FEMEN is a Ukrainian-French radical feminist activist group based in Paris. Our editor Philippe Charlier recently met with Inna Shevchenko and Pauline Hillier to have a conversation on women’s rights, body politics, feminist theory, etc. What follows is a slightly edited version of the conversation. The views expressed by the interviewees are not necessarily reflect that of the editors.
P.C.: Could you please tell us how you and your organization views patriarchy?
I.S. : When we do our research, look into historical facts: the beginning of patriarchy was one, one and a half, or two centuries before monotheisms appeared, at the very same time, signs of matriarchy as well. So, one could assume patriarchy succeeded because there was a better fantasy maybe, or better tools to create monotheistic religions that would dogmatize clear segregation between the sexes and would make a very clear picture and rules of how society should function. And we suggest that monotheism pushed patriarchy to its success. We do not say that it’s the only reason why patriarchy succeeded but we suggest that the appearance of monotheism, created by men for men, suggest that this was one of the main instruments that predicted the success of patriarchy whereas matriarchy couldn’t organize itself in such a way.
But I wanted to come back to the roots, if we’re looking for the reasons why patriarchy did succeed, as we’re quite disturbed by the fact that matriarchy didn’t – it’s very difficult to recognize that – there are other, some feminist scholars who suggest that since the women were born with the power to create life in their bodies, the power to give life, and it’s only a suggestion, men had to balance this difference in power. Therefore, men organized themselves more and tried to take the power in families, because women were granted this power by nature. This is the reason some feminists cite as being one of the reasons why women have faced this war against them for centuries.
Yes, because the future and life depends on women’s bodies and on women’s nature. A power that men do not have, and of course, one of the obsessions of men is to control life, control future, control future generations through their sons.
When there was this idea of protesting by being topless, I was personally against the idea because, as a young Ukrainian woman – with that perception – I didn’t find anything political in my body because I had the perception that my body was only sexual – this is the kind of understanding I was raised with – and I was surrounded by this idea. I didn’t know my body could serve me for other reasons.
P.C. : This was maybe due to your education?
I.S. : Of course, yes. Education and society, all around me. First, I had to change the perception about my own breasts, right? And when you paint your slogans on your breasts, and if some man wants to look at just the breasts, they would be disturbed by the letters that are covering them up. This is the difference between FEMEN’s covers, and covers of other magazines. And another reason how I understand that my body can have another signification other than the sexual is the reaction of other institutions against this body. If you follow FEMEN, and we’ve described it well in the book, too, that for this we’ve been arrested, violently brought to custodies, spent time in jail, kidnapped, threatened. Do men react this way just by looking at my breasts? No, they react this way because my breasts suddenly stop signifying the sexual, my breasts do not please them anymore. It doesn’t signify for them what it signified before: their pleasure, or something that serves them. Now those breasts are against them. And they resort to such violent methods to fight these breasts, which is ridiculous. When we were tortured in Belarus, I was completely traumatized when I came back, I was 21 years old – being tortured for writing slogans on my breasts – but after some reflection I understood that how ridiculous was their reaction, how disproportionate. You just use your breasts for slogans, and they are ready to spend 24 hours, 20 adult men aged 40 on an average to torture these women, to threaten, to kidnap, to do all the horrible things just because we showed the breasts they didn’t want to see. We are showing the breasts they do not want to see.
That’s a culture that was constructed for centuries and religion contributed to it a lot. What we’re witnessing now are the roots of these issues, even in France – the reason is because it was a global culture where each part of a woman’s body was redefined. So, we’re now not looking at a woman’s body in an anatomical or medical way, we’re looking at it in a political and social way. What each of this part of body represents for society – politics, feelings of some believers or not – so each part is classified into dangerous/taboo, or acceptable. Women’s bodies were redefined by men, for us and we accept this definition because it’s a global culture. That’s also the reason why we do not know our own bodies, because from the moment we’re born, we’re given this definition of who we are, what function each part of our body serves, why is it here, why and why not it should be hidden. So, there are a lot of political and social messages in each part of our body that we do not accept. We’re given this definition, and I think it’s very violent. Are there so many political and social meanings given to male body? No. It’s kind of a cage of ready meanings, taken from different religions, cultures, dogmas. And it’s the reason we do not dare to redefine our own body because it was defined, for centuries, by others.
There’s this cult of virginity in a lot of cultures – there’s this idea that a proper woman is a virgin, that nothing should happen there, it should remain as it was when I was born: clean, untouched. So, this is also why we do not study ourselves. This idea of being pure, being untouched is seen as succeeding, in certain ways, as a woman in society, in many cultures. Virginity already says that you’re not supposed to have sexuality. So, there’s this idea of virginity and in this cult, there’s this implied message to women, “don’t go there, don’t study your sexuality.”
It’s motivated by traditions and religions. To remain virgin for the night of the wedding.
Or, being a virgin and not bleeding … of course, it’s possible but there’s no knowledge about it. Many women just suffer from being rejected by their families and communities because they did not bleed.
I just wanted to come back to monotheism and why there’s a philosophical ground there because when we look at monotheist religions, there’s a cult of the father, of this male god, one, mono, who created all of us, who’s responsible for all of us, who will punish or save us depending on how we follow the rule. There’s this dictatorial rule of one man, and this is why we consider monotheist religions to be one of the major representations or major instruments for success of patriarchy, because of this cult of one man, one father, one god, one dictator, one guard. So, that’s also one of the reasons why we look at monotheism.
P.C.: Do you have groups in India or Asia?
I.S. : We do not have a group in India – but when there was a wave, well it’s not a wave, it’s a constant problem, but there was a wave in international media about reports of sexual harassment and rape in India, there was a group of women who wanted to start FEMEN as a reaction against it but, for us, it was not physically or materially possible to go there, to organize and help them. We do know that there’s some support there, but there’s no organized group in India for technical reasons. In China, we have some support sometimes – some people send us pictures of them topless with slogans – but we do not have an organized group either in China. We see a lot of signs of support from Asia, some even use FEMEN tactics – but dangerous political situations sometimes do not allow them to organize. And for us, it’s difficult to go there and launch something to support them.
But coming back to religions again – unfortunately, I have to come back to Islam, for example, in the Quran, it is very clearly written that when a man wants to have sexual intercourse with his wife and the wife rejects, for whatever reasons, that she will not be able to sleep because she will be bothered by angels for three nights. So, they create an image like this. In Seneca, there’s a quote, “we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” This is what religion uses for women. They create this imaginary punishment for not following their rules, which is not reality. And then women suffer by this idea.
I don’t think I am the objective source for knowing the condition of women in Ukraine, I think a historian would be more useful. I can just answer as one of the persons who started this for the feeling that it was very much needed. Political context was obviously important, but a general culture of sexism, too – without a very big visible impact of religion, although religion is there, and globally society still decides on what is moral and what is not, and a big part of that comes from religions. So, in Ukraine, there are some things that are moral or some things that are immoral according to religion, but it’s sometimes accepted in a general, social way. I grew up in this context, and it was the very reason why radical change was the collapse of USSR, they completely reshaped society in Ukraine, where there was a shortage of food, currency, there were horrible levels on unemployment and that meant that men took over what was available because women had some occupation of raising their children at home, and they were left to take care of homes because men had gone out to take the jobs that were left. So, therefore society was very radically reshaped, very quickly, and very recently. I was born in the year before the collapse of the USSR. I grew up in this decade of 90s, and I saw this reshaping of society: if there was a job available, it was my father who would take it as a second or even a third job, not my mother even though she had been working all her life and continues to work now. This basic traditional way of seeing both genders and sexes suddenly appeared, while just before – and I am critical of communism and socialism but there was no difference between a male and a female worker. My mother worked more than my father, her salary was higher, and no one was bothered, it did not matter whether you were male or female, the important thing was that you worked and you are contributing to the union, giving money. So, suddenly there was a radical reshaping of society, and a radical frustration in the female population. And we, as a young generation, who heard the stories of our grandmothers and mothers about how, just a decade ago, they had much more than what they had now and understanding that my future was probably going to be like how it was now, and not like it was before. This raised a deep grounded frustration and disappointment, and even a feeling of being desperate. And the roots of FEMEN coming up like it did was this anger, this frustration, this disappointment in the possibilities that exist all around but not for you. So, on an emotional level, I like to describe it as a scream from inside. There is a lack of alternatives, of opportunities to develop yourself, to study, because you need to start working early: as a waitress, a secretary, a prostitute, or finding a very rich husband. And this is one of the things that young girls finishing schools are preoccupied with because we are told that we need to find a husband to succeed in life, because it’s only men that can make us succeed, as we do not have any possibilities in ourselves. There was this scream from inside that, yes, I want my opportunities. If I can’t see them, at least I will try to demand them, at least I will try to scream that I need them. So, this very basic feeling of being angry and screaming out. This is how I will describe it emotionally. It was not grounded, and I am proud of it, that ours was not a group emerging from or basing itself on feminist theory. It was our own experience, our lives, lives of women around, and projecting what will be the future and being dissatisfied with it. This is the reason why it happened. And personally, I wasn’t the worst example of a young woman and her destiny, as I was studying the best university in Ukraine, I wasn’t from some rich family. I come from a small city, I was studying in the best university, and when I was 19, I got a high-paying job as a journalist which was an unlikely scenario for many young women, but even so, the attitude all around me, the attitude towards me, understanding that I have to struggle, give up many of my dreams, my wishes, and many times my voice and not say things I wanted to say because it would not be accepted. All of this creates in you a bomb that is ready to explode, and it exploded.
P.C.: I understand. I understand well.
I.S.: Today, let’s not neglect the fact that we did spend time studying, familiarizing ourselves with feminist theory – some of it we do not agree with, some of it we do, and we try to write ourselves today as we see, it’s far from being a theory, but it’s our thoughts written on paper. We deeply studied feminism, but the root of the movement is the experience of real life. Not a text, not black letters on a white paper. It’s our own experience of ourselves, and a frustration with a probable future.
Yes, I feel very proud when we see the reaction – but it’s also personally changed for us, we’ve satisfied our thirst of speaking about this issue, because it’s really a big taboo – believe me, maybe not in your surroundings, but in a lot of places, and even in France – which stunned me – because I came to this country, and many foreigners are fed with this myth of France, and some of it is reality – which is a good thing – but mostly it’s not, unfortunately. But there’s this issue of speaking about religions, and in particular, in connection to woman’s freedom and portrayal. Religions still remain one of the major obstacles. There has not been a large advancement of women’s rights globally. There will always be this very primitive argument of defending feelings of some believers, or of criticizing the culture, being racist even – I don’t know but at some point people started perceiving religion as a race which is an example of intellectual bankruptcy. It is a big taboo, so there is this satisfaction of speaking about it out loud, writing a book, and knowing that it exists there, and those who want to access it can access it.
For abortion, in Ukraine, there is still this tendency of making the woman feel guilty, accountable for it so many women don’t go for this medical intervention. There’s no law as such, I mean, there’s no law that a girl before such-and-such age must require the consent of parents for the abortion but many doctors say that they must be accompanied with their mothers. So, your mother has to be aware of what you’re doing. They’re not supposed to do it, it’s just to create this fear in the girl – because obviously many of the girls are not going to come back with their mothers. So, many girls will try to drink, say, hot wine with their friends to induce miscarriage, they believe the things they read on the Internet, which, very often, has horrible consequences. This is one thing, and then there are the other things I see in the Occidental world which shocked me. It is a very big issue, once again coming back to religions and cultural practices. Returning to the issue of genital mutilation – I am not sure about the figures, you will have to check, but every summer, there are almost 60000 girls in the UK going through genital mutilation. So, summer is the time for school holidays and many families take the girls out and it’s there that the mutilation is done. The doctors who do medical check-ups every year in schools, they see that the girl is mutilated, but they don’t report it which leaves the people who did it unaccountable to the law. It’s illegal in the UK, it has been banned for many decades and since then there has only been one case, and even in that case, the person was let go.
Once again, the perception that it’s their culture, so it’s considered racist to say that it’s wrong. There was this group of doctors in the US who said that genital mutilation must be performed in hospitals. So, they try to show their good intentions by proposing that if it’s done medically, there will be no infections, from bad consequences that many girls suffer from, and some of them even die. They propose to legalise this. There’s a logic which is understandable that at least by mutilation being performed in hospitals, the girls won’t be infected, but this is also an acceptance of crippling the girls by the horrible idea that they are not supposed to have sexual pleasure in their lives. I am stunned by this idea and the root of this is that it has to be justified, that we must have respect of cultures. And I think we finally have to have this idea that there is a culture of violence which also exist, cultures and traditions of violence, and those should be condemned by everyone. They should be not be performed for the sake of respecting cultures, no. Cultures of violence should not be respected. I am stunned by some doctors’ position on these violent practices that are obviously crippling a woman’s body.
The statistics are that in England, 14000 girls were mutilated – this is not a yearly statistic – but these were the case of reported mutilation.
Another fact that this is what bothers them, this power that they do not have in their bodies.
P.C. : In the memory of a Sufi patient, could you describe life in two words?
I.S.: Cause and movement.