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What’s left of Berlin’s Femen-ists?

A current and a former “sextremist” bare all about #MeToo, rape culture and their diverging paths.

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Klara Martens (left) and Theresa Lehmann (right) re-enact their pose from their 2013 Exberliner cover story. Photo by Karolina Spolniewski

A current and a former “sextremist” bare all about #MeToo, rape culture and their diverging paths.

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We first met Klara Martens and Theresa Lehmann in 2013. Femen Germany, the local offspring of the topless feminist movement started in Ukraine, was then rocking headlines: a group of 30 upbeat girls who’d strip to the waist at state summits, in front of mosques or at anti-abortion demos to express their anger against religion, Putin or pro-life activists. Those two were at the vanguard of the action – fists in the air, their bare breasts, arms and backs covered in anti-patriarchy slogans, fighting “till the end” as nervous police or security staff dragged them away under the complicit gaze of cameras. Before long, the intrepid “sextremists” came under criticism for their naïve politics and impulsive protest prone to backfiring. After one full year of adrenalin-packed action, an overwhelmed Theresa, frustrated by internal feuds, left the group in 2014. Four years later, the German chapter has shrunk to two members, with Klara the only one in Berlin. We caught up with the two students, whose activist methods might have split, but not their friendship.

When we last met in June 2013, you were the two most recognisable faces – and bodies – of Femen Germany. What now?

Klara Martens: I’m still studying environmental engineering, and I’m still a Femen – along with Hellen Langhorst, who’s in Hamburg; we’re actually the only two Femen left in Germany today! Since it’s only the two of us, we do fewer actions. We work in cooperation with Femen in Paris – [Ukrainian founder] Inna Shevchenko is still there, with about 20 other girls. Helen and I are friends, so we meet, we talk and we try to find time to plan fewer but better protests. Meanwhile, I’m active with the association Sister e.V. that helps girls get out of prostitution. Sex for sale has always been a big issue for me.

What about you, Theresa?

Theresa Lehmann: I’m studying politics now, I work at an organisation involved against racism and anti-Semitism, and I also organise workshops about female health and sexuality. So I’m still a feminist and an activist, but I use different means. I’ve moved on…

You left in 2014, but pics of your naked breasts covered in slogans are still all over the internet. Do you mind?

TL: It’s part of my (her)story. When I did the actions back then I made a decision, one I have to live with today. I don’t mind the pictures of my body, but of course I still don’t like to be reduced to my exposed breasts. The same goes for Femen in general. Sometimes people don’t acknowledge that other people can change and develop, but that’s what I did.

Is that why you left Femen?

TL: I was with Femen for about a year, and at that time we were a very diverse group with different approaches to feminism, as well as activism. So when it came to making concrete decisions, it was difficult to agree. After about a year, I got the feeling my voice wasn’t being heard and that this protest wasn’t going the way I’d pictured it. So I left, alongside a small group of four or five others. We thought it would be more effective if, instead of having these constant conflicts within the group, we engaged ourselves politically in other ways.

KM: At that time, I was on holiday in southeast Asia, so I wasn’t aware there was this huge argument taking place. When I came back, a lot of people had left! The whole situation was very complex, and I think what happened is that we had this divide between conservatives and leftist radicals, and you can’t expect them to agree on certain issues. There was that girl from the CDU who believed in the police and the state…

You had a CDU woman in Femen?

KM: Yes. She wanted to be a proper organisation, asking the police for permission before actions. Of course if you follow the ‘legal’ course, you are very limited when it comes to the actions you can do and their impact. But she also left, so Helen and I are very free to do what we want now!

TL: That wasn’t my reason to leave, though. It was more the top-down structure that was the issue. Back then, the [resettled Ukrainian] girls in Paris had a strong say in what to do and how we should do things. It was kind of them to offer advice, but the culture in Ukraine is different from the culture in Germany, and we know better how people think and work here. I had a huge problem with the fact that the leaders were always suggesting we do something with a “Nazi connection”. Like that action on Herbertstraße, with the “Arbeit macht frei” slogan.

Work sets you free”… you used a Nazi slogan to protest sexual exploitation on one of Hamburg’s most notorious prostitution streets, right?

KM: Yes, our goal was to compare this street to a concentration camp because the prostitutes are exploited and they can’t get out of there. But, Theresa, that was before you joined Femen…

TL: I still don’t like it. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I should still be entitled to my opinion. What I want to say is that I don’t regret my time at Femen, and I think it was an important learning experience. But it was also a very intense year. I was politicised in front of the camera; we were followed around. It took a year for me to process what was even going on, to open up to criticism and admit mistakes.

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Theresa Lehmann scuffles with police at the Berlin March for Life, 2013. Photo by Ruth Schneider

Do you think that the media attention you were seeking sometimes backlashed?

People compared us to the Ku Klux Klan! And just because we burned Barbie on the cross.

KM: We’ve learned that we can’t control either the amount or the type of impact we’ll have. After the Barbie Dreamhouse action, people compared us to the Ku Klux Klan! And just because we burned Barbie on the cross. That wasn’t even close to what I imagined people would say.

Knowing what you know now, is there anything you felt you should’ve done differently? Like that action in front of the Ahmadiyya mosque in Berlin that got you labelled as ‘Islamophobic’?

KM: We are against all religions. As a feminist, my problem with Islam is the oppression of women. We have problems with Christianity, too – the Pope as a male figure, the silencing of the rape of children. We actually organised a protest at the Vatican last year [A Femen activist with “God is a woman!” painted on her chest tried to snatch the statue of the baby Jesus from the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square on Christmas.]

But in the context of today’s anti-refugee populism, would you still do an action against a mosque?

KM: If there is a preacher in that mosque who holds hate speech against women, of course! Like if a preacher here in Wedding said that a husband has the right to rape his wife…

TL: I wouldn’t do any action at the moment. It’s not the way I do things anymore. As for whether or not I would support an action like that, it would depend on the circumstances. I wouldn’t necessarily stand in front of a mosque and put slogans out there. Things are too complex to be handled this way.

Six years ago, I asked if you’d welcome a woman with a hijab among Femen…

KM: I think that a woman who wears a hijab wouldn’t be very likely to show her breasts!

TL: [Laughs] That’s exactly what you answered last time!

KM: I still can’t imagine it. If she wants to then she is welcome, but I personally cannot imagine it.

Maybe you can talk a little about your latest action, against Woody Allen at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie in July last year.

KM: I’d been thinking about an action against Roman Polanski or Woody Allen for about two or three years. So when I heard Woody Allen was playing with his jazz orchestra in Hamburg. I thought, “Now I got you.” I told Helen and we both bought our tickets. It actually all fit together time-wise, because the date of his concert was actually the date of his daughter’s birthday. I felt like a lot of people didn’t actually know what he did to his daughter. At the time there was no talk about #MeToo either…

This was three months before the Weinstein case brought rape culture in the film industry to public attention. Why was Allen such a target for you?

KM: Emma magazine wrote about him and his daughter a year and a half before that; Dylan Farrow had written that [2014] open letter in The New York Times accusing him of sexual misconduct and assault, and no one did anything about it. “He’s such a great artist. He is a genius. He did great stuff for the world and it’s okay that he’s a little bit crazy…” I didn’t think that was right at all. I believed his daughter, and so we went to the concert and painted her open letter on our bodies. We also wanted to read the letter aloud to the public, but we ran out of time because they caught us right away.

What happened next? Did they call the police?

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“Keep crosses out of our vagina”: Klara Martens protests at the 2013 March for Life demo. Photo by Ruth Schneider

KM: The Philharmonie was pretty nice about everything. There was one short woman that worked there who grabbed me, she was a bit pissed off about the whole dry cleaning if there was any black paint on her uniform – even though her uniform was black! The police came, but the boss of the Philharmonie immediately said they didn’t want police to get involved, that they were happy that young people were standing up for what they believed. They understood that it wasn’t cool to have Woody Allen there, but he wasn’t booked by them, it was a private company… They said, “If you want to come again tomorrow, we can put you on the guest list” – but we said no, because one time was enough [laughs]. But he gave us their card in case we ever wanted to come back.

Do you think the action had an impact?

KM: Dylan Farrow actually ended up responding saying that although [Allen] deserves real jail for what he did to her, being shamed in public is like giving him a little bit of jail every time… And now that the whole #MeToo campaign has evolved, everyone’s starting to believe her.

How did you respond to #MeToo when it finally broke out last October?

KM: It was about time! I hope it lasts, and changes something in the world, especially in Europe. Polanski can’t go back to the US because he’ll get arrested, but then everyone invites him to Cannes and honours him for his life’s work. In Europe the people are a little blind when it comes to artists. [Klaus] Kinski also raped his daughter, but everyone still says he is a great artist and loves his films.

Can you make a distinction between loving an artist and loving their films?

KM: I can’t see Allen’s or Polanski’s films anymore because I know what they did. I can’t watch House of Cards anymore either… it is tainted. After #MeToo, I can’t see any films anymore! [laughs]

What about “innocent until proven guilty”?

KM: I don’t believe it. There are too many men in the world who haven’t been found guilty, but who are not innocent. And if there is a rumour, it has to come from somewhere. Everyone knew about [German director Dieter] Wedel, and no one said a thing for decades! Look at all these allegations against Trump – he even admitted it, “grabbing them by the pussy, anytime I want”. And he can still be president and no one cares about it. The problem is that if you are a man, it is hard to lose your credibility. Especially a powerful white man.

So no witch-hunting?

KM: Of course you can’t send them to prison, but you can take action against them. [laughs]

What’s your take, Theresa?

TL: I think what #MeToo did was incredible. Before, women were isolated and didn’t talk, and now they’re building these networks where they aren’t afraid to speak up and share their experiences. It was a tough time for me, because it confronted me with my own past.

Theresa, were you actually a victim of sexual abuse?

TL: Yes, before joining Femen I went through half a year of assault in my hometown with an abusive boyfriend. Back then, I did not want to talk about it and no one knew. I didn’t want to be the victim. I wanted to be the strong woman.

So you never reported your boyfriend?

TL: No, I never did. And I don’t know, now I think it might be a little too late. I guess over the years there were a lot of steps I needed to take to be free. The year after being assaulted, I moved to Berlin to escape. I couldn’t believe this whole situation had actually happened to me – it felt like it was out of a movie. Through Femen I could express my anger. It was liberating.

Did you share this experience with the Femen girls?

TL: No, I really never talked about it, even in the group. But the first time I was training for Femen, I was screaming and all of a sudden my rage came out. And that was really the first step of dealing with it. Speaking out at the #MeToo demo last year was the next decisive step. For a long time, he was threatening me so I would never talk about what happened to anyone. Now, I am not scared of him anymore.

Do you think #MeToo is going too far? What about the danger of lumping together a bad sexual experience and actual assault or rape?

TL: It is definitely a difficult dilemma that society has to face. That’s why it is important to talk about it, and that’s what I do in my workshops. I talk about sexuality, female health, menstruation – and also about consent, and how society deals with communication before, during and after sex. Take the Aziz Ansari case – there is no way that you cannot tell if a woman is uncomfortable, by her facial expression alone. There is a huge difference between a look of lust and a look of discomfort. Ideally, she should have said something, but I think you shouldn’t underestimate the power structure in that situation. We need to empower women to create boundaries, but still there are some situations that we never feel prepared for. Like when you’re walking down the street and someone catcalls you, or worse…

So do you think that even here in Berlin, women are routinely the victims of sexism?

KM: Everywhere, all the time! About three weeks ago, I invited someone into my flat. I had met him before, sober, and he seemed nice. But he was drunk and turned pretty violent and it took me half an hour to get him out. This showed me that I have to be more aware. Even walking down Sonnenallee with my friends, we hear men saying gross sexual comments about us every five minutes.

How does Femen and exposing your naked breasts fall within this context?

KM: Of course it makes sense. I love it. It is a part of me. Femen is my child; I don’t want to give it up. Even though I only do one action a year, it’s still so important to me. After the Woody Allen action, I felt so powerful, with the adrenaline rushing through – better than sex! It makes me happy. I do something for society and I get a good feeling in return.

TL: I don’t actually miss it. I am doing so many great things now. I’d rather write and hold speeches. This is where I am at the moment, and I am happy with that. Who knows, maybe when I’m 65 and retired, I’ll get my breasts out again…