Last month the Atlantic ran a profile of the Ukrainian activist group Femen which is worth your consideration (and I mean read the article, don’t just look at the pictures). The group has become (in)famous for conducting demonstrations on a variety of issues ranging from prostitution and human trafficking to religion, the environment and economic issues. Sure, lots of groups protest issues like this but none do it like Femen. Femen does it in various states of undress (usually topless) which guarantees generous media attention and (equally important) interesting responses from security officials.
I’m unsure if Femen arrived at their strategy independently or if they took a page from the playbook of CANVASS (Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies) but they hit upon one of the central tenets of success for a small activist movement in a state with a significant security apparatus: make the security forces appear foolish and play the role of bullies in order to undermine their authority.
And there are few ways to do that then to have lots of photos and film of big, burly cops, loaded for bear manhandling half naked women. ‘Why did they need three cops to throw that girl to the ground and cuff her?’ Well, you’d have a pretty tough time claiming it was because she might have a concealed weapon. Even if the security forces aren’t too heavy handed in their approach Femen can always take a page from professional soccer and ham it up for the cameras making a walk to the squad car look like a torture session at Gitmo.
For better or worse, one of the very things Femen most objects to, the patriarchal society, is their greatest source of strength. Show a half dozen 20 something men getting roughly handled by police and no one will blink an eye. Show the same number of half naked young women getting treated that way and the image itself is likely to elicit sympathy regardless of the politics. It is the very image of the weak against the strong which tugs at our deeply held beliefs in fairness and reason for society.
And we’ve seen similar things recently in protest movements here. If you think back to the Occupy movement, which were the images which roused the strongest emotion? The two girls who were trapped and then pepper sprayed by the NYPD. The students who were sitting down and casually sprayed by the now notorious Lieutenant John Pike. The veteran who was shot in the head.
All cases of people who clearly posed no threat yet were the victims from a security service which clumsily used its power. We’ll have to see if these protest movements are just interesting footnotes or can actually lead to change (or, at least keep opposition movements alive until they can generate the numbers and influence to present a serious challenge the status quo.