Before meeting Inna Shevchenko I would have said it was impossible for an educated 19-year-old woman studying journalism at a prestigious university in a European capital, while working as the city mayor's press officer, to know nothing about feminism. But Shevchenko is adamant. She had literally never even heard of it, until one evening she received a message on Russia's version of Facebook that would change her life, and may well be about to change Britain.
"It said: 'Hello, we are women's group and we want to start our activity in Kyiv and we are against sex tourism and prostitution. Do you share our point of view, let's meet?' I was very active, I was head of student parliament, so I say: 'Yes, hello, I'm also against prostitution.' But I realised afterwards that I'd never even thought about prostitution – am I against or for it? It was such a new idea – someone was against prostitution, so I'm suddenly asking myself, am I against prostitution? I don't know. I'd just never thought about it before."
Since she started to think – and do – something about it, Shevchenko has been sacked, abducted by Belarussian secret police, beaten, tortured, threatened with death and forced to flee Ukraine for asylum in Paris, where she has been spat on in the street and left homeless by an arson attack that destroyed the few belongings she had left. You wouldn't guess any of that from her demeanour, though: she comes across as a calm, cheerful and unusually intelligent young professional. "Now I don't have any fear," she grins, before correcting herself. "I have only one fear – to be imbecilic. To be passive. That is the only fear I have."
The organisation Shevchenko joined four years ago, and now effectively leads, was a tiny group of Ukranian women who called themselves Femen. For the first two years they protested against prostitution and sex tourism, and nobody paid much notice – until they stumbled upon a tactic that has made headlines across the world and turned them into a global movement. Femen activists – "sextremists" – now protest topless, with slogans painted across their bare breasts – "Fuck Your Morals", "This Is Not a Sex Toy", "Poor Because of You" – and run screaming and shouting at public figures who have so far included Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin and the supermodel host of a TV modelling contest. The group now have branches in nine countries, with plans to open in London soon.
At first Shevchenko hated the idea of protesting topless. "I was using this argument like, 'you can't be against prostitution and then take your clothes off', but really it was just that I could not imagine doing it. I had only one idea of being naked – in the bed of men, or promoting yoghurt in an advert like this," and she adopts a baby doll pose with a finger in her mouth. "I had only this imagination, I couldn't put it in my head that it could have a different meaning."
When I first heard about Femen, I thought gorgeous, young, topless blondes could be no more feminist than those women who spend hours putting on makeup and say things like, "It's my right to have a boob job because feminism says I'm worth it." I could not have been more wrong. Asked how she can justify exploiting the very sexual objectification she's protesting against, she says, "I'm not against my body. I'm against their point of view on my body. We are giving you meaning to women's body. We're showing it in a completely different context, with completely different emotion – not with this," and she poses like a glamour model.
"We're showing it as powerful women running and facing them. We are not making sexy sounds, we are screaming as much as we can with our political demands, we're not showing a passive smiling body, we're showing an aggressive, screaming body. My body is always saying something. I use it as a small poster to write my political demand."
It was only meant to be a tactic at first, but soon they realised it was the perfect dramatisation of their ideology. "We are showing the clash between patriarchal society and women – you can see it in action every time we protest," she says. In footage the viciousness of police violence towards the half-naked woman is indeed shocking. "This reaction," she points out, "is the perfect answer to people who say there's no need for us."
But there is something also suspect about the preponderance of beautiful blondes among Femen's sextremist activists. "It's an old critique now," she smiles, "because now we have branches all over the world, and women are very different. In Ukraine I will not deny that we were nearly all looking the same. And again, it couldn't happen any other way, because the society demands it when you are growing up. You are searching for men, so you have to look good. Ukrainian women, we all follow this beauty standard, and I'm not proud of that, of course, but it's a cultural thing.
"But I will not deny that this is also within the ideology of Femen. What we are doing is showing the victim of patriarchy. But now she's rebelling and she's fighting – we're showing this Barbie fighting against everything that is making her be plastic and fantastic. We're showing the way they made us and now we're fighting back. It's an instrument of patriarchy and now we're using it against it. So I cannot deny that sometimes we do this on purpose."
Still, some western feminists have taken a dim view, but Shevchenko is too sophisticated to be drawn into a fight. "We are not fighting with other feminists; we are not here for that. I'm for feminism in any form. I can have my opinion on the way other movements do their feminism, but I will never criticise them, for I would go against myself – I am feminist. Feminism is not only one form, when we write amazing theory with a great explanation that is so clear and so fair. Feminists are not only that. We can do everything, and so Femen are kind of feminist al-Qaida, if you want. We are feminist terrorists coming and showing how it is."
Western feminists' reservations might be revised if they lived in Ukraine. "Being a woman in Ukraine, what kind of possibilities do you have? To become housewife, or to become prostitute. In my town there were women who were searching for any man, just to get a man. All my female school friends got married after they finished school, they were 17, 18. For 17 years growing up in that town I had only one idea in my head: how to get out of this shit." But at university she soon realised all the other female students were only there to find a better class of husband from a rich family. Her older sister did try to use her education to get a good job, "and in nearly every application she got back an email asking for her to send a picture of herself in a bikini, and to send her measurements, and as part of your office they say you have to have sex with your boss. This is the reality for young Ukrainian woman."
Shevchenko couldn't even go out at night in Kyiv. "You're a piece of meat, and men think they can do whatever to you, touch you – it is a hell there. So when people say what about results for Femen, I'm proud to say we brought the idea of feminism and women's rights to a politically ignorant part of the world like Ukraine, Russia, Belarus. And I'm proud to say I think we brought feminism back on to the streets of Europe as well."
When Shevkencho was forced to seek asylum in France after chainsawing down a crucifix in Kyiv last year, she wondered what Femen could offer to progressive, liberal, secular Paris. But by then Femen's mission had broadened from protests against patriarchy and the sex industry to include dictatorships and, most controversially, religion – which presents plenty of opportunities in Paris. Femen's HQ lies in a scruffy immigrant neighbourhood of north and west Africans, a deeply traditional and religious community, and when I observe that she cuts a fairly incongruous figure in the street, Shevchenko grins. "I love this area, it's very Femen style. I like to be inside the problem, you know?"
The French Muslim community is unsurprisingly outraged by Femen, and Shevchenko has been accused of disrespecting Muslim feminists, but she rejects the very concept. "I will never have a discussion about Muslim feminism because it doesn't exist. It cannot exist. It's oxymoronic. It's Islam, clearly, saying women must be covered for their dignity. I mean come on. Once any monotheistic religion is starting, feminism is finished. You can forget about women's rights or human rights in general. So for me, Muslim feminist, Christian feminist, Jewish feminist, it's all oxymoronic.
"People say I am offending religious feelings – well, I know I am doing it! And every time I start to talk about such things I will do it, but I don't do it for provocation, I'm simply worried about what is going on. Why do we have to think about a choice between religion and political ideals – what the fuck is religion doing on the same level as a political idea? I think it is the most stupid thing society did to let religion on the same level in political discussion."
A young Muslim member in Tunisia was jailed for posting a topless image of herself online, and there were calls for her to be stoned to death. Is it irresponsible to encourage women in Muslim countries to take such a risk? "I'm not going to defend myself by saying, 'Oh I'm not encouraging them.' I am encouraging women, of course. I'm thankful that I got this little message on Russian Facebook that encouraged me to start, so of course I'm encouraging women, because I know what kind of shit we live in. And now for many women in Tunisia she is an example."
Shevchenko has not yet been able to visit London due to her asylum status, but about a dozen British women have already been in touch, and she is clear about Femen's targets here. "We will take care of prostitution, FGM, niqab discussion, Muslim extremism, and be in opposition to British conservatism and extra political correctness wherever it will appear. And we will find the way to come in Al-Madinah school or Buckingham palace."
But first she has a minor PR problem to deal with. A documentary about Femen, Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, premiered at a film festival in September, and revealed the involvement of a man behind some of the ideas for the groups protests. He's seen in the film telling the women they are "weak", "spineless" and "bitches", and journalists quickly began casting him as the Malcolm McLaren to their Sex Pistols, claiming Femen was actually his organisation.
"I wish everyone who wrote about the film would actually see it," Shevchenko groans. "But it proves how deep this patriarchal culture is in our minds that even intellectual people were so happy to say, 'Ah, there is a man!' And immediately they made him founder of the movement. He was never the founder of the movement! Femen founded by a man – what the fuck? This was very brutal for me, because they started to say Femen are not authentic feminists."
In fact, he was a friend of one of the original founders, and would occasionally come along to meetings to offer ideas. "He was giving good advice sometimes, I cannot deny it, but then his demands started to grow and he started to just demand what he wants, and treat us like shit. Of course everyone is saying, how could you have let him? But of course we didn't open the door and say: 'Please come in dictator, please come in patriarchy and kick our ass.'"
He no longer has anything to do with Femen. But if even Femen could allow themselves to be bullied by a man for a while, Shevchenko says, "Who can say there is no need for feminism?"