January 2015

Danielle Sherrod

features

An Interview with Galia Ackerman

"Ukraine is not a brothel."

It was this phrase that would become the war cry of a loose group of women in post-Soviet Ukraine that the world would later come to know as FEMEN. In ways that often tipped Western feminists on their toes, FEMEN became recognized for their protests and performances that often involved bare-breasted members covering their bodies in political slogans. They used humor, shock, and any tactic that would grab the attention of those they felt could improve the conditions of Ukrainian women and shake people from their complacency about what "feminism" meant.

FEMEN not only pissed off the larger political forces of their own country, garnering everything from jail time for hooliganism to daily death threats but also quickly came under scrutiny from feminists and activists around the globe. Between claims of being a poster group backed by a wealthy, misogynistic man, to the controversial documentary, to claims of Islamaphobia and using a very certain acceptable body politic, FEMEN, it seemed, was both a breakthrough and a breakdown and, no matter what group you found your own politic in, controversial.

But "controversial" is an easy word that can be thrown on top of anything that doesn't necessarily fit with a public politic. It doesn't get at the heart of any matter.

Which is why I interviewed Galia Ackerman, the journalist who worked with original FEMEN members Anna Hutso, Oksana Shachko, Alexandra Shevchenko, and Inna Shevchenko to produce the book, FEMEN. Ackerman's day-to-day interactions with FEMEN seemed to be the catalyst that could provide a clearer look into the group, as well as their missteps and critical moments. But the thing about working day to day with someone? You tend to start to like them. It's one of the more difficult aspects of journalism, one that this writer most definitely has struggled with. How does one keep a critical eye on that which may appeal to us?

I wondered with Ackerman if the book addressed the controversies that surround FEMEN. I poked in the bushes where most journalists don't care to go: Are you biased about your subject? I presented the challenge of wondering why one would refuse to engage in feminist theory despite writing about (whether positive or negative) a very real corner of feminism and feminist history. It's hard as an interviewer to ask questions and to get a very set guideline of feedback. This can get even trickier due to language barriers. You want to assume people will tell their own truth.

It's never that easy.

I can't speak for Ackerman. Perhaps the interview will. But I will say that, as writers, we have a duty to seek out and uncover, even if that leaves us exposed.

How is it that you came to cover FEMEN and develop a relationship with FEMEN? What was the catalyst for wanting to cover them?

It was not my initiative. I was contacted by the editor, Calmann-Levy, with the proposal to make a book working with the four girls who founded the movement. I met them, liked them, and they liked me. So we did the project. For me, the main interest was to understand how young people in a post-Soviet state come to Marxism and to a radical ideology.

When I say the word "FEMEN" to most of my peers -- writers, feminists, activists -- there is a severe mixed reaction, anything from feeling that FEMEN really defines a very certain form of feminism, of feminism's relationship to the body, of Ukrainian politics, to the feeling that FEMEN is Islamaphobic, is only using a certain type of body, and has its own host of internal issues (the controversy over being formed by a man). Contextually speaking, these are American views, so we do have that idea that "our way" is often the best way. Have you found a similar divide while covering FEMEN? What has the perception of FEMEN been regarding your own peers, or national climate? Furthermore, how can you describe this divide?

I think FEMEN are poorly understood. They are not Islamophobic, but antireligious, which is their Marxist heritage. They think any religion helps to oppress women. They did not know much about feminism when they created their movement. Indeed, it is very simple: for them, a woman fighter must be sporty, intelligent, and courageous. It is not about beauty, but about fitness. What they are doing is very physical indeed.

In covering them, you really were with the members sort of day in, day out. What was the bulk of what you were witnessing?

I was not. I met them one after the other for many days, in my own house. We talked a lot. But I witnessed very little: some trainings, some public meetings, and one or two actions.

Visually, FEMEN really strikes a chord with second wave feminism in America. You have these very aggressive images, often of women being attacked by men (I'm thinking of the photograph like of a topless woman with "fuck your morals" on her body, being kicked by a man, or FEMEN members being violently arrested by police). It also brings to mind the Slutwalks we had here a few years ago and the severe reaction towards them. Visually, how important has the documentation of FEMEN's work been?

Indeed, their actions exist only when they are documented. So they always take care to make it film and photograph. They have a site where you can find all their actions, in detail.

Going back to Slutwalk, one of the main criticisms was the fact that it was very flamboyant, almost too much so. It was criticized as many things, but mostly the idea that because it was sexualized, and to what many feel they cannot relate to on a radical level -- a slut -- it failed in that respect. "Shock feminism" it seems is what people are most comfortable calling such actions. Do you feel that FEMEN, maybe in a similar fashion, has gone to similar actions? Or that "shock feminism" is a tactic that shouldn't be used?

The media everywhere look always for something new. So the girls were in a way obliged to go always further, to be more and more spectacular in order to continue to be newsmakers. A part of their radicalism can be explained this way. But they do not try to make themselves sexy. When a half-naked woman is entirely covered with graffiti, is there really a sex appeal?

The female body is something that will never ever be just "neutral" it seems -- and it definitely has been discussed, almost to death, by writers like Helene Cixous, Susie Orbach, and so on. Many might argue that FEMEN is still relying on acceptable bodies to relay a message, with the counter argument being, as a woman, there really isn't ever going to be a thing such as an "acceptable body," unless very certain forces control it. How have you reconciled this in the book? Do you feel this has been strength of FEMEN's? A weakness? Beside the point?

As I already said, FEMEN do not seek for especially beautiful fighters. None of them could be a fashion model. But they are young, sporty, and slim, like most of young women.

You yourself had declared the group all but dead a few months ago, between the recent documentary that aired, key members leaving, and the group's reactions to criticism over Islamaphobia. How is FEMEN faring now and what do you see not only for the future of the group, but from your coverage, the shaping of feminist politics in the region?

Well, it is difficult to say. There are different groups in the world now, one of them is in France, and its leader is Inna who directs a few French followers. They might survive for a while, but my feeling is they do not have the necessary strength to form a truly international organization, like Greenpeace, for instance. I think they were not ready to work in a Western country.

In covering FEMEN, have you become personally involved in the group or the message that they convey? Or have you found it easy to separate the coverage of them with your own personal politic?

I am a professional journalist and I adore conducting long interviews. You must feel empathy when you are interviewing a person, even if you dislike his or her ideas. Everybody has something to feel empathy about. That is a general consideration. As for FEMEN, I liked the girls personally, some of them more, some less. I admired very much their courage and their desire to make something useful of their lives. One should see what a dull place with no prospective is a provincial Ukrainian town to understand how incredibly brave and inventive they are. But I am not a Marxist and not a feminist fighter, even though I am for equality of sexes and find the combat for this equality very important.

Have any of your own ideas or beliefs on feminism or globalism -- any -ism, really -- changed in the process of writing this book?

We live in a consumer society that is the very negation of idealism. And these girls are idealistic. The writing of this book did not change my state of mind, but confirmed me in my belief that one can still be idealist in our epoch.

Mostly, what are you hoping for readers to take away from this book?

I think it is a very interesting story. These girls made incredible experiences, they are brave and strong and they have a purpose in life. For instance, their trip to Bielorussia was absolutely fantastic, and very dangerous. Whatever their future, they are already part of the Feminism history, but also part of Ukrainian and post-Soviet history.