Teresa Riemann and Theresa Lehmann are activists in the radical and controversial feminist organisation Femen. They walk the thin line between provocative demonstration and pornography while fighting for equality by exposing their breasts in public. Sensa Nostra speaks to them about their fight to relegate patriarchy to the history books.
Femen is a radical feminist movement that aspires to smash patriarchy. We regain the power over our bodies by using them as weapons. It is not that people see the female body as a weapon — it is a weapon. People treat breasts as if they are dangerous, believing they should be covered and kept safely out of sight. We, on the other hand, are displaying them in order to achieve our goals. The idea comes from a very emotional place, from a need to change something. Getting naked is not about an intellectual thought, but rather about a feeling that something is not right, and it makes us angry.
Female nudity is the center of our protest. On the one hand it symbolizes that we don’t have any weapons with us, ‘just’ our bodies. But on the other hand, we are standing there in a certain form — we are not allowed to smile — and we really making a strong image. This mix of the weak and exposed, and yet strong, is just unbeatable.
The end goal is the freedom and equality of all people, regardless of gender or race. We want a society where there is no suppression of anyone by anyone. To be more specific, we want the same salaries for the work we do, we want to be accepted everywhere with no glass ceilings, and prostitution has to be abolished. The attitude towards prostitution in Germany is way too liberal, and I would even say romanticized. People are not aware of how women, especially from Eastern European countries, are being used there, just because men in our privileged society feel like they have the right to have sex. To address this, currently we are running a campaign under the headline “You Don’t Buy, I Don’t Sell”. As part of it, we carried out a demonstration in front of the biggest brothel in Berlin and chained ourselves to the entrance so no one could go in or out.
Femen started in 2008 in Ukraine, targeting sex tourism nationally. The situation there is so severe, that any woman could be asked, “how much do you cost?” when she is just walking in the street. In the beginning, it was just an ordinary organization, arranging events and giving away flyers. And then, when we saw it wasn’t working, or changing anything, we began to look for more radical forms of action. The question was: do we want to tickle patriarchy, or do we want to kick it in the face?
The idea of using nudity as our weapon was practically handed over to us by patriarchy. The fact that it is associated with so many taboos is exactly what makes it so powerful. As a woman, if you take your top off at the beach, it feels like you are cheating on your boyfriend or something, because everyone will look at your naked body. Your body always belongs to someone else, and you can feel that. Many women feel uncomfortable walking in the streets because of the beautiful advertisements with photoshopped bodies and naked women everywhere. It is never disconnected from a sexual context, and it is always intended to please someone else. When women leave parts of themselves uncovered in public, for whatever reason, they are constantly asked: “Why did you show your naked body?”, “Why did you go outside with a short skirt?”, and then told: “It’s your fault you got raped”.
In Arab countries, women always have to be completely covered up, since they remain the property of the man. This is one key element of patriarchy, and that’s why we take the female body to the public. Have you ever seen a strong naked woman? Try to name one. We want to change the meaning of an exposed female body. You never see a naked female body that is presented as strong, and not as submissive. Think about calendars for men and for women. On calendars for women you see naked, pumped-up men in strong positions. Of course, this is what they say that women want. But then you look at the Playboy one and you see women standing in submissive and tempting ways. They are always trying to attract men and never trying to be themselves. It is in these moments, when we expose ourselves for a political goal that we believe in, that I feel the most at one with my body.
We are often being asked: don’t we think that we use our body in the same way, to achieve something? I think it’s stupid. The female body is being objectified for everything — to sell sex, to sell cars, to sell chairs, even to sell fish burgers. How can one call it objectification when I use my body for what I am? I am not an object; I am doing it of my own will. Is it even possible for me to objectify my body for my own beliefs? It’s just not logical. The fact that we are being asked that just underscores the times in which we live. Our bodies are being abused and objectified every day, and this is the only occasion in which they are not being used — they are ours and they are free. We believe that nudity is not an issue, and when female nudity is not considered scandalous anymore, then the problem will be solved.
We receive a lot of criticism about our actions. We are not very popular among feminist groups, so we don’t really have the chance to cooperate with such organizations. We are also mostly criticized by organizations that operate on a theoretical level. But I can understand that. If you are just writing books, of course you think it is wrong to actually do something; how can one make something right in a world that is so completely wrong? Some people criticize us because they can’t deal with strong women standing up for what they believe in. But the bottom line is that even those who criticize us have respect for our actions — because they understand that what we do is quite badass. Everybody knows what’s wrong, and yet hardly anyone does anything. No one else is able to go to Putin and say, “Fuck you — we all know you’re a dictator and we don’t want you here,” to his face.
I am quite hopeful. We showed the world this year that a person like Putin is not untouchable, which was a very important step. People may underestimate us, but one thing is for sure — we hit where it hurts. We bring human rights and feminism back to the streets and back to collective consciousness. The media still might see us as a short-time phenomenon, but patriarchy is still here, so therefore we won’t be a short-time phenomenon. I know it will have to develop in some way and we will have to see where it goes, but it will definitely remain. We will not be quitters. The fight against patriarchy is going to be a long one.