“Someone cannot just look at my breasts—they can look at my breasts only to read my slogan because my breasts are always saying something.” – Inna Shevchenko
Powerful slogans emblazoned on bare breasts. Flowers made of crowns. No political event that is too intimidating. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a favorite target. So are Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The Paris Fashion Show has had an onslaught as has the Spanish Parliament. An army of topless, fearless Amazons is coming and no tyrannical government is safe.
FEMEN, an international movement of female activists founded in 2008, has reached a level of fame (or infamy, depending on how you look at it) of epic proportions. Protesting against prostitution (the organization was originally founded to combat Ukraine’s burgeoning sex industry), domestic violence, abortion, homophobia, and fascism, FEMEN’s naked attacks—regardless of what you may think of them—push boundaries.
One of the group’s earliest members is Inna Shevchenko, 24, who joined in 2009. Growing up in a sexist country which presented feminism as something which attracts only “boring, lonely women,” Shevchenko was hooked after the first meeting. Today, the organization boasts 15,000 followers and 400 topless activists worldwide.
Shevchenko is one of the most illustrious members and one that often comes under the spotlight. In August 2012, she chopped down a Catholic cross in the middle of Kiev with a chainsaw dressed only in red shorts and tall black boots. She was protesting (or rather, as she says, “condemning”) the strong influence that the Moscow Patriarchate of Orthodox Church has on the Kremlin and also in Kiev, and she cleverly chose the day of the final trial of Pussy Riot to do it. Although the authorities couldn’t charge Shevchenko with destroying a religious artifact or public property (the cross doesn’t “officially” exist), she was charged with hooliganism and had to flee the country. She still faces five years in jail.
Shevchenko sought asylum in France and started developing FEMEN as an international movement. The France branch has become FEMEN HQ and today there are branches in ten countries, including Spain, Germany, Sweden, and Turkey, with the Israel branch opening this month. When adding that the US is also on FEMEN’s horizon, Shevchenko explains, “we plan to occupy the world with FEMEN activity.”
FEMEN’s vision is clear and simple: putting an end to patriarchy. “Somehow, when we say it, it sounds ridiculous because people think it is like a mouse trying to fight an elephant,” says Shevchenko. “But today, we still have patriarchy in every country. And the problem is not the fact that we live in a male-centric system, but also that women are contributing to this oppressive system by keeping silent.”
FEMEN’s weapon of choice is “sextremism,” an active sexual rebellion, created and named by the organization itself. Sextremism involves protesting topless because, as Shevchenko says, “naked women are something that a patriarchal culture likes.” But by using the naked form, FEMEN activists are attempting to turn traditional feminism on its head. “Why do we accept it in our heads that if woman is naked, then you can fuck her? The problem is not with my body, but with society’s idea about my body,” says Shevchenko. “Rather than hiding our bodies as the feminists of the 1970s proposed, we are exposing our bodies but with a different meaning. We’re not smiling, we’re not posing, but we are running and jumping and screaming and attacking. Someone cannot just look at my breasts—they can look at my breasts only to read my slogan because my breasts are always saying something.”
But Shevchenko also stresses that FEMEN’s brand of feminism, which calls itself a kind of “pop feminism,” is not the only way feminism can or should be. “We believe in the feminization of the world by different methods. The main thing is to change the mentality of people and the ideas that exist about naked women.”
FEMEN isn’t just about taking off your clothes, running into the wind, and screaming aimlessly. The activists undergo serious training: physical, mental, and emotional. There is now even an international training camp at FEMEN’s HQ in Paris. The training process involves learning how to express aggression, resist an attack or arrest, scream slogans, keep a strong pose, and work as a team with the other activists. “We are not a violent movement, but we are an aggressive movement. We are training girls to express power, proudness, and anger,” says Shevchenko.
From FEMEN’s three main targets—the sex industry, religion, and dictatorship—religion is one that “disturbs” Shevchenko most, and it is FEMEN’s anti-religion acts which elicit the most violent reactions. “We get death threats. After one anti-religious action, our previous HQ in Paris was burned down. I constantly get threats that I will be attacked with acid. And I can’t go back to my country because of an anti-religious action,” says Shevchenko. So in a way the anti-religious actions of chopping down the cross, burning a Salafist flag in front of the Grande Mosquée de Paris in April 2013, or the protest in the Notre Dame Cathedral in May 2013 to celebrate the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI are the most memorable for Shevchenko. “Religion puts its nose everywhere, and it’s very hard not to talk about its influence when talking about politics or society or human rights.”
FEMEN has also staged a protest against violence during a pro-Russian rally in the Crimean city of Simferopol in March this year. Erdoğan was mobbed by two FEMEN activists during a visit to a polling station, also in March. They are both facing jail time. Berlusconi was confronted when he walked into a Milan polling station to vote in Italy’s general election in February 2013. Anti-abortion rallies in Canada and Spain in the past year also got a rude awakening. Lawmakers attempted to pass an anti-abortion law in Spain “very quietly” late last year, says Shevchenko. But in November, FEMEN appeared in the middle of a congress session, topless, and screaming “Abortion is sacred!” right at the time when the initiator of the law, Ley Gallardón, was speaking. Until now, the law has still not been adopted.
In April 2013, a FEMEN activist accosted Putin and Angela Merkel at a fair-trade event in Hannover. The activist got past the bodyguards and so close to Putin’s face that she was able to shout, “Fuck you Putin!” directly at him. In bewilderment, Putin awkwardly put up his thumbs and displayed a look of fake calm collectedness. “Dictatorship is a political system that denies participation for women and Putin is one of the biggest dictators of our time. When we attacked him, we showed the world that this guy can be put down, at least symbolically,” says Shevchenko.
Many FEMEN members have been arrested and some have been imprisoned. But this doesn’t intimidate Shevchenko. “Of course no one wants to go to jail, no one wants to be beaten up. We also didn’t want to be tortured, like we were in Belarus. We don’t want to see this violent reaction to our actions, but we realize that if they want to stop us so badly, then this is the reason for us to continue.”
Besides the death threats, the arrests, and the sleeping with the one-eye-open, FEMEN’s glory was almost stolen. When they started, Victor Svyatski, a close friend of founder Anna Hutsol, tried to infiltrate the organization. Quietly at first, as time went on, Svyatski became more dictatorial. Eventually they drove him out, but the media’s reaction to this proved very interesting: various sources called Svyatski the “founder” and “mastermind” behind the movement. “Journalists were not asking us questions about Victor even after a film [by the filmmaker Kitty Green] came out about us and what he did. Instead journalists who didn’t even watch the film said that of course we wouldn’t be able to do this without men. Somehow the patriarchal side of the media came out in this instance as well. But Anna Hutsol is the founder of the movement in Ukraine and I will never allow anyone to say that a man founded FEMEN,” says Shevchenko.
Of course, such a controversial group has its opponents. Islamic groups for one, including the Muslim Women Against FEMEN who retaliate FEMEN’s naked protests with their own slogan: “Nudity does not liberate me and I DO NOT need saving.” Chitra Nagarajan in The Guardian criticizes FEMEN’s naked protests because they “feed into and reinforce a racist and orientalist discourse about the women and men of North Africa and the Middle East.” But FEMEN was always ready for this and Shevchenko points out that although the group was concerned about women’s rights in Muslim countries for a long time, it didn’t dare to do anything until it had activists from such countries. In March 2013, the former Tunisian FEMEN activist, Amina Sboui, posted pictures of herself on Facebook with the slogan: “Fuck your Morals.” She received death threats and was later arrested for painting the word “FEMEN” on a cemetery wall. And so it was game on for FEMEN who targeted the treatment of women in Muslim countries, and the backlash—Sboui herself who left the group three months later and told Huffington Post that she didn’t “want her name to be associated with an Islamophobic organization”—was enormous. “Why is religion controlling the lives of women in these countries to such an extent? Why is it forbidding so many things? Even asking these questions might mean you are accused of being an Islamophobe and insulting religion. But no one is concerned about my feelings. Everyone is telling me how I should dress, how to behave or how I should not look at men or how I should not have sex, how I should not get an education. No one is concerned about the feelings of women.”
Shevchenko stresses that FEMEN is not a political party, but an organization of street activists. Although it doesn’t have the instruments to change laws, she believes it can expose problems. “We are not doctors, we are not able to treat, but we are able to be ambulances. We are coming and saying this is where we should treat, this is where illness is coming from.” Regardless of whether they are actually treating these problems or not, their sirens are being heard loud and clear.
Title image source: Getty