12 April 2013

FEMEN is not Colonialist Feminism - at least, not without some caveats

My Tumblr feed and the feminist networks of my life have recently exploded with news about FEMEN - and for good reason. I first heard of FEMEN a few years back, when they were first showing up on the feminist blogosphere radar as an admirable radical grassroots activism group in the Ukraine. FEMEN's tactic of highly visible topless protests for women's rights and other social issues in the Ukraine (for example, I once saw something about them protesting the Kiev zoo for its mistreatment of animals) garnered a lot of attention. Quickly, though, I saw various criticisms emerge, especially about the privileges exemplified by the group and its tactics. As FEMEN's scope and size grew, so did the problems with their methods; Islamophobia and racism began to manifest themselves in FEMEN's protests and statements, cumulating in their most recent wave of large-scale anti-Muslim actions, including protesting mosques throughout Europe and releasing statements promoting the so-called "liberation" of Muslim women from Islam(ism) and the like. FEMEN has since received a lot of critique from more critical feminist groups, and has most notably sparked counter-action from Muslim women (see #muslimahpride) asserting their own autonomy and resisting FEMEN's racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic, and Western-centric approach to feminism. And another interesting phenomenon has suddenly taken place - all of the sudden, I'm hearing discussions about FEMEN that never mention its Ukranian roots.

My purpose with this post is not to deny the racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and Western-centrism in FEMEN's "feminist" campaigns. It is also also especially not to deny credit to the amazing Muslim women who've spoken up against FEMEN and its oppressive actions. I write this post in full solidarity with these individuals and movements, and in complete opposition to the problematic and oppressive messages and methodology put forth by FEMEN and other white feminist groups. Rather, my purpose is to question discussion that has framed FEMEN as a prototypical case of colonialist feminism. Specifically, I think white, non-Muslim, Western feminists need to be cautious in how we frame and discuss FEMEN and its actions. FEMEN's highly visible tactics and rapidly growing scope make them an easy group to highlight in demonstrating the problems with and manifestations of colonialist feminism; however, doing so without discussing the caveats specific to this case simply dissolves issues of complex dynamics into a highly simplistic dialectic and erases much of the larger context in which this group came to exist.

Most basically, the term "colonialist feminism" implies that it is committed by a group that commits colonialist acts or benefits from colonialism. Ukraine could fit this model in some ways, such as being a European country, and white Ukranians benefit from the white privilege structures colonialism has spread throughout the world. However, it is far from a prototypical member of this model. Ukraine has been colonized itself by the Soviet Union, and does not hold nearly the level of international power as Western European countries and the United States. Additionally, FEMEN is a fringe group generally looked-down upon and oppressed in Ukraine, both by society and government. They do not hold any amount of systematic power, and cannot compare to other instances of colonialist feminism, such as the influence of privileged USian women in promoting the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The fact that FEMEN has gotten so much more attention in critical Western feminist discussions than these and other cases demonstrates that the West is not ready to face the issues right under our nose, opting instead to criticize the groups that are more distant and removed from us.

One major element of colonialist feminism missing in FEMEN's actions is the positing of one's group as the typical "us" and and the other as the atypical, deviant, and oppressed "them". FEMEN's criticisms, on the other hand, do not point solely outwards towards Muslim women, but also call for the radical restructuring of Ukrainian legal and social attitudes towards women. In fact, FEMEN formed largely in response to the chilling situation of women in their own country, including issues such as sex trafficking and forced prostitution, as well as the complicated and terrifying political situation in many Eastern European countries today. To some extent, the status of women and feminist movements in Western European countries and the US served as the goal towards which to target their actions. FEMEN expanding their actions to target Islam and Muslims is entirely unacceptable, but it doesn't come about in a vacuum. Islamophobia and colonialist feminism in the Western world probably had a large influence on FEMEN's methods and motives, and FEMEN likely took inspiration and internalized messages from Western "feminist" groups in its formation and growth. Compared to powerful and privileged women and colonialist feminists influencing large-scale policy in the US and other Western countries, FEMEN's topless protests do little in terms of both political and ideological influence.

Additionally, FEMEN's prejudices are informed by systematic prejudices in Ukranian and other Eastern European societies. Though this does nothing to excuse FEMEN's actions, it does illuminate the need for a broader discussion of oppression dynamics in Eastern Europe. FEMEN, although highly visible, does not hold power in the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and in fact is actively oppressed by social and political forces in those regions. Nonetheless, criticism of FEMEN has been the only large-scale discussion of Islamophobia and racism in those regions that I've ever seen in Western feminist networks. Western feminists critical of Islamophobia and racism are doing nothing to highlight other much more crucial issues going on in these regions or the oppression committed by individuals and groups that hold a lot more power than FEMEN ever has or will. Discussion of FEMEN, though serious, should not be exclusive, and social issues of Eastern Europe should not fall outside the feminist radar.

In conclusion, it is not that we are criticizing FEMEN that concerns me, but how we go about it. Although FEMEN is a clear and visible example of a European white feminist group targeting Islam at the expense of Muslim women, it is not a prototypical case of colonialist feminism because of the unique dynamics of its Ukranian origin and Eastern European focus. Attempting to fit all oppressions, especially on an international scale, into neat boxes of "colonizer-vs-colonized", "Western-vs-non-western/oriental/other", "white-vs-people of color", etc. ignores the complexities of power dynamics in the world and effectively erases oppressions and issues that continue to exist. Excessive focus on the Ukrainian fringe-group FEMEN also shifts the spotlight away from more powerful forces, both perpetrators of colonialist feminism, and instituters of Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism in Eastern Europe. Though discussion of FEMEN and its oppressive means and ideology should no doubt continue, Western feminists should approach the issues with caution and question how we currently frame this case.


  1. for someone who likes philosophy you really need to go back and read some fucking foucault you dumb piece of shit

  2. just because someone has already been colonize or has no power in the white world doesn't mean that they cannot colonize others you fucking moron i cant believe i just fucking read this you fucking dumbass dont try to justify imperialism because the person pursuing it somehow fits into your ideological comfort zone