For most of us, the story was a fleeting news report, a headline scrolling somewhere in the periphery of our Christmas week, enough to grab our attention, but not much else: “Topless Activist Grabs Baby Jesus in St. Peter’s Square.”
Iana Zhdanova grabbed the Christ figure, and Vatican security grabbed her — and, soon, the baby was back in place, and Zhdanova was banned from Vatican City.
But there is an important context to her mad dash in St. Peter’s Square.
Zhdanova is a member of the activist group Femen, founded in 2008 by Ukrainian women initially to protest human trafficking. At first, the group used suggestive dress and provocative makeup to get attention. Then they discovered that their press coverage increased exponentially if they took off their shirts.
The very fact that this is true — that the world will only pay appropriate attention to human-trafficking activists if they are topless — is itself a confirmation of the organization’s reason to exist. Clearly, there is widespread objectification of women, and, clearly, the media caters to gross male appetites — and that should make all of us angry.
But Femen quickly moved beyond merely protesting human trafficking.
The mission statement on Femen’s website describes three characteristics that sum up the group: “Sextremism, Atheism and Feminism.”
What is “sextremism”? Femen calls it a “nonviolent but highly aggressive form of provocation … the woman’s mockery of vulgar male extremism and its bloody mayhems and cult of terror.” Femen protesters wear crowns of flowers to signify “femininity and heroism” and paint profane messages on their nude bodies, living their slogan, “My body is my weapon.”
The group lists its major goals: to end dictatorial regimes, especially theocratic Islamic states, to “exterminate” prostitution and to “universally and completely separate the church from the state.”
So far, the group’s outlandish tactics have won it very little public acceptance. They are a shocking sideshow, not a compelling movement.
But will they stay that way? Political freak shows, when they match up with popular secular ideologies, have developed into significant cultural forces before.
Few people admired the disruptive tactics of Act-Up, the homosexual activists who staged protests at Catholic Masses in the 1980s. At first, the career of Jack Kevorkian, the 1990s’ notorious “Dr. Death,” was distastefully extreme. But, in hindsight, we can see that they were the leading edges of movements that have now accomplished nearly all of their goals. Act-Up has become a “venerable organization,” in the words of a recent New York magazine profile; and when Kevorkian died in 2011, much of the coverage of his life agreed with his tombstone: “He sacrificed himself for everyone’s rights.”
So it would be a mistake to dismiss disruptive nude protesters as self-defeating caricatures of absurdity and aggression. Too often, today’s extremists are the prophets of the new mainstream.
In fact, mainstream journalists are already warming up to the group.
Jeffrey Tayler, contributing editor at The Atlantic, published a book that seems to want to build as sympathetic a case as possible for Femen. In a Salon article previewing the book, he became an apologist for the group’s anti-religious ideology.
Calling the “three Abrahamic religions” “doctrinally prudish and phallocratic,” Tayler sums up Femen’s raison d’etre: “The Catholic faith, and all organized religions, in fact, oppress women and foil social progress and should be stripped of their influence over public institutions.”
He asks Femen’s Inna Shevchenko, “Why does Femen hate religion so much?”
Shevchenko’s answer: “Why? I don’t think I have to answer questions about why male domination of women is bad, why it’s bad if a woman can’t choose whether she wants to have children or not, why it’s bad that a woman’s function on earth is supposed to be to serve men and have children, or why it’s bad that as a woman you know you’re dirty and guilty, just for being a woman. Religion is the root of all these views.”
Shevchenko added, “Women’s rights will always be attacked at first by religious institutions. It’s women who will be the first victims of religious oppression. … [Religion] tells women that we are brought to earth by a male god to serve men.”
Tayler adds his own theological support for Femen: “She was not exaggerating. How can we ignore the biblical injunctions of, for example, Ephesians 5: ‘Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior,’ and ‘Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.’”
Their complaints are old saws about religion and women, but Catholics need to be ready to answer them.
Tayler, of course, is quoting selectively from Ephesians 5, which calls both husbands and wives to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” — and expects husbands to sacrifice everything in service of their wives.
And religion is in no way the source of oppression of women that Femen makes it out to be. Quite the contrary: History suggests that wherever Christianity has come, women’s rights have followed.
Women were likely to be the property of their fathers or husbands in pre-Christian Rome. Christianity transformed that situation. Sts. Cyril and Methodius liberated Slavic women from extreme subservience by bringing Christianity. The harshly patriarchal Aztec society was replaced by one that gave women property rights as Christianity was presented.
Catholicism’s history of the treatment of women is far from perfect, but women have always gained when their culture adopted the Queen of Heaven and Earth as their own. And the best critique of Christian mistreatment of women is provided by the Ten Commandments and the beatitudes.
The mistreatment of women results not from Christianity itself, but from the failure to be fully Christian.
Nonetheless, Femen wants to destroy Christianity in the name of feminism. Consider some of the recent anti-religion protests of the group:
In 2012, in Kiev, a topless Femen protester with “Kill Kirill” painted on her back followed Russian Patriarch Kirill shouting, “Kirill, go to hell!”
That was the year a topless Femen activist in Kiev cut down a church’s crucifix with a chainsaw.
Last year, when massive, multicultural, multi-ideological throngs of demonstrators defended authentic marriage in Paris, Femen tried to block them.
Last Christmas, at Cologne Cathedral in Germany, a topless Femen protester jumped on the altar during Mass with “I Am God” painted on her torso and shouted, “Christmas is canceled.”
Meanwhile, at Madeleine Church in Paris, a topless Femen protester with a Marian blue veil on her head posed in front of the altar during Mass and simulated an abortion, using raw liver to represent the unborn Christ Child.
In November, Femen activists protested a planned papal visit to the European Parliament with several stunts, including desecrating crucifixes in St. Peter’s Square.
And then, of course, the group tried to kidnap Baby Jesus from St. Peter’s Square this past December.
Their message: They think religion is evil and intend to treat it that way.
They must stop.
The Church is the guardian of Jesus Christ, the best hope for women and all of us. The one who revealed that God is both almighty Father and the child in Mary’s arms does not just reveal the greatness of women — he reveals that love, not domination, is the world’s true power.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence
at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.