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Photo Gallery: The New Faces of Feminism

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Gender Politics Return Germany's Rebellious New Feminists

Daring, young and self-assured, feminists have reclaimed social discourse in Germany in a big way. But along with activists' successes have come fresh ideological conflicts.
Von Jan Fleischhauer und Wiebke Hollersen

Anna-Katharina Messmer likes to watch porn. That's a problem for a feminist. She is also in favor of Germany's childcare benefit, or Betreuungsgeld, which gives mothers who stay at home with their young children €150 ($190) a month, because, as she says, "reproductive work needs to be appropriately compensated." That's also not an easy position to defend. What's more, she is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on the current trend toward cosmetic vaginal surgery. She doesn't see anything wrong with it.

Messmer is the face of the new feminism -- or at least one of the faces popular these days on talk shows that attempt to draw the new frontlines in the battle of the sexes. Four months ago, Messmer and two other women she met via Twitter launched a campaign under the hashtag #aufschrei (meaning "outcry"), which overnight became synonymous with resistance to everyday sexism.

For a long time, Messmer thought that feminism wasn't for her. It seemed too uptight and conventional for her taste. When she thought of feminists, she saw women who were proud that they didn't shave their armpits.

Then she attended a panel discussion organized by Mädchenmannschaft (literally "Girl Team"), a popular feminist blog. At the front of the room stood a woman who said: "My name is Verena and I watch porn." "Cool," Messmer says she thought at the time. She had always been a staunch supporter of equal rights, so why not assertively state her position?

Speaking with Messmer can be very entertaining. She is well versed in the entire theoretical construction of modern feminism, from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler. She can explain precisely why it's important to say Studierende instead of Studenten (both could be translated as "students," but only the first is gender neutral), and why it's important never to forget the gender gap when writing texts. But when it suits her, she also occasionally quotes the notorious conservative German political theorist Carl Schmitt.

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Photo Gallery: Topless at the Chancellery

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Messmer is 30 years old. She has served as an adviser to the party executive of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), and she did a brief stint as an assistant film director. She is currently living from her doctoral grant. If the current trend continues, she won't have to worry about her career. If she wanted to, she could take part in a panel discussion every week and lecture on the current state of the women's movement. Virtually every major publishing house in Germany has contacted her about writing a book. Never mind the title and the contents, it "just has to be something about feminism," as it says in the inquiries.

The Issue of the Hour

Feminism is a hot issue these days. Anyone who organizes a conference on future challenges would be well advised to come up with something that touches on this topic. Not surprisingly, the final major presentation at re:publica, the largest and hippest blogger conference in Germany, was dedicated to online feminism last May. Even the Grimme Award, one of the most prestigious awards for German television, is getting in on the action this year: #aufschrei has been nominated for the online award, the first such honor for a Twitter hashtag.

This is an astonishing development for an issue that seemed to be getting on in years. It was 40 years ago that German activist and publisher Alice Schwarzer put feminism on the agenda in Germany. A great deal has happened since then: Child support legislation has been tailored to the needs of patchwork families, abortions have been practically legalized, and the right to equal pay is undisputed. But thanks to these successes, it looked as though the women's movement had basically served its purpose.

All that seemed to remain was the demand for more women in management positions . It's an honorable goal, but light-years away from the fighting spirit that gave the movement its drive and energy in the early years. The generation that followed Schwarzer, which is now between 40 and 50 years old, apparently no longer wants to change the world, but merely the gender ratio on the executive floor. Women like Messmer call that "elitist feminism."

Today's feminism has become rebellious once again. It asks fundamental questions about the balance of power, and is thus right back where Schwarzer began -- dealing with gender politics . Everything is on the agenda again: how men look at women, how they speak to them, and how they put down the opposite sex in jokes and silly comments to make themselves feel bigger and more important.

If one were to summarize what the movement is about, then it would be the notion that gender shouldn't make any difference anymore. Along the way there, the idea is to shatter the images and clichés that assign women and men to different positions in society. The problem is that there are widely divergent notions about how to achieve this objective.

A Trusty Old Method

Messmer was recently invited to attend a talk show hosted by German journalist Sandra Maischberger. The activist was to discuss how #aufschrei had changed Germany.

The show, "Menschen bei Maischberger," lasts 75 minutes. Two days before the show was due to be recorded, an assistant producer called Messmer and told her that during the second half of the show she would have to give up her place in the studio to an activist from Femen. He said the show's producers had seen the topless protest by the feminist group during Putin's visit to Hanover, and Femen was now even more exciting than #aufschrei.

Messmer took part in the broadcast for 54 minutes, twice as long as the Femen representative. During her time on air she spoke at length on three occasions, and what she said was highly praised on Twitter. There was even a positive review printed in the center-left German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the country's leading papers. The TV appearance had paid off.

The political struggle is also increasingly about images, happenings and performances that punch up the activists' demands and slogans. And no one has been delivering better images over the past few months than the women from "Femen Germany," as the local branch of the Ukrainian women's guerrilla organization is called. With her quick wit, nose piercing and light-blonde hair, Messmer is a natural for media appearances. But even she doesn't stand a chance against the bare breasts of the feminist competition.

Femen has existed in Germany for just one year, with some 30 women between the ages of 18 and 40 who are united in the fight against male domination. Wherever they appear, they find themselves in the limelight.

There is nothing new about the method: Way back in the 1960s, women were baring their breasts in protest. Now Femen has dusted off this form of activism for the modern media world. Anyone who joins the group learns what it's all about during a training session  right at the outset.

Big Goals

On a Saturday afternoon, 10 women stand in a rehearsal room at the Theaterhaus Berlin Mitte, a production venue for the performing arts in Berlin. They have signed up for this training session via Facebook. At the front of the room stands Irina Khanova, a graphic designer from Hamburg who participated in the protest against Putin at the Hanover trade show. "This is about provocation, and not about getting everyone to like us," she says as a greeting. "The movement is five years old and the method works," she continues. "You can't come here and make your own rules."

The women slip into jogging pants. In the background stands a photographer who constantly takes pictures. A signal is given and the training begins. First, assume a typical Femen stance, planting both feet firmly on the floor with your hands in the air until your body forms an "X." Second, look into the cameras -- always at the cameras, never at the people around you. Third, no matter how many people are listening, scream. "On the photos people will hear your screams," says Khanova.

There is also a protocol for the arrest: The idea is to do everything possible to prolong the protest. As soon as the cameras are gone, they should act normally again. There is no reason to kick madly if no one is taking pictures of it, the women are told.

The group's ideological framework is just as simple as the rules for the topless protest. The Ukrainian founders have established three goals for Femen: the fight against forced prostitution, the struggle against the oppression of women by religion, and resistance against all manner of dictators. If they are going to use their bodies as banners, they might as well aim for some lofty goals.

The 'Feminist Spring'

Things actually couldn't be better for feminism these days. Besides #aufschrei, Femen is now the second-most successful group at attracting public attention. But many feminists take a critical view of the topless protesters.

"What bothers me about Femen is that there are apparently no women in this movement who do not meet a certain standard of beauty," says Anne Wizorek, one of the initiators of #aufschrei, at an event in Berlin. Messmer also can't help making a pointed remark: "Thinking about demonstrating for the liberation of the Femen women," she twittered after the group burned a cross during a protest that marred the opening of the life-size Barbie Dreamhouse  in Berlin. "They are slaves to the media system and need our help."

There are many things about Femen that are not appreciated by other feminists, who say that the concept is too simplistic and the method is questionable. Their lack of a theoretical foundation is a major problem for many women who are critical of the group. They point out repeatedly that the activists have no knowledge of feminist literature. This is not just a question of envy, but also of distancing oneself from other groups.

Feminism has traditionally been a project organized by academically educated women. It was always in seminar rooms -- and not in supermarket checkout lines -- that the ideas for an equitable society were formed. This is a sore spot for a movement that claims to speak for half of humanity. The left-leaning Berlin newspaper Die Tageszeitung (taz) recently reported on an evening debate hosted by the feminist publication Missy Magazine and asked the following question: "Was it only the white, young, good-looking, German upper-middle class that joined the debate?" This immediately prompted a firestorm of furious online comments.

A Simple Concept

Zana Ramadani, one of the founders of a German Femen branch, says she has never felt like merely reading huge tomes on women's rights. Last summer, she was surfing the Internet when she came across Khanova, who was looking for fellow sisters to establish a Femen branch. Ramadani contacted her immediately: "Finally there are women who are doing something and not just blathering away," she thought.

Ramadani, 29, is a paralegal, the daughter of a Muslim immigrant family from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the chairwoman of the conservative Christian Democratic Union's youth organization, the Young Union, in Wilnsdorf, a small town in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In short, she is not the typical feminist at panel discussions. Ramadani's struggle for women's rights began years ago when she snuck out to a party that she wasn't allowed to attend because her parents felt it was inappropriate for a young Muslim girl like her.

When Ramadani speaks, she often uses the word "struggle." She had to fight for everything in life: her training at the law firm, the freedom to discard her chaste wardrobe in favor of clothing that matches her own tastes, and her own apartment at age 18. She says that she doesn't need any social science theories to explain what women's liberation is all about. Equal rights for everyone? What's so difficult to understand about that!

In April, Ramadani stood in front of a mosque in the Berlin district of Wilmersdorf to demonstrate in support of Amina Sboui, a fellow activist in Tunisia  who is hounded by Islamists and had to go into hiding after she posted a topless picture of herself on the Internet. It was freezing the day that Ramadani wrote "Fuck Islamism" on her upper body. The photographers' cameras clicked like mad, but she was relieved when it was all over 15 minutes later. "You have no idea how nipples ache in the cold," she says.

Ramadani embodies a pure form of feminism that is powerful, straightforward and self-assured. She was recently depicted in the popular German feminist magazine Emma. Many young women's rights activists like to keep their distance from Alice Schwarzer and her publication, but Ramadani thought it was great to be featured in a magazine that, until then, she had hardly ever read.

An Air of Suspicion

Perhaps it's a mistake to talk about "feminism" as if it were a universal concept. Just like any other movement, it's a combination of diverse factions and subcultures. There are supporters of the Pinkstinks campaign, who feel that the oppression of women begins with pink toys and clothing for girls, and are calling for a boycott of all such gender-specific products. There are feminists who wear headscarves and have formed the group Muslima Pride to show that they refuse to accept the West's patronizing definition of freedom.

There is always someone more radical than the others. While #aufschrei takes up the fight against sexism toward women, the supporters of queer theory demand that people not forget those who reject being pigeonholed as one gender or the other.

Today's most aggressive groups are the women's rights activists who subscribe to the theory of critical whiteness, an idea imported from the United States postulating that every struggle against racism begins with continuous self-reflection. Only those who are constantly aware of their privileged status as whites are in a position to do anything to combat discrimination.

The inverse of this argument is that there is an air of suspicion surrounding anyone who does not immediately mention other victims of discrimination. After Messmer appeared on Maischberger's talk show, three critical whiteness advocates contacted her and accused her of neglecting to speak of the "multiple discrimination" of lesbian and non-white women. This resulted in a long email exchange that culminated in Messmer being asked to justify why she hadn't offered her spot in the broadcast to a "person of color" -- as if a talk show invitation were something that could simply be passed on to someone else.

The at times fierce nature of the struggle over the right approach became clear in late April during a debate at the S.U.S.I. intercultural women's center in central Berlin. The event was called "Colors of Feminism" and, in addition to a professor of social work, an author from the Mädchenmannschaft blog and two anti-racism activists, Klara Martens from Femen was invited.

The trouble began with a T-shirt that Martens was wearing.

"How dare you to wear something like that?" someone yelled from the overcrowded auditorium. The round of introductions had just ended and Martens was the last participant to say what she does.

"I can't stand your T-shirt," screamed another woman from the audience.

The T-shirt sported Femen Germany's logo: a vertical line with two circles over Martens' breasts. The problem was that the circles were filled with the colors of the German flag. It was a racist, nationalist provocation, they said, and an exclusion of "migranticized people."

"Okay", Martens said, "I'd also be happy to take off my T-shirt." This provoked even more of an uproar.

What Happens Next

It quickly became clear that evening that no one wanted to talk with her about the new feminism. The goal was to make it clear to Martens, age 21 and a student of technical environmental protection, that you can only be a true feminist if you master the lingo and mindset of the movement.

Why didn't she just say at the outset that she was a white woman?

The other participants in the panel discussion had presented themselves as "persons of color." The representative from Mädchenmannschaft stressed each time she spoke that she primarily moved "in white-dominated, queer-feminist contexts." Sometimes she even tried to squeeze in the syllable "trans." Only the facilitator of the evening, who had presented herself as "a feminist from the generation of 1968," also failed to fit the mold.

She was frequently bogged down by the new terminology. "Isn't white also a color?" she once asked. It's not about the shade of the skin, but the experience of discrimination, she was immediately informed. "No?" she asked tiredly. "I see."

The question now is what happens next. Or, as a taz writer asked, what will follow "the feminist spring"? The Femen women have clear objectives. If they could have things their way, Germany would make it illegal to pay a woman for sex, modeling the law after current legislation in Sweden. One could call that a bit excessive, but at least it's a concrete demand.

And beyond that? When Anne Wizorek is asked what will come after #aufschrei, she responds that everyone has to decide that for herself. Messmer also has no answer yet. She now wants to join forces with other women and perhaps publish something.

It's all still very vague. The momentum is there and could be put to use. There is a lot of talk about social processes that have to be launched -- and the fact that change begins with each individual. But no revolution was ever won with self-awareness alone.

In the past, at some point someone picked up a rock -- or at least a tomato.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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