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FEMEN and the Protest

10 April 2013

It is interesting that the reproduction of a FEMEN protest has done exactly what they wanted: to provoke shock and response! (Most response is positive, by the way).

There are many takes on FEMEN. I have heard older feminists saying that this is not what women have fought for: to go bare our bodies, even if for political aims. I have heard many more, particularly younger feminists, lauding the bravery of these Ukraine-based women, whose protests were born out of the normalised misogyny that underpins Ukrainian society. Confront your tormentor with the focus of such torment: your female body.

Feminist protests look different everywhere. Stating that your body belongs only to you by undressing yourself is one way of protesting against a patriarchal society. WILPF does not argue that all women must do the same: there are a million different ways of working for women’s rights. We do not say you need to undress to be a feminist. But we are saying that any woman has the right to undress if she wants to, just as you have the right to wear whatever you want to.

Whatever we personally think, it has to be recognised that FEMEN women make a point: they have revived protests of a different kind. Moreover, the issues they draw attention to, sometimes through shocking protests, are all the things that are actually debated in such places as the Human Rights Council and the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Their unusual communication strategy is successful in bringing up many of the Human Rights that we are all aiming for.

Facebook postTheir protest was aimed at showing support for Amina Tyler, a Tunisian woman who had been targeted after posting topless pictures online. She received death threats and religious leaders called for her stoning or flogging, on the basis of her “immorality”.  You can call me old-fashioned, but I simply do not get how a man can enjoy the freedom of his religion to demand the death of a women who is merely exerting her own rights to her own body.  This is not cultural relativism; it is old-fashioned patriarchy.

The message of FEMEN women is feminist and international. They have a go at anything that is used to discriminate, victimise and oppress women. If you look at what they have done, you will see that they are at odds with as diverse (or actually, not so diverse) a group of men as the Pope, the Patriarch and Putin. They are against patriarchy.

I don’t see this protest as anti-Muslim. Not at all. Instead, it demonstrates that women in every region of the world should not accept unquestioningly ideas that cultural rules and religious beliefs are excuses for abandoning a women’s right to her own body. It is about protecting women’s rights in the face of a backlash dressed up as “traditional values”, religion, security or protection of the family.

Saying that it is fine for us to control our bodies, to have freedom of movement and to have access to sexual and reproductive rights, whist pointing out that our Muslim sisters have different rules, is simply unacceptable. That is not their interpretation of Islam. They need our support, rather than our solidarity with the misogyny expressed by the political Islam towards what is “Western”.

We need to pay attention to who is lining up to roll back the progress that women have made in all the multilateral fora. We are talking about the Vatican, Russia and the unreconstructed Islamic states of the MENA region, in particular Egypt. We should be addressing ourselves to them, not to a feminist organisation, which is being brave enough to challenge them all very publicly.

The debate is much more subtle than this. We all know how culture is used to condition women into certain ways of behaviour and we are aware that breaking the rules may lead to marginalisation and worse. We could list so many oppressive practices perpetrated by all systems and by all cultures. That is why we are constantly opposing all attempts by any state or non-state body to prevent women from enjoying their rights. To be reductionist is to miss the point.

I would hope that WILPF, as THE organisation in the world that took the lead in opposing all violence, all war, all root causes of war and that demanded of members that they be suffragists, will not seek to censor the views of others and the way in which they choose to protest.

Instead of focusing on which way of expressing feminism and women’s rights is the correct one, we must accept that women around the world work in different ways and under different circumstances. What we DO need to focus on is the fight against patriarchy and the promotion of the right of women to choose freely how to act, dress and speak, regardless of religion or nationality.

There will always be heated discussion as to the ways and means of achieving our aims. That is as it should be. How we have that debate and how we deal with differences is fundamental to the outcome. Censorship and rejection do not help at all. We are bigger, much bigger than that!

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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