Women are lots of things. We have the nuance and capacity to be both strong and weak. We are black, we are white, and we are a spectrum of race differences. We have many sexualities. We might be transgender, we might be disabled. We may have beaten the odds, broken the class ceiling and secured a place in parliament or run a successful organisation. We might be just scraping by for now, hit hardest by the cuts and facing fortnightly visits to the jobcentre.
What women aren’t, though, is a list of the same sexist attributes consistently trotted out to undermine our gender. We are not always weak, or subservient, or vacant, and we don’t always live our lives with a strong desire to submit to the nearest patriarch.
Enter stage right, the strange case of FEMEN. It’s as much about their Islamophobic feminist activism as it is about the new revelations that a man was running their activity all along.
A recent report in The Independent reveals that their creation was not unlike manufacturing the hottest new girl band. Pick the prettiest, get them to show some flesh, put them in the papers, with an invisible man pulling the strings.
“They show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors which prevent them from becoming political activists”, said the man in question, Victor Svyatski. “These are qualities which it was essential to teach them."
The filmmaker who documented Mr Svyatski’s interactions with the women of FEMEN didn’t speak highly of his behaviour towards them. His reported gendered slurs walk the dangerous line of misogynist abuse. In an interview with documentary filmmaker Kitty Green, he even half admits to forming FEMEN in order to increase his chances of getting girls.
It leaves many who were following their activism - either with disdain or admiration - wondering if the women of FEMEN had any agency in their actions at all. That’s not a question that I can answer, but it’s no coincidence that yesterday, FEMEN activists gathered in Venice for the launch of a new documentary, all about them. You’ll probably have to watch it to find out.
The contradictory nature of FEMEN’s feminist activism proves that only a struggle based, global feminism, led by women with intersectional values, can do the job of effecting real change.
Feminism isn’t a brand. Neither is it a movement with designated leaders, though Victor Svyatski’s actions might convince you that it is one of the two. His sexist approach forces us to ask wider questions of what self-defining men can do to support feminism, and what actions serve only as a hindrance to the cause.
For anyone wishing to support a liberation movement for a group they don’t belong to, the key is a thorough analysis of structural power, and choosing to listen instead of lead. The entrenched nature of inequality is complicated. Figuring out how to challenge and address that inequality is even more so.
Men’s role in feminism really need only take place once they’ve confronted the myriad of ways they benefit from a system designed to benefit them. It begins when they’re comfortable challenging their male peers on sexist language and behaviour without fear of being ostracised. It continues when they use their personal influence and power to make their immediate environment more hospitable to women. It effects real change when hundreds and thousands of individual revolutions create a tipping point in which misogyny is no longer tolerated. That might be in a workplace, in a group of friends, or at an awkward family dinner.
It doesn’t start by creating your own male-run feminist girl group to fight your battles and do your bidding.