Femen's campaigns have been referred to as 'sextremism'http://www.flickr.com/photos/femen/4665659169/

Many women, and men, feel uncomfortable calling themselves feminists. The meaning of the word has changed like so many over the years and people frequently have to justify what ‘they mean by feminist’. Coined in 1837 by the French philosopher Charles Fourier, the term was used to advocate his belief in women’s rights and that job access should be based on aptitude and skills rather than gender; he also criticised the institution of marriage as a device that impinged on women’s rights. Despite the growth of feminism throughout the 19thcentury, the term itself is most strongly associated with the ‘second-wave’ of the 1960-80s (the first-wave being that of the 19th/20thcentury suffrage movements). Second-wave feminism campaigned for legal, social and vocational equality for women. It was in this era that the so-called ‘angry feminist’ was born (although a lot of those suffragettes seemed pretty angry to me).

I stopped calling myself a feminist aged around 13. I had moved to an all-girls’ high school and even at this young age, feminism was to some a ‘dirty word’. It indicated unnecessary anger, man-hating and a lack of feminity at an age when many girls were getting their first bras and first boyfriends. My male friends would bait me and would proclaim ‘If I cared so much, why didn’t I just burn my bra?’. So my response was to turn down feminism and promote ‘equalism’ instead to prove I didn’t think women were better than men, but merely that they should be treated the same.  I wasn’t trying to cause ripples, just stand up for what I believed in.  I could see that there were still inequalities, accepted stereotypes and I didn’t like it, but nor did I want people to think I was a ‘crazy feminist’. Over the years, I re-engaged with the idea of being ‘feminist’ and decided to reclaim it, craziness and all.

For many in the UK, feminism appeared to be a done deal as equality legislation has been put through and women are ’more or less equal’ with men. Feminism was something from a previous era or was seen as a softer version – more Spice Girl’s ‘Girl Power’ than Margaret Sanger’s ‘Woman Rebel’. To many, third-wave feminism is a much more passive breed but recently there has been a resurgence in the more aggressive kind which has moved the battleground from the workplace and the street to the female body itself – to mixed reviews.

The Ukrainian based group Femen has targeted issues such as sex tourism, international marriage agencies and religious institutions. The recent Femen protests have certainly been gaining a lot of media attention but much of the discussion is focused more on their controversial ‘sextremist’ tactics then the messages they are trying to convey.  Forget the old ‘bra-burning’ trope, the Femen activists have taken it one step further using their naked bodies as placards, leading to a particularly aggressive reaction from more conservative nations. Using their bodies as a device to promote the reduced objectification of women has had mixed reactions, including from other feminist groups. Femen has been particularly critical of the treatment of women in Islam. Tunisian Femen member Amina Tyler is currently on trial for publishing photos of herself topless with ‘my body is my own’ written across her torso in Arabic.

Femen’s actions have re-emphasised the political nature and importance of feminism, in battling the establishment and changing perceptions; but many have not responded positively. To many women in developing countries, their gender-based concerns aren’t just on issues of the perceptions of their bodies but unequal property laws or an inability to divorce their abusive husband.  To them, white women pulling off their clothes doesn’t seem particularly constructive or empowered.

At the same time as the rise of ‘sextremism’, more inclusive feminisms have been gaining prominence. The ‘One Billion Rising’ movement was formed this year to highlight the sheer number of women who are not just merely unequal but are physically at risk due to gender-based violence  – one in three of the world’s women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. This project seeked to promote gender equality and awareness of these issues worldwide on Valentine’s Day.

It is not just more extreme branches of feminism that have caused offence. The Vagenda is a popular British feminist blog, described by one of the founders as a ‘media watchdog with a feminist angle’ critiquing sexist content in magazines and newspapers. In 2012 the blog received over 5 million hits and has a readership across that is stretching far beyond UK. However the editors of the blog came under scrutiny after they stated that ‘feminism is, and to an extent always has been, a white, middle class movement’, angering many. Lianne de Mello, who writes for the Black Feminist blog was one of many who was shocked to see such a statement from the bloggers. Just as ideas of democracy and freedom are often channelled through our Western dialogue, so too here is feminism. Alternative narratives and alternative types of feminisms are not seen to be ‘typical’ or part of mainstream feminism at all.

Feminism is by no means a homogenous movement and it never has been. Although much third-wave feminism talks about ideas of ‘choice’, many feminists seem uncomfortable with the idea of multiple feminist realities being possible worldwide incorporating the needs of women with other cultural and national factors. Feminism has also in the past few decades taken to try and engage men, to make them part of the solution rather than confining them to being part of the patriarchal problem. This re-engagement has tried to move away from the stereotypically angry face of feminism and be more constructive in challenging issues of gender across male, female and beyond. Although third-wave feminism aspired to take a wider appreciation of the roles of ethnicity, religion and culture when  looking at feminist issues, there is still a profound lack of intersectionality in much of modern-day feminism and many  ‘white woman feminisms’ may not be as progressive as they think. However, as the Femen polemic continues, at least feminist issues, for and against them, are being forced into the public mind-set, preventing feminism as being thought of as ‘done’. Because it is far from finished.