Femen activists (Photo by CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The radical feminist campaigner who has ‘nothing left to lose’

Marguerite Stern, a feminist activist who was attacked yesterday in France, speaks to Julie Bindel about why she will never give up campaigning for the rights of women and girls

A former member of the feminist international movement Femen, Marguerite Stern, is one of the younger generation of feminists who has been bullied, cancelled and de-platformed because of her tireless activism against male violence towards women and girls. She was attacked yesterday at a feminist rally in France by having an egg thrown in her face.

Femem was founded in Ukraine in 2008 to promote the principles of secularism, anti-sexual exploitation and violence, and women’s bodily autonomy; Stern, born in southern France in 1990, joined the organisation in October 2012. The group’s protests captured media attention, at least in part because the women usually bared their breasts during protests and were often arrested as a consequence.

At the time she joined, Stern did not call herself a feminist, but she knew “instinctively” that this was the movement she had to belong to, because male violence and abuse, such as femicide, rape and commercial sexual exploitation are the tools used to keep women subservient to men.

“I experienced a lot of sexual assault and harassment from men at college,” she tells me. “But before then, as I hit puberty, men would hit on me and I soon was face-to-face with extreme patriarchy.”

Stern is labelled a SWERF and “whorephobic” by the so-called progressives in France and of course on social media sites such as Twitter.

“Prostitution divides a lot of feminists,” says Stern. “I am an abolitionist, which is also the position of Femen. It’s a movement that started in Ukraine where trafficking and exploitation of women is a huge issue.”

Having left home and moved to Brussels and then Paris at 18, Stern dropped her studies in visual arts to fully commit to Femen. “I prefer to learn from life,” she tells me.

Stern recalls thinking at the time: “I want to go join Femen, I can’t take it anymore, I’m sick of it.” She emailed the group asking if she could join. “I just wanted to do the same thing as them, going in the street to express my anger. Since then, I have never quit feminism.”

For the next three years Stern lived in a squat with the other women who constituted the hardcore members of Femen in Paris, devoting herself to feminist direct action.

“I met so many other feminists,” she says. “I learned so much about feminism and feminist theory. It became alive for me.”

‘We were poor in our bank accounts, but emotionally and on an intellectual level we were very rich’

Femen completely took over Stern’s life in every way. “We were living together, so we were always discussing which actions were going to happen next and how to do it, and always planning stuff for us, but also helping all the other branches all around the world to make actions,” she tells me. “At that time, I didn’t really build my personal life, it was everything for Femen, and sometimes I was working in some restaurants to have some money, but I didn’t have to pay rent at that time because I was squatting. So we were kind of poor in our bank accounts, but emotionally and on an intellectual level it was very rich.”

However, speaking out has cost Stern her relationship with her parents: “I’m estranged from my family the last few months because of my book Héroïnes de la Rue (Street Heroines) coming out where, among other things, I talk about sexual violence in high school. My family was unable to say, ‘we’re sorry’.”

The book is fascinating, and touches on many of the campaigns I became involved in as a young feminist in the early 1980s, such as Reclaim the Night. “For women, we demand our public space back. Right now, the streets belong to men,” says Stern.

She is right. As Stern points out in Street Heroines, more than three quarters of women polled have been followed, harassed and made to feel frightened of male presence in public outdoor spaces, and yet 75 per cent of public budgets are allocated to men’s leisure.

Stern is no martyr, but she gives a lot of herself to the cause

One of the first direct actions Stern was involved in was against the furniture retail company IKEA in 2012. The company had decided to remove photographs of female models from women in catalogues intended for distribution in Saudi Arabia because the pictures did not depict women in veils. This is when she learned that being a feminist activist in France could be dangerous. The campaign utilised slogans such as “Bare Breasts Against Islamism”, “Do I look like I need imperialists to free me from oppression!” and “Islam Gave Me Freedom”.

Threats of violence and rape followed, and Stern found herself becoming even more determined to speak out and continue her feminist direct action.

“Nothing will stop me,” says Stern, “because women are dying at the hands of men in France and everywhere in the world, and I have to speak out.”

Stern is no martyr, but gives a lot of herself to the cause. In 2013, she was one of three Femen members imprisoned for a month in Tunisia for having asked, topless, for the release of Amina Sboui, a young Tunisian member of the movement.

There is no doubt that the years of police arrests, physical and verbal attacks, and numerous threats took its toll. So, in 2015, she left Femen and moved to Marseille until 2019, when she decided to go back to public campaigning and started the Collages against Femicide movement.

“I gave all my ideas and energy to many, many girls to teach them how to go on the street, how to enter into militancy because many of them were very young and it was their first militant experiment,” Stern explains.

However, she decided to leave because the media focused mainly on her and excluded all the other young women involved in the actions. “As maybe thousands of girls were involved, I wanted the press to talk also about those girls. I wanted those girls to speak in the media as well. Also, I was tired.”

I have seen the fruits of Stern’s labour during visits to Paris – huge, multi-coloured slogans painted on the outside of buildings in busy areas of the city such as: “Nine out of 10 rape victims know their attacker”, “In France, [there is] a femicide every two days”.

But problems began to emerge in Femen for Stern when liberal feminists began joining the group. Stern, very much a radical feminist in the tradition of the late Andrea Dworkin, objected to some of slogans that promoted extreme transgender ideology, she was attacked and labelled a bigot.

Stern grew angry and wrote a thread on Twitter stating her own views on “Why I consider that transactivism is a danger for feminism”. It was a brave move. “My life really changed,” admits Stern. “First it was the harassment online quickly followed by attacks on the street, and then rape and death threats.”

Would any reasonable person publicly label a woman a bigot and demand her cancellation because she campaigns to end the killing of women by men? No. Which is why the so-called progressives who go after Stern instead claim to be offended by her “transphobia” and “Islamophobia”.

But, like the best of feminists, Stern refuses to compromise on such a crucial issue.

“I am not a ‘vulva person’,” says Stern, referring to the demands from trans activists that talk of female biology is transphobic, “I am a woman. I was born a woman, and even before my birth, in my mother’s womb, I suffered discrimination as a result. I went through things that a man who would like to become a woman will never be able to understand.”

Stern is clear that feminism is for all women and does not wish to cause divisions between the “fun feminists” and the radicals, but, like many of us, she believes that the “trans women are women”, and “sex work is work” brigade is just plain wrong.

Stern does not think the liberals truly believe that women can have a penis, but say so in order to score points with the so-called progressive men of today:

These men think that wearing make-up, tight skirts and high heels makes you a woman, they recognise gender stereotypes. And who benefits from gender stereotypes? Men. And they want to please them because they are afraid of them, because they learned all their lives that a woman can’t exist without men’s validation. It is the same for prostitution.

Stern’s position on the veil has also caused controversy, despite having support from former Muslim political activists such as Maryam Namazie, founder of One Law for All: “Given how women are targeted by extremists and fundamentalists, Femen’s use of the female body has been a much-needed subversion. This can also be seen in Marguerite Stern’s feminist activism.”

I have come in for the same treatment as Namazie and Stern when speaking out against misogynistic Islamists. In critiquing the creeping normalisation of the full-face veil in Western societies, I have been accused of “anti-Muslim racism”.

For Stern, “The veil is a symbol of patriarchy and of women’s oppression. So to accuse women who speak out against it, and against all religion, as bigots, racists or ‘Islamophobic’ is just misogyny. They think they can silence us this way.”

Today, Stern mostly campaigns alone. “Whether people agree with me on all my ideas or not is not the question. I accept that we think differently and that others use this technique to say what they want. I haven’t copyrighted it. But to erase a woman’s contribution to history is a deeply patriarchal process.”

Stern now takes her messages about the murder of women by their partners to the walls of public spaces, particularly the wealthy districts and near the places of power, such as government buildings and embassies. She is also producing a podcast called Heroines of the Street.

“I spend my life saying out loud what thousands of women think to themselves, and suffer the consequences also,” she tells me. “Often, I feel like I’m offering myself up as a sacrifice. The only thing I have left is my honesty, the feeling of staying true to myself and defending my people, women.”

At the end of our conversation, Stern tells me that every day she receives messages from women thanking her for speaking out. “They say ‘thank you’ for affirming what they don’t dare say because the consequences would be so heavy. I have nothing more to lose, which is why I will never give up.”

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