I've been interested in the discourse about Femen that's been going on ever since the story of Amina Tyler hit the news. One of the things that strikes me the most about it is how hostile the reaction to them has been compared to Pussy Riot. I've thought about it a lot, and what I think is this:
If as a feminist you have a different reaction to Femen than you did to Pussy Riot, you need to think about that. I know, really helpful.
Pussy Riot are part of a male-headed, heteronormative collective called Voina - "war" - and lead by Oleg Vorotnikov and his wife Natalia Sokol. The collective engages in traditionally male forms of artistic expression such as punk rock, as well as some heavily porn-inflected performance art (in which it is female members who are shown in explicitly sexual contexts).
Femen is a woman-lead, non-hierarchical and quite amorphous group of women appropriating not just the symbolism of female nakedness, but traditional markers of femininity for purely political aims. [In case you don't know: those flower garlands they wear are Ukrainian women's folk headress, which adds an interesting twist to the bare chests.]
So why the reverence of one and the hostility to the other?
I'm not really interested in how the establishment views Femen or Pussy Riot, but that the left sees them so differently is concerning.
It's hard to avoid the suspicion that there is an element of puritanism in the reaction to Femen naked breasts. It's the wrong context. In a society like the Ukraine, one that enforces the most shocking extremes of pornified femininity and supports horrific male violence, nakedness takes on a different meaning than in a society in which female bodies are forcibly hidden. Femen tactics are essentially Ukranian, and it is incorrect to compare them to, for example, PETA - who really do explicitly objectify women's bodies in essentially Anglophone cultural contexts.
As an aside, it's been a surprise and a disappointment to read almost nothing in the coverage of Femen in feminist circles, most notable Bim Adewunmi's otherwise measure piece, about their origins and cultural background. Because they are white, they just get folded into the imperialist, Islamophobic "West". But the Ukraine is not in the "West". Eastern Europe, and especially ex-Soviet states, have their own cultural trajectory and a different engagement with imperialism & post colonial analysis.
And yes that does mean that the transplantation of those tactics to Muslim countries can be problematic and clumsy; that is a valid concern. So I don't necessarily want to critique the #MuslimaPride hashtag on Twitter or the other reactions to Femen by Muslim feminists. That's a conversation that needs to happen inside Muslim feminism (especially given that it was essentially kicked off by a Muslim woman, not Femen or anyone else), and I don't think I've much of a right to comment on it.
But still, I'm kind of curious why most feminists & lefties are so much more lukewarm, if not hostile, to Femen than to Pussy Riot. Not to come over all Nick Cohen, but is it because Pussy Riot only took on the church, whereas Femen branched out into mullah bashing? Or is it because some feminists have imbibed the anti-objectification message to such a degree that the naked female body has become anathema to us? Or is it because the - literally - naked anger and hatred of Femen simply refuses to play by our rules?