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Topless thrill-seekers or gutsy feminists?

INTERVIEW. Last weekend the scene-stealing FEMEN returned to the spotlight with an action against Berlin's incredibly strange March for Life. Here two Berlin members hold forth on the male gaze, the media and their "topless Jihad".

Image for Topless thrill-seekers or gutsy feminists?
Photo by Rasa Urnieziute

Ruth Schneider sits down with two Berlin FEMEN members for a candid chat.

We arranged to meet at Ankerklause. Theresa Lehmann arrives first, her friendly rosy face framed by pink flowers, her secondhand bike saddled with a large backpack, a bucket of glue and rolled-up posters. The 23-year-old English studies graduate from Tübingen has been doing odd jobs since she arrived in Berlin last February; today, she’s postering around Maybachufer. Klara Martens joins us a few minutes later, and I instantly recognise the small blonde with steely eyes who appeared on talk shows after baring her breasts at Berlin’s Barbie Dreamhouse to protest the values conveyed by the plastic proprietress. Dressed in casual shorts and espadrilles, the 22-year-old third-generation Berlinerin carries a tiny handbag containing the FEMEN photo shoot essentials: mini capsules of carnival makeup and two flower headbands that could have been stolen from a toddler’s toy chest. In no time the two girls have devised a slogan and painted it on each other’s arms.

Of course we read about feminism, but we can’t write entire books on our bodies!

Relieved that we don’t ask them to jump into the water (as Bild am Sonntag had the preceding week) they give themselves to the camera with natural application. A founding member of the German ‘cell’ with seven actions under her belt since last November, Martens is a pro. In the blink of an eye, the unassuming student metamorphoses into a poster FEMEN “sextremist”: feet firmly planted on the ground, eyes transfixed in an implacable stare, fists in the air. Lehmann, who’s still fresh to the movement, is a bit of a giggler. “You’re grinning again!” her friend scolds jokingly. Dozens of shots later, we’re back at the canal-side café. They order Club Mates and dive into our discussion with the same candour they displayed during the photo shoot. As a FEMEN skeptic, I had some negative apprehension towards the ‘media-exhibitionist’ feminists. But my earlier reservations about a movement that seems to have accomplished little but the self-celebration and fame of its own participants has morphed into genuine sympathy for those two serious girls sipping their hipster sodas.

Klara, at the Barbie Dreamhouse protest you climbed onto the stiletto-shaped fountain with “Life in plastic is not fantastic” scribbled on your bare breasts…

Klara Martens: …Yeah, and then she [Theresa] set the Barbie on fire and gave it to me. And I screamed…

Theresa Lehmann: …“Being Barbie is not a job!” And then we burned the idol.

Why did you decide to do that?

KM: Because we don’t like the role model: baking cupcakes, going shopping and being beautiful for Ken, that’s Barbie. That’s not something we, as women, stand for.

But do you think that Berlin’s tacky pink tent deserved so much attention? You gave them free publicity!

KM: A lot of parents might now think twice before they decide to bring their kids. Hopefully they’re afraid to go there…

Afraid that their kids will see a naked breast?

KM: Maybe. Or they are afraid of what people will say – they might start thinking about it…

So, you are guilt-tripping them?

TL: Why not?!

KM: Yeah, and since they’re planning to go to other cities, maybe if they don’t make enough money here, Berlin will be their first and last stop.

How did people react to that action? Like mothers with their kids?

KM: There were only two kids. The funny thing is that on that day they had 30 paying visitors and 300 people protesting!

You kind of looked like a grunge Barbie doll…

KM: Exactly, I’m the only blond FEMEN in Germany. [Laughs] And everyone said, “You are the Barbie, you have to do the Barbie action.”

So, that was actually ironic?

KM: Yes, that was ironic. I had to wear makeup like Barbie. Blue eyeshadow, pink lipstick – I looked terrible!

Isn’t FEMEN’s focus on looks a little counter-productive from a feminist point of view?

KM: Dressing nicely and wearing makeup doesn’t make you a Barbie.

What is the difference between you and a Barbie?

TL: The difference between me and Barbie? [Laughs] I’ve got a normal body, not anorexic skinny. I don’t aspire to be a housewife, looking after my Ken. And I’m definitely not as pink as Barbie.

KM: My whole life isn’t focussed on a guy. I’m a blonde, and I’m a feminist!

What is most important to you as a feminist?

TL: My personal goal is fighting the patriarchy. And also domestic violence and the rape culture thing.

KM: I want the same rights as men in every situation. I want the same money for the same job. I want to get the same ‘look’ from people. How a man looks at a woman or a man… there shouldn’t be a difference.

Yet as “sextremists”, you’re definitely putting forward specifically female attributes, serving up all the machos in the world with what they like to reduce women to: their breasts!

TL: We play with that. We want people to get confused, to start thinking. If they see your breasts, they see the message on them and they have to read it.

KM: And when people look past the photos, they see the texts and why we did the action. And if one guy sitting on the toilet starts thinking for just five minutes about why we are doing the action, we have reached our goal.

Aren’t you afraid that at the end of the day people see cute girls’ breasts, not the message?

KM: We are not an object, we’re subjects. We choose what we put on our breasts. We are not advertising and we don’t put ourselves in a sexy pose. We are strong and we are fighting and we are shouting.

TL: I don’t think we look erotic when we show our breasts. We look strong.

I understand that you don’t see yourselves as objects, but whether you are a subject or object is also, maybe primarily, in the viewer’s gaze…

KM: But they know that women can stand up for their own rights with their whole body. The slogan doesn’t matter.

TL: A lot of people are talking about feminism again and that’s great. They are conscious again, they are aware that something has to be done. A lot of people got angry about us and we take that as a good sign because there is something happening in their heads.

But how provocative do you think you are? In Germany, showing your breasts can’t be such a shocking thing.

KM: It still works. We are in every newspaper! When we started out we did think that maybe it wouldn’t be that provocative to Germans anymore. But we were shocked by people’s reactions. People do say, “Oh my God, you can’t show your breasts.”

TL: There is still a lot of shame about that.

And what’s your parents’ reaction when they see you topless in tabloids like Bild or BZ?

TL: The first time I did an action, my mum was visiting me. The next day she looked at all the papers, and then she messaged all her friends: “Theresa is in Bild”!

KM: My mother collects every article. She respects what I do even though she doesn’t like every action. But she likes most of them, and she understands why we do it. And I think she is also a bit proud…

What about your dad?

KM: Well, my dad is not against it. He just thinks I shouldn’t sacrifice my studies for it…

Were you ever scared during or before an action?

KM: I was scared before the Putin action. We didn’t know the place before – just that it was a big fair in Hanover. We didn’t know how Putin’s security would react. They could have shot us.

So what happened?

KM: It all went very fast. We agreed to text each other but Alexandra [Shevchenko] just started off, so I jumped in as well. Basically, I undressed behind a security guard and ran through his legs. Then a woman grabbed me – I struggled, and I ran again a few times. In the end they caught me and handed me over to the police. But one of Putin’s guards, and you see it in one of the videos, wrestled Josephine [Witt] down and his pistol fell out of his pocket.

You are quoted everywhere as saying that you came so close to Putin that you could have killed him.

KM: Yeah. It’s true. It was a normal fair. We were not searched…

Putin did act as if he enjoyed the show…

KM: Yeah, but he is a KGB agent. He’s been trained to not show his real feelings. I don’t think he was as cool with it as he pretended to be.

What happened next?

KM: They took us to the police station at the fair. The police were very nice to us. They made us coffee and said, “Oh, the first photos are online, do you want to see how crazy Putin looks?”

In general, have the police been sympathetic to your cause?

KM: On our action against prostitution they said, “It is right that you do it. We can’t do anything because of the prostitution law.”

You did a few actions against brothels in Cologne and Hamburg. Is this a top priority? Germany is said to be pretty progressive when it comes to prostitution.

I was scared before the Putin action… We didn’t know how Putin’s security would react. They could have shot us.

TL: Depends on which way you look at it. We have a lot of prostitution happening here. Sex parties where you pay a €70 flat rate for as much sex as you want. It’s horrible. And not only the legal kind. Statistics say that a huge majority of prostitution in Germany is forced.

KM: We want the Swedish model, where the clients and the pimps are punished, not the prostitutes.

But you do hear some women here who claim prostitution is their choice and that they have to make a living.

TL: There are other possibilities to earn money. They think they have no other choice, and they earn a lot of money in an “easy way” but really pay a high price.

Do you believe you can save people against their will?

KM: I think we should save the victims. If one woman out of 100 does it because she wants it, then what about the other 99? Do we have to have a law for the one woman in 100 who is happy?

A controversial action was your “topless Jihad” in front of Berlin’s Ahmadiyya Mosque last April…

KM: Yes, “Free Amina”, I think. Because it was an action for [then-imprisoned Tunisian FEMEN member, who on August 20 renounced FEMEN citing displeasure at some anti-Islamic actions and the lack of financial transparency in the movement] Amina [Sboui, aka Tyler] against that imam who said she should be stoned to death for showing her breasts in a blog!

You showed your breasts in front of a mosque… aren’t you afraid of being seen as anti-Muslim?

KM: We are not anti-Muslim, we are anti-Islamist. Against every religion that suppresses women.

TL: We also did a protest against the Pope.

But that particular mosque represents the Ahmaddiya community, a branch rejected and oppressed by mainstream Islam. Why there?

KM: It was just a symbol. We didn’t know which kind of mosque that imam was from. So, we said, okay, we’ll just choose one. The oldest one in Germany, as a symbol.

And did people react there?

KM: The imam was asleep. But we talked to him later…

The imam contacted you after the action?

KM: Yes, he invited us for tea and cookies and two of our girls went there. He said that what happened to Amina was terrible. Also that in his opinion, Allah created men and women equal and they should have the same rights. And we said, “Oh, we think the same way!” He can’t understand why we go topless, but he understands our point of view!

Do you think one can be a believer and a feminist at the same time?

TL: The faith is not the problem. But you don’t oppress other people. It’s the same as with homophobia. It’s not just woman being oppressed; it is also gay people.

Could you imagine a FEMEN girl wearing a headscarf ?

KM: I believe the headscarf is not something that has to do with believing, but with tradition. And it is a tradition to oppress. Anyway, I don’t think anyone would like to go topless with a headscarf on. It doesn’t make sense.

You’ve been accused of neo-colonialism for meddling in cultures which are not yours…

KM: I think we can because two of our girls are from Muslim families.

But as German FEMEN, your priority is to raise awareness here, right?

KM: I think it’s important that every group stays with their own girls in their own country. It doesn’t make sense to go to a county and say, “We are FEMEN.” We just went to Tunisia because of Amina… and then Josephine and the other girls.

Josephine, a fellow German FEMEN from Hamburg, plus two French girls who were protesting the Amina case with her in Tunis, were sentenced to four months’ jail time in Tunisia. That’s why you were protesting in front of the Kanzleramt, right?

TL: We protested when Merkel was meeting the Tunisian prime minister. Now we’re still discussing what to do next. That’s our top priority right now. [Ed. note: Josephine, Marguerite and Pauline were released on June 27.]

Do you think that this kind of protest is sustainable for a long time? After a while the media attention might fade away.

KM: The day media attention stops, it will mean we’ve reached our goal: female breasts are normal, no one needs to talk about them!

That’s very optimistic….

TL: There will be ways. We have to be creative. Maybe we’ll find another way [to raise attention].

Do you trust the media to portray what you want to say the right way?

KM: We did kind of lose our faith in the media. We had bad experiences, like when reports about our actions were full of inaccuracies…

TL: Or like when they say we’re all blond and skinny.

KM: Yes, once they took a photo of me and Alexandra, she is from the Ukraine and blonde, and another girl from Germany, a brunette. And they edited the photo so that it was only me and Alexandra and hinted that we were racist because we were all blondes. I’m actually the only German blonde!

Isn’t that the main challenge? You use the media, but you have to use them well enough so that they really convey what you want.

KM: It’s hard. The problem is when a reporter has the story in her head – like “stupid girls who want to show their breasts” – and she comes to the interview to take down that one sentence that fits the story in her head.

Some feminists are against you; they see you as clueless.

KM: There are also feminists who support us. Alice Schwarzer, she loves us. And she’s been the face of German feminism for the last 50 years.

Do you feel you might be stealing the show from other, older and maybe wiser, feminists?

KM: Like gender studies people who discuss a lot, and then nothing happens? They see young girls out of nowhere with no experience, with no money, just their bodies and actions, getting such big publicity… I think there is a lot of jealousy.

What do you answer to people who say you obviously never read a book about feminism?

KM: Of course we read about feminism, but we can’t write entire books on our bodies!

What is your favourite slogan?

KM: I like “Naked War” because it is so anarchic. That’s what I like about FEMEN. It’s not just talk. It’s action. It’s anarchy. You act, and you feel it in the moment.

Do you think there’s too much apathy in our society?

KM: When I was small I thought that the ‘68ers’ were so cool. In the 1960s people had real protests. They made things happen. Now you have the feeling that you can’t do anything… Some feminist groups do a good job at the grassroots level. But our job is to bring feminism back into the media.

Klara, you were quoted as saying Merkel stole your job…

KM: Yes, when I was six I wanted to be the first female chancellor.

So what will you do with your life instead?

KM: I want to be an engineer and help the environment, that’s what I’m studying for. But I also want to be a feminist.

Originally published in Issue #118, July/August 2013.