her unborn child.”

    No. Just no. Yes, one can argue that Femen is a part of the general Islamophobic climate of Europe at the moment. But this overlooks the institutionalised and socially-sanctioned Islamophobia that the anti-veiling laws in France espouse, Is it really a surprise that some idiots would attack a Muslim woman if their government itself is openly against her wearing of the veil? The version of the story that touched off major riots recently told by the woman who was detained for wearing a veil mirrors the attack you mentioned in the article, and in this case the aggressors are police officers. (Translated text here, with video.)

    • Hi Colleen,

      You are correct about the legislation being part of the problem. The point is that Femen, which has considerable marketing clout, have themselves whipped up negative public sentiment. As such they are co-responsible for what happens.



  2. Feminist says:

    Conrad, this is ludicrous. Citing Femen’s alleged “considerable marketing cloud”, which I would like to see some proof of, as a reason for their responsibility for anti-Muslim attacks, which have clearly been happening long before Femen ever existed.

    Have they ever called for attacks against Muslims? Or can they now made responsible for any attack on Muslims and Catholics in France? Logic and evidence would do some good here..

    • Dear Feminist,

      I would agree that it is provocative to draw a link between Femen’s rather simplistic rhetoric about Islam and attacks on veiled muslim women in Paris. I mean it in the same way as Germans speak of Schreibtischtaeter, those who propagated anti-semitic sentiment in Nazi Germany. Their writings contributed to the marginalisation of Jews in Germany or promoted the Shoa. To be clear, I’m refering to the principle of responsibility and not comparing modern day france with Nazi Germany. A relevant question here would be what Muslim women in Europe feel in the face of inflammatory Femen rhetoric.

      Femen’s rhetoric feeds off and feeds islamophobic sentiment. They are “both symptom and cause” of the islamophobic climate in western europe as one of the former femen women put it. Critically in light of their crusade to protect muslim women from religion in islamic countries, they fail to say anything when the same women are subjected to violence in the streets of paris for exercising what should be a right: to wear what you want to wear. That bothers me.

      The marketing clout is a no-brainer.

      Kind regards,


      • Feminist says:

        Dear Conrad,

        Even provocation has to be grounded in fact, which again, you do not present. If there had ever been any call by Femen to attack niquabis, or anyone doing so would have made reference to Femen, you would have a point. As it stands, you are connecting two totally unrelated facts only serve to produce a toxic narrative.

        Interestingly enough, you criticise Femen for abusing the memory of the Shoa by staging ridiculous Nazi-style protests. But you don’t hesitate to compare the actions of a pro-democratic and anti-patriarchy group like Femen to the “Schreibtischtaeter” of the Nazis who killed millions of innocent people. This is, frankly, not only ludicrous, but repulsive.

        Femen being “symptom and cause” of the “islamophobic climate” is just plainly ridiculous. So it’s not the Front National, not the Bloc Identitaire, not the MNR, not the NDP, not CIVITAS, not the people from Riposte Laique who have been the a climate of anti-Muslim sentiment long before Femen even existed. All organisations who have many more followers, political support (around 20% for the FN!) and much more financial or marketing cloud than Femen.

        Finally, Femen women have spoken up in support of women who wear the hijab, something that you conveniently fail to mention.

        Journalism often means rounding up to the nearest possible exaggeration, but this way of arguing crosses any line of journalistic integrity.

        Kind regards,

      • Dear Feminist,

        Sure, Femen did not invent islamophobia, just as they did not invent feminism. However, they are pouring oil on the flames with irresponsible and generalised statements about Islam and the oppression of Muslim women. You will find many Muslim women that agree with this. This Femen tradition, furthermore, has a history, going back to xenophobic/islamophobic statements in the Ukraine, this time aimed at Turkish men.

        If you consider Femen to be a pro-democracy, anti-patriarchy group, knock yourself out.


  3. Dear Feminist,

    I saw your response on the Weekly Mail & Guardian thoughleader page. I cannot respond to the comments as the Thoughleader editor first has to approve them and I am leaving on a field trip on Monday morning early.

    For the record, I think you have a point about my not going into any depth about Femen’s supposed xenophobia/islamophobia. When I started out on this article, a good old secularist, I also felt that the accusations of Islamophobia were groundless. Eventually I was forced to change that opinion.

    It is difficult to write about Femen without referring to issues like Islamophobia, however, you must understand that one has only 1000 words in which to do justice to everything and I actually had to cut quite a lot of material. I did not think this an issue, as much has in fact already been written about this aspect of Femen. Just follow Muslimah Pride and Muslim Women against Femen on Facebook to see what I mean.

    I therefore decided to home in on the experiences of some former Femen members (I spoke to several more than just three by the way) and to summarise other critique against Femen. Doing more than that would require another article. Im not sure that Femen warrants the attention.

    Thanks for your comments.


  4. Femen is obviously a quasi-religious feminist CULT and their spreading of hatred against all things Islamic is definitely contributing to the Islamophobic climate in Europe. Anything contributing to that, is in my view morally co-responsible for events such as the attack on the Muslimah in Paris and therefore should be exposed as such; FEMEN should be held financially liable too if any of their actions lead to any direct attacks on a woman because as Conrad’s article explains, they are putting women in danger and they do not care about that! Perhaps they will start caring a bit more if they are held legally liable for their actions …

  5. I should add that femenism and feminism are obviously 2 separate things … I do not actually know of any feminist organization that advocates a matriarchy making physical war on men in the streets … not even the most radical among the legit feminists would condone or promote such a notion.

  6. Feminist says:

    Dear Conrad,

    For an experienced writer as yourself space constraints cannot be an excuse for glossing over evidence and basic logic. We have all been there and bringing in nuances into an article does not require a lot of space, but mostly effort. I’m also sure that you could have used all your material for at least two articles.

    You are suggesting that I should follow MuslimahPride and Muslim Women Against Femen. Have you actually followed them? Have you seen the amount of “slut shaming”, racist comments, insults, allegations of being “Zionist and Western”, of being “brown people trying to be white” that are being directed against any woman who dares to challenge the narrative that Femen is “colonialist” or “imperialist”? I and several others have tried to challenge their claims on their sites, and have simply been blocked, so much for free speech and democratic attitudes. Have you seen their way of alleging that a 15 year-old who is shot in the head by Islamists is actually a “Western spy”? Their unconditional support for everyone who choses to wear the niqab, while never even once mentioning the fact that there are millions of women who do not have a choice in doing so, and are being regularly harassed, slut-shamed, raped, thrown-acid in their faces, or even killed by their own families or communities if they choose not to?

    If this is the ideological base on which you use as a reference to load up your narrative against Femen, then I think it is quite clear what perspective your criticism is coming from.

    If Femen does not warrant that kind of attention, maybe it might be quite revealing to do a piece on those anti-Femen and their motivations?


  7. Dear Chris,

    Using Muslimah Pride as an example does not mean that I approve of everything that they say. In fact, I have big problems with much of what they put out, their (in my mind) racist attitudes and analytical frameworks.

    Nonetheless, what you see on Muslimah Pride FB is a symptom of marginalisation, group-think that will intensify under the current conditions. They and a lot of “traditional” or more orthodox Muslims are legitimate stakeholders that one ignores at one’s own risk. They and their religion are not the enemy, as many seem to think.

    My “ideological motivation”, as you put it is secularistic. I would like to see a world in which people of different religions (and cultures) have a place. If you want to walk around wearing a hijab or whatever, it should be possible to do so without fear. Similarly, nobody should force you to wear one. From this perspective, aggressive and fundamentalistic secularism and iconoclastic methods is not the way to go. My initial intention was much more of a discourse-like piece, a juxtaposing of ideas. This, however, becomes difficult if only one side is willing to talk. i.e. Femen failed to respond to invitations and requests for discussions.

    As a result of the responses of you and a couple of others, I recognise that it was perhaps a mistake to gloss over the Islamophobia aspect as something already covered by others. However, it should also be self-evident that covering this is an article in its own right. There are time constraints, but I will therefore consider doing another piece focusing specifically on this.



  8. Feminist says:

    Dear Conrad,

    Well, now I’m starting to see more where your comments are coming from. Could you please point out which of Femen’s statements about Islam and the oppression of Muslim women is “generalised”? I would like to only see a single statement where Femen is “generalising” about the oppression of Muslim women that as a matter of fact is empirically incorrect. Not even to talk about the deeply misogynistic religion of Islam. Please go ahead, I really would like to see that statement.

    Your story of “xenophobic/islamophobic” statements of Femen again lacks any evidence. It seems odd to me that you as a social scientist seem to think because some or even several people have told you that Femen hates Turks this makes it a fact. Again, evidence, not opinions would be helpful. Can’t be that difficult to find for such important allegations, can it now?

    Well Conrad, I will assume in your favour that the perspective from South Africa might be different, but despite their self-victimising rhetoric the likes of MuslimahPride are far from being “marginalised” in British society. Many orthodox and even fundamentalist Muslim groups even receive government funding for their “community work” here in the UK. The public discourse is being dominated by extremely orthodox groups, not least because some liberal lefties like to think that only an orthodox Muslim is a “true” Muslim and therefore a “legitimate stakeholder”. Nearly all mainstream Muslim organisations in the UK are orthodox, almost none of them represent secular Muslims. But there are hundreds of thousands of Muslims only here in the UK who do not adhere to either MuslimahPride’s warped definition of what Muslims should be like, or your definition of “traditional” Muslims. They in fact are just human beings and their religion plays a minor part in their lives. I understand that it is difficult to let go of the old image of praying bearded men or niquabis, but the reality is in fact different. Yet these are the people who are being marginalised by the the orthodox organisations which by your definition are a “legitimate stakeholders”. Your statements clearly show how little you actually know of the reality of Muslims, nevertheless you are seem to find comfort in throwing yourself behind the cause of “orthodox” Muslims, without even mentioning what their orthodoxy means for the lives of men and especially women.

    Your accusations of “fundamentalistic” secularism are essentially based in your own warped idea of what Femen is doing. Femen has never denied anyone the right to cover themselves, pray or believe in God. Calling the mere challenge to religious symbols and traditions and the call to overcome their morals “fundamentalistic” clearly shows your lack understanding what fundamentalism is.

    All the best for your new article, I sincerely hope you will be able to challenge your own preconceptions, especially about Muslims.

    • Dear Chris,
      Dont get silly now. I don’t like religion and I don’t support the “cause” of orthodox Muslims. However, your own motivations and phobias have now become much more transparent.

      Unlike you, it appears, i have worked in Islamic countries and societies, long enough to both experience and cope with the culture shock of doing so. I don’t like the burqa or gender segregation, but it is counterproductive for one’s cultural-emotional sentiments to generate a kneejerk reaction and rejection of the ‘other’. There usually is a huge gap between public perceptions (in this case of Islamic society) and social/cultural complexities on the ground, and some women, believe it or not, are perfectly happy with a niqab or burqa. You are dealing with culturally entrenched practices and neither the women nor their husbands are reached by calls for getting naked. You do not seem to understand this. You don’t seem to respect it either, in which case one is dealing with a brand of cultural imperialism disguised as humanist philosophy.

      Re Generalising statements by Femen: Every media release they make is full of them. Statements like “Turkish Man, Stop Beating Your Wife,” or “the burqa is a prison” are more hateful examples. Not all Turkish men beat their wives; not all Muslim women feel imprisoned by the burqa. Femen’s action in Tunisia and the other Arabic countries seem to be based on a premise that Muslim women as a whole are uniformly oppressed, helpless and voiceless (look at the huffington post interview with Schevchenko). Just to get perspective here: on their website they explicitly talk of expanding European values into Islamic countries.

      Re intolerance: Confronting people at their place of worship can reasonably be described as both phobic and intolerant. The militant, fundamentalist and often iconoclastic atheist secularism – rubbing people’s noses in it – proposed by Femen and yourself is a recipe for blood in the streets. I will continue to oppose that.

      In conclusion, your responses to this blog have become increasingly polemic and sarcastic. The way in which you tried to hide your identity from me was deceitful. I don’t like to conduct discussions in that manner and you can consider this one closed.

      I have lived and worked in the UK, by the way. Go out and experience some other countries and cultures before trying to teach an old man how to suck eggs.

      A parting shot from Schevchenko:
      Sisters, we don’t care how many times your men are praying, but we care a lot what do they do in between. We care a lot about violence and aggression, we care a lot when your fathers, brothers and husbands are raping and killing, when they call to stone your sisters, we care a lot when they burn embassies etc, and all that for Allah!

      • Feminist says:

        Dear Conrad,

        Thank you for your reply. I understand why you are angry. And rightfully so. Someone has just made baseless allegations against you, not supported by evidence, making assumptions about your values, knowledge and motives, ultimately extrapolating them to something you had never said or intended to say. Clearly, you are angry because you think that before someone judge you, they better look at the facts and not their own interpretations of what you are saying or doing. You are angry because I reduced you to some of your utterances, which I took out of context. I think you are right to be angry.

        What I don’t quite understand that you are angry at me for doing this to you, but you do not seem any harm in doing it to others. While your article has several valuable and relevant insights, you base it mainly on interviews with some ex-Femen activists and some other sources that you tell you that Femen are indeed xenophobic. You extrapolate this to a generalised notion of “Islamophobia”, of course not “Christianityphobia”, fail mention any contradicting evidence, as for example the perpetual engagement of Femen for the rights of Muslim women to live their lives as they please.

        Let’s take the “Turkish men stop beating your wife quote”. This clearly sounds like a form of xenophobia, agreed. Let’s look at the context of this statement: “Together with the Institute of Political, Sociological and Marketing research, Femen polled 1,200 female students in Kyiv. Their findings suggest that nearly 70 percent of those polled were proposed sex for money and most offers came from Turkish men.” http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/feminine-femen-targets-sexpats-29898.html

        This of course does not justify a complete focus on Turkish men, as clearly there are others coming for sex tourism too, but might explain why this is not a statement that is baseless, but based on an empirical study. Anyhow, as it stands I agree this can be read as a xenophobic statement.

        The question is though, is this a single statement, or are there others? Again, you don’t provide any evidence of a generalised xenophobic attitude, but of one single instance. Please feel free to point me to more. As I said, Femen should be criticised, and this is one of the cases where a proper discussion of the matter might have been fruitful.

        “The burqa is a prison” seems to be a particularly offensive statement to you. Does it matter that it is a fact that the burqa is one of the most dehumanising instruments that have ever been invented to cover up a the “shame” of a woman, and subjugate and humiliate her by restricting their movement and even their eyesight. If you look at the history of the burqa, there is no other conclusion you can come to other than this is indeed made to subjugate and imprison women (not men of course!). Now, the fact that there are Muslim women who do have a *choice* in wearing the burqa and don’t feel emprisoned by it does not change the fact that it is one of the most vicious tools ever invented by men to control and subjugate women.

        And you call those who point that out “hateful”? I understand that you call yourself a secularist, but someone who does not like to “offend religious beliefs”. It’s great that you are such a courteous man, but why do you then label people who choose to challenge religious privilege mentally ill? You probably have no idea how vicious your use of the word “phobia” is, but by using it you are saying that women who choose to challenge religious privilege are suffering from a mental condition.

        Just to be clear, there is nothing “phobic” about fearing a religion that discriminates against women, non-Muslims, homosexuals, apostates, etc.. in the most vile and violent way, in both their scriptures as well as empirical reality. Someone who alleges that women who challenge a religion that hates them suffer from a mental condition is a lot of things, but certainly no secularist. You seem so much more concerned about defending religious privilege that apparently you see endangered by women exercising their right to refuse to respect religious buildings and beliefs. The irony that offending beliefs is not going lead to “blood in the streets” but people taking this alleged offense as a reason to intimidate or kill people, is apparently lost on you. Who do you want to blame, the victim or the perpetrator, the one who exercising their human right to freedom of speech or the one who kills?

        Interestingly enough though, Femen are only “Islamophobic” in your words, but not “Christianityphobic”. I wonder how many crosses they have to saw down, how many bishops they have to physically attack, how many times they have to challenge the privilege of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, how many churches they have to desecrate before you are going to allege that they are having a mental condition for doing so. In the case of Islam, this is of course different. Double standards much?

        As opposed to you, Femen have never depicted Muslim women as a whole are uniformly oppressed, helpless and voiceless. While you seem to imply that Muslim women are some kind of fragile and helpless entity that cannot be challenged in their beliefs, Femen is treating Muslims as adults who do have the agency to adhere to misogynistic practices, whether by choice or by force. Calling on them to take of the veil is a fair act of free speech, that is certainly liberating to many Muslim women. Just have a look at the “Muslim and ex-Muslim women for Femen” page. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen you arguing that Christians cannot be challenged and offended in their beliefs, while Muslims apparently need special protection, as if they were children. Does that not seem like an essentialising attitude to you?

        So, overall, thank you for the discussion. You should continue to challenge Femen’s practices and inconsistencies. You can either do that by resorting to some kind of smear tactic (like alleging that Femen are mentally ill and responsible for attacks on Muslim women), which will only lead to another round of derision of your work. Alternatively, you can try to challenge Femen by challenging your own notions of issues like offense, Muslims, Islam, secularism, phobias, and last but not least the use of evidence and logic at the same time. Looking forward to reading the results of that process.

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