Dear followers, here i am happy to share the full text of my TED Talk the way i wrote it before going on the stage. You can find the video by the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oMaC9_fJ1Y&feature=youtu.be
It is a great honour for me to be at this TEDx event not only because it is an extremely interesting exchange of powerful ideas. It is great to be here because as a political activist carrying direct protests, I usually only have the opportunity to express my ideas within a few seconds before being arrested and using only a few words, such as the slogans that we write on our posters or bodies. Moreover, the audience I express these ideas to, is usually a very ugly audience, the audience that represents violence, corruption and discrimination such as Putin, Berlusconi or Le Pen. Therefore, thank you for being this beautiful audience tonight, and thank you for the time to express my ideas.
I am a leader of a movement that is trying to rebuild the world without any permission. We thirst for a new society in which “equality” would become the highest law. Facing the everyday reality, I dream of how it would feel to be living in a world of total equality between men and women, gays and heterosexuals, with equality between nationalities, between ethnicities, rich and poor, equality between those who govern the countries and their citizens…
Before I tell you more about my ideas, I feel it is important to tell you the origin of my passion, the birth of my commitment to this cause. I was born the year of USSR collapse and grew up in Ukraine, the country of third world level of poverty, the country with political, economical and social crisis, the country where the government and citizens never had a good relationship.
The dreams about equality appeared there. The very first time was when I was a child. My best friend was named Katya and we studied in the same school, same class, sat at the same desk, and on purpose shared the same hairstyle. We both were excellent students, but the teacher liked Katya more and helped her to succeed in school because of the influential position her father had in the city administration. One time, when our teacher again selected Katya as the class’ best student, even though her successes were not greater than those of others, I felt that bitter taste of injustice in my throat. I wished that my father had the same position at work, or rather more honestly, I wished that Katya’s father would lose his job… so we could all be equal in front of the teacher. That was the first moment i felt a protest rising up in me.
About ten years later, when I was a teenager, the Orange Revolution took place in Ukraine. People took the streets demanding justice and equality, and calling for democracy. I fell in love with that moment as people were no longer apolitical, as people were not living for their own interests, but for the common ones, as people were not remaining silent but were instead expressing out loud their demands. I fell in love with that moment because people took the unpopular position of being in opposition.
This was a very special moment in Ukraine’s history, as for once we could hear words such as “democracy” and “freedom of speech”. For that time, everyone was an activist. Quite quickly, the high expectations for rapid changes turned into a deep feeling of disappointment as people were deceived by the lack of concrete changes, and ended up electing the dictator Yanukovich as President. I studied journalism and worked in the press office of Kiev’s city administration believing that through my profession I could keep exercising that fight for freedom. My beliefs were broken as I realised I couldn’t exercise freedom of speech, as I couldn’t be the manifestation of justice that journalist were supposed to be. At the contrary, I had to write articles celebrating every action of the city mayor and often-even lie about his activities. I was desperate, I thought I had no choice, but I also knew that I was not born to be forced and didn’t want to accept that i have to follow rules created by politicians. I wasn’t satisfied with my own situation, and that made me look around and realise how millions had given up. I looked around and saw how young girls had to go to work in brothels to be able to pay their studies, I saw how my mother and many other women were working for 10 hours a day and earning less than the minimum salary, I saw the corruption in the city administration, I realised how as a journalist I was depending from the government, I saw the criminal acts of the President Yankovich and the government and the total silence of the society. I felt that our dream of democracy was kidnapped. And I felt that it was our fault, as we didn’t care about it enough. I realised that civil obedience to the oppressive system was the problem, and that therefore civil disobedience becomes a duty. There comes a day when one has to take a position that is neither popular, nor tolerant nor safe, but one must do it because its conscience tells him that he can’t accept it no more. This was the day I became an activist. I joined the FEMEN movement.
Our mission is to spot out the problem, to shine light on what is ignored and hidden on purpose. Our duty is to be the voice that breaks taboos created by the system and speak about problems, as this is the first step in solving them out.
However, people don’t really like to talk about their problems…
Moreover, I realised they like it even less when someone else talks about them because this makes them aware of their own ignorance for the situation. It’s much easier for them to call activists colonialists or say that activists want to impose their ideas or at the end call us some kind of phones instead of facing the problems and dealing with them. Activism and taking a political position is not popular. Quite often people claim to me we don’t need activism.
Some say that we don’t need activism because it will not change anything. Others say that people become activists because they have nothing to do with their lives. And some also say that we don’t need activism because everything is fine around them.
We have been told that nothing happens after protests and revolutions, that nothing happens after activists take a stand. This is simply untrue. Something happened when the young Nelson Mandela got involved in a protest for which he was treated as a hooligan and therefore kept fighting for freedom during decades. The first step for the big Change happened. There was something happening when Ghandi decided to go on a hunger strike and was first called a fool and useless person, when Rosa Parks refused to sit on the back of the bus because she was black as the law was stating and defended her dignity even if that time it was illegal. The first step for the big Change happened. Changes happened because people believed in their ideas and in the need to express these ideas even if they were unpopular. There is something happening today/Something happening when our women’s movement FEMEN fighting all manifestations of patriarchy staged a loud campaign against the sexual exploitation of women during the football European championship in Ukraine as the international community started to ban the event. When FEMEN launched a year long campaign alongside other feminist associations in Spain against a bill forbidding abortion, the government cancelled the project; when highlighted the criminalisation of gay people in Morocco and sparkled loud debates in the society, the ministry of health released a report calling for a change in the Law. This is the true genius of activism. Becoming active is the first step towards a big change, it is the cause of the revolution of values that results in the political reforms we all want. Therefore, civil disobedience is a duty. It is through activism and people’s resistance that progress has been made.
And if after all, we are told that we protest because we have nothing to do with our lives that we go and protest. I answer that it is because we want to be able to do something with our lives on our own, and not be dependent on anyone, that we need to protest.
In December 2011, three FEMEN activists including myself staged an ironical topless protest in Minsk against the dictator Lukashenko and in support of political prisoners. After this funny protest we were kidnapped, thrown into a bus. We were not allowed to move, we were handcuffed. All we could see was a dozen of men wearing masks. They were beating us and repeating that we would be killed. After were brought to a forest where they tortured us for hours before abandoning us in a forest. For 24 hours we expecting that they would kill us. I was not ready to die. After that protest, I wanted to live and act as never before as I understood how fragile was that dictatorial regime and its system of oppression oppression that was fearing so much 3 topless girls with posters because we raised up for others.
And if you are one of those you don’t need to protest because everything is fine around you, it is wrong. Moreover, it is dangerous. If you are silent and neutral in a situation of injustice, you support injustice. Choosing to remain silent about problems also puts in danger those who choose to speak out as it happened with Charlie Hebdo, our dear friends with whom we shared many ideas. They have been spotted and became an easy target because they were amongst the very few speaking out loud.
In the end, what hurts most is not the words of oppressors, but the silence of our friends. We can stop violence and oppression when we are together standing for each other instead of accusing one another, we represent a real force. And be sure, this is what oppressors are afraid of.
Through our activism we revealed the true faces of regimes, institutions and politicians. We faced a lot of violence, we live under constant death threats, I have been forced to live in exile because one of my protests, we face criticisms and are victims of political and media manipulations as our ideas are replaced by some more comfortable for our enemies. They fight us because we make a step forward. We act in the name of human rights and I believe one has a moral responsibility to obey just laws, in the similar way that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust lawssuch as jailing people in Morocco because they are gays.
You probably might also think that activism is needed in countries such as Ukraine or Belarus that are not democratic nor stable. I thought the same before leaving Ukraine for France. But I was totally wrong. Here is a concrete and recent example of why activism and expressing your ideas is the priority today. A few months ago in February, I was giving a talk on freedom of speech in Copenhagen. I could only say a few sentences as my speech was interrupted. Listen to the record.
I couldn’t express my ideas because of Kalashnikov shots fired by a person moved by dogmas. A person who carried ideas that are contradicting fundamental human rights. After running out through the back door and hiding under a car, still hearing gunshots, I suddenly thought of this argument we hear a lot. Some say that we are offensive and go too far. I asked myself: is it really that our ideas of universal human right and our will to celebrate equality that are offensive? Don’t you think that the will to kill someone for their ideas is more offensive than any peaceful even if topless protest? Do we go to far to demand basic human dignity? We don’t use guns to prove that our ideas are right as we are confident enough. We believe in freedom of speech through which everyone can express their ideas as long as they are not trying to impose their morals on society and take away human rights.
Activism for human rights is needed, we should not fall into self-censorship or accept the constant demand for tolerance. We should feel the responsibility to defend liberty and refuse the obligation “not to be offensive in expressing our ideas” as for some, ideas of liberty are considered offensive as well. We should focus on changing values so that we are all just equal human beings without labels of nationalities, religions, ethnicities and sexualities… To be an activist means to be more hopeful about our future, it means to be more committed about ours lives. We are dreaming to make changes, we know we must choose to do the right thing even if the right thing is hard.
Some people ask when will we stop. My mother asks me often as well, hoping that I can finally get married and have children. But you know mom, I will not stop as long as saying out loud your opinion remains one of the most courageous acts. I will not stop because they beat us, arrest us, they want to kill us for our ideas, as they fear equality. I will not stop, because in the residence of the dictator Yanukovich, who you hate so much mom, after his escape, they found a folder with a list of the enemies of his regime, that was containing our names as it proves we are right and that they were fearing us. I will not stop because I receive secretly written emails from women and men who live in countries where they can’t express themselves at all, they ask us not to stop. I will not stop because I don’t agree to give up in front of those who want to rule with domination, dogmas and weapons. I will not stop mom, because probably you also want that your grandchildren will see less brutality and live peacefully with joy.
I will not stop because I am looking forward to do it together with you all, those who didn’t join yet. It is our common cause. Yes, our stories are singular and yours can be happier than mine but our destinies are shared. Our future is one. Not being a cartoonist but hearing how they are killed for what they draw should make our lives tougher, watching a man beating his wife should make our bodies feel hurt, seeing refugees being expelled from safe countries should make us feel illegal. When we feel solidarity towards others’ problems, we can make changes quicker, especially if we are among those with less problems around us. Our problems should unite us rather than divide us. Let’s show them who is stronger! Let’s bring them down! Let’s be the change we want to see in the world. We can do it!