Yesterday, FEMEN took their topless fight for “total victory over patriarchy” to the Tour de France as it zoomed through London. I was told that the group would be in Westminster at 3PM. Uncertain what bicycles have to do with the oppression of women, I went to check it out.
As it happens, it probably had very little to do with the tour. This was just a public arena guaranteed to be packed with people. But when I got to the statue it wasn’t all that busy. No more busy than say, Oxford Street, or a particularly busy Pret during lunch hour.
But, luckily for FEMEN, seemingly as many photojournalists were there too, waiting for their shot. They hung around looking bored, smoking and occasionally clocking each other.
At 3PM on the dot, three FEMEN protesters appeared in the square from behind us. They were mostly naked. One of them was still scrambling out of her trousers. They immediately start screaming their slogan of the afternoon: “Punished by God. Forgotten by Society”.
Those in earshot turned to watch as the women stood there, fists raised for about a minute.
At this point, I’m still didn’t know what they were they were protesting. Then the chant changed to “Stop FGM” – Female Genital Mutilation – the women turned and walked towards the metal fence, the same slogan painted across their backs. Suddenly their red painted pants made morbid sense.
The women are taken over the fence and towards the centre of the empty cordoned off road. A few more people have turned around now and tourists are watching from the safety of the green.
The police manhandled the protesters, which is never pleasant, but the distressed struggling of the FEMEN activists seemed to be more theatre for the cameras than genuine anguish. Photographers filled their boots, as did tourists on cameraphones.
Unsurprisingly, everything was exaggerated and sexualised – facial expressions, movements, body positions. Backs were arched, pushing tits to the fore.
“You’re hurting me!” screamed an activist. Maybe she was. But the cops appeared to be treating them calmly and gently – if anything, with a vague air of boredom. The photos turned out like a mix between fantasy sorority pillow fight from a bro movie, only with a frisson of police brutality. But being there IRL, it all felt fairly prosaic.
As the police bundled people into vans, I asked some bystanders what they thought the protest was about. Santiago, 27, from Spain, said, “I have no idea. No fucking idea.” I asked Rhianna Saunders, 15, from Birmingham the same question. She told me, “EDM, I think.” They weren’t calling for an end to stupid American terminology in dance music, but it was better than nothing. Bill and Matt Graeff from Philadelphia didn’t know either, telling me: “We’re from America. We don’t have a clue.”
By half 3, the latest FEMEN protest was over and Tour de France was left to continue. It’s estimated that 24,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of female genital mutilation in the UK, so in a way, any effort to raise awareness is worthwhile, but I'm not sure how effective or well thought out yesterday's protest was.
Whether their self-branded “sextremist” tactics are progressive and radical, or self-exploitative and contradictory is one debate. But either way, is it enough anymore? For a while I’ve wondered if both the media and public have become desensitised to FEMEN’s routine. No doubt, attractive bare-chested young women sell papers – it’s a photo story regardless of whether or not there's a story. But with even lad's mags now deciding that there are better ways to shift copies than a pair of tits, I wonder if FEMEN could change their tactics. In a weird way, there are parallels between my thoughts on FEMEN's tactics and my reaction to FGM – the scandal is so endlessly depressing and horrifying that you can become numb to it. All of which is a shame, because FGM desperately needs to be stopped. But I'm not sure FEMEN's protest really made that point any more clear, or just created a media spectacle that even the media are mostly bored of.
Watch – FEMEN – Sextremism in Paris