- Published on Monday, 19 September 2011 13:54
- Category: Articles and Commentary
- Written by Piotr Pogorzelski
The Ukrainian women movement Femen is not an academic debate, nor a manifestation organized on the International Women’s Day on March 8th. Ukrainian women want to solve their basic needs and do it in a loud, vociferous, provocative, and, above all, feminine way.
In June 2008, at Independence Square (the main square in Kiev) two girls in swimming suits showed up. They climbed the water fountains shouting: “There is no water in the tap – wash yourself in Majdan (name for independence square)!” They were protesting against the policy of switching off hot water in the student dorms during the exam period – this policy was part of a “prevention” programme, also known in the communist Poland. This was the first appearance of the Femen movement, a student feminist organization. Later, more protests took place – the most often discussed problem was prostitution among Ukrainian women. These demonstrations did not take the form of a passive show of some slogans or listening to music sponsored by political parties, as is the case in the majority of social organizations in the country. Instead, they took the form of incidents. In front of the Afghan Embassy the girls were breaking empty plates to draw attention to the fate of Afghan women tyrannized by their men, while in the autumn they got engaged in the issue of sexual harassment at the universities by holding signs “Institute of Prostitution”, “Exam butts”, “Pass the exam – blow job for a grade”. This last manifestation ended with a very strict reaction from some universities whose authorities disallowed their students to participate in Femen.
Equal rights: A problem for later
The loudest are anti-prostitution initiatives organized under the slogan “Ukraine is not a brothel”. Their participants are most often provocatively dressed, showing their cleavage, wearing strong make-up, high-heels – they look like the Ukrainian girls who live in the countryside and when they move to Kiev they think this is the way one should dress. It happens that Western tourists, also those from Poland, think they are prostitutes. According to a poll conducted by Femen almost two thirds of women ages 17-22 have been asked by foreigners for sex in exchange for money.
Chrystyna Nowicka, supporter of the movement, reports that there are situations when girls cannot enjoy themselves undisturbed in a club because they are harassed by men who right away want to take them to bed. The Turks have, in this case, gained for themselves the worst reputation. Hence, a protest in front of Turkish Embassy. In September 2009, activists dressed as hospital nurses were offering the procedure of enema to all unfulfi lled players. “We will destroy sex tourism with bromine” – they shouted.
“The movement does not deal with wasting grants or empty discussions on feminism” states the leader of Femen, Anna Gutsol.
She emphasizes that issues whether to use the term “chairman” or “chairperson” will be dealt in the Ukraine only after the most basic problems are solved.
“I can start working on it that men do not let me first in the door, but this will not decrease the number of brothels in the Ukraine. There is an issue, there is a problem, we prepare a poster and start a protest. The girls prepare these manifestations themselves with very low costs incurred. No party of private business supports them. The election campaign has started, the candidates suggested us some forms of cooperation, but we do not want that. Once you start working with a political party, you lose credibility.”
Femen is one of the largest Ukrainian NGOs which were created from the beginning by ordinary people and not by politicians or marketing experts.
Sex for a drink
Although initiatives undertaken by Femen and the atmosphere around them may cause some controversies, nonetheless they point to an important problem of today’s Ukraine that is being silenced by the Government. A low standard of living, a weak currency, and the lack of prospects are reasons why some girls see in prostitution the only way of life. The police estimate that about twelve thousand women offer sex for money, while the non-governmental organization say the number is even higher. At the moment, the law only punishes the prostitutes and their pimps – fines are nonetheless very low and quite often “protection” is offered by the police. The most famous of such cases was last year in Lviv where the prostitutes rebelled against the policemen. Femen would like to change the law in such a way that the clients are also punished and the foreigners deported.
Such a decision is already supported by some MPs. The activists are expecting an increase in the number of sex tourists when the Ukraine hosts Euro 2012. Already now more and more tourists visit the Ukraine. Their number has significantly increased after the visa programme was waived for all EU and American citizens. Kiev and other Ukrainian cities have so far been saved by crowds of drinking Brits but this is probably due to the fact they are not on the route of budget airlines. And yet in the spring, summer, and early autumn one can see many foreigners in the main street of Kiev, Khreshchatyk, who hang around and pick up girls. In the evenings they move to discos and clubs which sometimes look more like slave fairs. “It usually starts with “polishing the language”, buying drinks and ends somewhere in a hotel – reports a 30-year old Kiev resident Tetiana.
Anna Gutsol argues that the girls who agree to sex for a cocktail drink do not understand that they cross a thin boarder, which usually leads them to the street. For those with higher standards there are “matrimonial agencies” – in fact, simple brothels. I distribute handouts in streets and near hotels stating that in the Ukraine prostitution is illegal. Before Independence Day in August 2009 the girls were protesting, shouting that the country has no right to celebrate as long as every fourth prostitute in Europe comes from the Ukraine and their country is the continental leader in terms of HIV/AIDS cases. This is another problem which has been brought to light in the Ukraine thanks to NGOs, and to the weak state. Every day seven people suffering from AIDS die here and the spread of the disease is the fastest out of all Eastern Europe. According to UN data there are between 340 to 350 thousand people with HIV, which makes it almost 2 per cent of Ukraine’s adult population.
To stop the spread of prostitution concrete initiatives will be needed not only by such organizations as Femen or the government. It is necessary to change people’s mentality. Femen activists emphasize that so far in the Ukraine, similarly to other countries of the former Soviet Union, a woman who married rich is treated as an example to follow.
Piotr Listerman, a Russian, who searches for rich Western businessmen for women receives around 200 letters from interested women on a daily basis. Some call him a “pimp”, he claims that he trades with “fur gold”. Nonetheless, his biggest failure was here in the Ukraine – a singer and a Playboy model – Dasha Astafieva refused his service.
“When it comes to love the size of the pocket does not matter. I do not believe that somebody who will pay a few millions for me, will understand my inner world” explains Astafieva.
One can have a similar impression of Femen activists. They say “we have a right to be women, we have a right to be provocative, but it does not mean that we have to be treated like prostitutes!”
“Here women dress in a provocative way, this is our culture and that is why we say that we have a right to dress this way. In Muslim countries women wear burkas, our women wear mini-skirts, which does not mean that they are prostitutes. We simply have such a bazaar-looking style – explains Gutsol.
Doctor Iryna Chudovska of Kiev’s Shevchenko University says that Ukrainian women live at the crossroads of East and West: on the one hand they are trying to be more liberated, on the other hand, they take care of their houses, feed their men. In the Ukrainian folk costume there is even an element reminiscent of a Central Asian or Middle Eastern burka. More often one can see from behind it a face of an ambitious woman who knows her rights. Changes have been taking place, but unfortunately, as is the case in the Ukraine, very slowly.
Doctor Iryna Chudovska adds that Femen is another organization that deals with only one sphere of the women’s liberation fight. She accuses the activists of being inconsistent and superficial in their work – they signal a problem, but they don’t aim at solving it. Chudovska believes that the Ukraine, until now, has not had a feminist organization similar to the ones in Poland or other EU countries. Girls from Femen have already showed interests in the Polish Women’s Party and it is possible that they will follow their route. In the near future the movement wants to gain supporters in other Ukrainian cities, especially those that will host Euro 2012.
More on the Femen movement is available on: http://femen.livejournal.com/
Piotr Pogorzelski is a Polish Radio correspondent in Kiev.
Pogorzelski, P. Ukraina to nie dom publiczny // Nowa Europa Wschodnia, 2 (X) 2010.