FEMEN activists speak to media in front of a mosque during a protest in Berlin, Thursday, April 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
This spring, Tunisia saw the first topless protests in the history of the Arab World.
Three activists from the group FEMEN—self-proclaimed sextremists now internationally famous for protesting the sex industry, dictatorships and religious institutions with slogans written in black marker across their bare breasts—stood in front of the Justice Ministry in the capital city of Tunis and ripped off their shirts to reveal the slogan “Breasts Feed Revolution” scrawled across their bodies. Bystanders attempted to cover the women, whose usually controversial protest was even more incendiary in the Islam-influenced Arab capital.
The protests were a follow up to the “Topless Jihad”—a day organized in support of Amina Tyler, a 19-year-old FEMEN activist from Tunisia who, after posting two topless photographs of herself on Facebook, was forced to go into hiding after receiving lashing and death threats from Adel Almi, a prominent Islamic cleric and the president of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Tunisia who called for her to be “punished according to Sharia Law.”
Although well-meaning, the actions were culturally clumsy, invoking inflammatory Arab and Muslim stereotypes and clichés, with topless women wearing towels as turbans and penciling unibrows and beards on their faces. In Paris, one woman burned the Salafist flag in front of a mosque. In front of Tunisian embassies and ordinary mosques around Europe, FEMEN activists—most of whom were not Arab or Muslim—ripped off their clothes and proclaimed, “Our tits are deadlier than your stones!”
FEMEN’s history predates the controversy surrounding its activism in the Arab world. Although FEMEN’s harshest critics accuse the group of operating in the colonialist tradition of white, Western feminists travelling to the Middle East to “save” and “liberate” women from Islam, FEMEN actually originated in the Ukraine, and, while its members are predominantly white, the group’s politics are rooted in the post-Soviet politics of Eastern Europe, not Western Europe. Their first cause was the burgeoning, often exploitative sex trade and tourism that emerged after the fall of communism in the Ukraine.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, economic opportunities in the Ukraine were scarce for everyone—particularly women. Many women, often those who migrated from the rural parts of the Ukraine to cities like Kiev and Odessa for a better life, turned to sex work after realizing that, given the economic conditions and gender dynamics of the Ukraine, this was their best option for a reliable income.
In 2005, the visa requirements for foreign tourists coming to the Ukraine were lifted—and foreign men flooded the Ukrainian cities to see one of the country’s chief tourist attractions: beautiful women. Kiev and Odessa had become veritable Ukrainian versions of Bangkok—although less expensive and more accessible for European patrons. Sex tourism—and the sex industry at large—flourished.
The sex industry has generated many lasting social problems in the Ukraine. The HIV rate there is the highest in Europe, and it is the only country where most of the transmission is through sexual intercourse, rather than drug use. Many of those drawn into the sex industry are not women, but girls—contributing to one of the largest child porn and prostitution industry in the world. An estimated 30 percent of the Ukraine’s prostitutes are under the age of 18, with 11 percent as young as 11 years old.