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June 25, 2012

FEMEN-ism in the Fan Zone: Women Laying Bodies on the Line

The Ukrainian anti-human trafficking group FEMEN engaged in their signature form of embodied protest at Euro 2012 last week, standing on table tops stripped to the waist,  denouncing the competition as a magnet for sex trafficking. Major sporting events (like large corporate and political conventions) are notorious for attracting traffickers who gather to service a customer base emboldened by liquor, a celebratory spirit, the anonymity provided by travel, and opportunity. According to Reuters, although the FEMEN members were initially welcomed into the fan zone by men who thought they were being treated to a “spontaneous striptease,” they were later detained by police after kicking over beers and raising placards covered with the slogan also etched onto their torsos: “Fuck Euro 2012.”

The choice for young women to deploy their half-naked bodies in an attempt to persuade men to stop using the naked bodies of other young women is, of course, ironic. It’s unclear whether or not the bare breasts are intended as meta-irony or simply as a carnivalesque ploy to draw crowds and cameras. Although savvy bloggers, photo critics, and forward-thinking feminists certainly understand the complicated arguments a naked female body can make, this photo demonstrates the ways in which those nuances are lost on the Swedish fans and Ukranian police officers gathered here. Instead, the actors are following a familiar narrative: drunken lads are situated firmly atop their male privilege and comfortably behind their male gaze (which is perceived optically and recorded digitally). The woman is outnumbered and overpowered, disciplined rather than defended by the police presence. (FEMEN’s choice to strategically employ nudity and obscenity complicates the job of law enforcement. Unfortunately, as the narrative unfolds, we see that the police officers stuck to the script). Because FEMEN’s visual politics seem to perpetuate, rather than disrupt, this dominant narrative, its utility as a strategy to curb sex trafficking and promote gender equality seems limited.

More troublingly, this photo recalls another image of a young woman with exposed breasts being removed by security forces: the Egyptian protestor whose image went viral last year. She, too, put her body on the line, in a crowd of men, for the cause of basic human rights. Although one woman’s breasts were revealed by force and the other by choice, they both were simultaneously strong as political actors and vulnerable at the hands of an unruly crowd and an unsympathetic police force. The consequences for both women were swift. According to a statement released by FEMEN, “the most recognizable activists, Alexandra Shevchenko and Inna Shevchenko, were seized . . . pushed out of the fan zone and badly beaten.”

Women around the world are literally laying their bodies on the line for what they believe in: anti-sex trafficking, democratic participation, free speech. In societies where women lack full control over their own bodies and have few material or political resources, some are using their bodies as instruments of resistance and protest, politics and agency. If only cameras would pay attention when women’s bodies have clothes on them.

– Karrin Anderson

(photo: Genya Savilov/AFP. caption: An activist of the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN demonstrates against the European Championships in the Swedish fan zone in Kiev on June 19, 2012.)

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