By Harriet Salem
For the Post
Images of stunning topless Ukrainian girls are no longer relegated to top-shelf men's mags and mail-order bride websites. They are hitting the mainstream media courtesy of controversial Ukrainian women's rights group Femen, which catapulted into the limelight following a series of topless protests against the Euro 2012 tournament. Campaigning against prostitution, sex tourism and trafficking under the slogan "Ukraine is not a brothel," Femen protesters bared their breasts to attract media attention to their cause. They have alternatively become the villains and the heroines, the subject of dismay and adoration.
When Femen founder and leader Ana Hutsol walks through the door of the smoky bar in Kyiv's city center that doubles as the group's headquarters, she seems as contradictory as the group's tactics. The redheaded mastermind of Femen's topless antics is sharp-eyed, attractive and wearing a fluffy pink jumper with a Chihuahua emblazoned across the front.
"Growing up, I became acutely aware of inequalities experienced by women in Ukraine," she says. "But when I looked around for a women's rights organization to join, there was none. I knew there was no other option than to start my own movement."
With women accounting for 75 percent Ukraine's notoriously high unemployment rate, and an estimated 2 million sex tourists visiting the country annually, Hutsol's cause finds many sympathizers. But how does Femen justify fighting fire with fire, or, to put it more accurately, fighting sexist gender stereotypes by flashing their breasts?
Hutsol admits Femen's protest tactics have limited the group's capacity to work with other women's rights movements that are "afraid and find it strange to protest naked."
However, she maintains that more conventional protest methods, used by Femen in the early days, provided little success and even less recognition.
"We knew that to really change things, we had to do something radical," she says.
But the obvious potential conflict between Femen's trademark topless protests and their campaigning issues has brought ridicule and criticism from the left-wing and feminist media, both in Ukraine and abroad. Critics, such as Ukrainian gender studies expert Tetyana Bureychak, say Femen contributes to the sleazy image of Ukraine. Hutsol denies this, and says Femen has brought about positive change for Ukrainian women.
"In the beginning, there was real shock about our protests, and now I see less shock, a clear change of mindset," she says. "We do not respond to criticism because we know we are correct. We are not a conventional feminist organization. It is necessary to renew feminist ideas."
Self-conviction and dedication are certainly in no short supply. Asked to describe herself in three words, Hutsol replies immediately, "I need only one: Femen."
She draws deeply on her slim Sobranie cigarette in the following silence. The message is clear: Ana is Femen, and Femen is Ana.
Hutsol says the role of her organization goes beyond feminism. She sees it as "something bigger: about democracy, freedom, total inner emancipation."
This is reflected in the recent expansion of Femen's campaigning. Transcending international borders as well as sociopolitical ones, Femen has cropped up most recently in Russia, Switzerland, Italy and Belarus. To the annoyance of authorities internationally, it has respectively campaigned against the manipulation of gas prices in Ukraine, capitalist greed, the fashion industry's failure to combat anorexia and the authoritarian practices of the Belarusian government.
Femen's horizons are widening. This year, a topless photo of Femen activist Inna Shevchenko by Gillaume Herbaut won an award in the prestigious World Press 2012 photography contest, and Hutsol's hope "that word of Femen will spread like a virus" is slowly becoming an actuality.
But it is not there quite yet. The controversial prize-winning photo has already been banned from the stateside World Press exhibition due to its supposedly pornographic content.
Femen's members are rebels, but they have a cause, and they would like feminists and the rest of society to pay attention. Simultaneously Madonna and the whore, Femen symbolizes the failure of contemporary feminism to engage with a generation of disillusioned young women. As Hutsol says, "The work of Femen will only be done when society is no longer amazed. Every protest is a new step toward this goal."
Harriet Salem can be reached at email@example.com