When a topless woman runs toward you, you’re going to pay attention, no matter what your gender or background. But are you going to be changed? And will you learn anything? When she’s shouting an obscenity-laced provocation such as “F--- Putin!” or “F--- the Church!” the answer might be yes. Or the kind of resounding no that starts a national argument. But it’s rarely indifference. “As a woman, you usually have to beg to speak,” says Inna Shevchenko, leader of the Ukrainian protest group Femen. “We don’t beg. We force them to hear us.”
Femen started in 2008 to protest rampant prostitution in Ukraine. Shevchenko, who’s now 23, joined a year later and has since become the group’s effective leader, broadening its agenda to promote women’s rights, target religious oppression of women, and, more recently, vilify Vladimir Putin, who has become an issue of his own. In March they gathered outside Crimea’s parliament to protest “Putin’s war.” Every protest movement has to have its signature look, of course. Occupy Wall Street had its tents and its V for Vendetta mask. Pussy Riot has colorful hoods. Femen has flower garlands and, well, boobs.
In February 2013, two bare-chested Femen protesters confronted Silvio Berlusconi as he walked into a Milan polling station to vote in Italy’s general election. They were promptly detained by the police. Two months later, another Femen protester accosted Putin and Angela Merkel at a fair-trade event in Hannover, Germany. The woman got close enough to shout “F--- the dictator!” directly at Putin, who gaped at her with a look of delight-turned-to-anger as he realized what she was saying.
Femen uses nudity to change the message delivered by nudity. “The naked female body has been accepted as a passive, often smiling object that is generally used for commercial purposes,” Shevchenko says. “Femen present[s] a different nudity.” In other words, you might expect a high-heeled bare-chested blonde to sell beer or a GoDaddy account, but not to take off her T-shirt on Al Jazeera or chain saw a 31-foot memorial cross in Kyiv to protest the jailing of Pussy Riot—both of which Shevchenko has done. Miro Kuzmanovic/Reuters
Topless women still make headlines in the U.S., but in Ukraine they have a special resonance. There, career opportunities are still severely limited for women, and more than 90 percent of the representatives in the Ukrainian parliament are men. The government reacted so strongly to Shevchenko’s 2012 chain saw stunt that she received death threats and had to seek political asylum in France, fleeing out her back window, in her telling, as government agents banged down the front door.
Things aren’t going smoothly in exile, either; yes, Shevchenko was the model for France’s national symbol Marianne on a recent French postage stamp, but she also faces a criminal trial for baring her breasts in Notre Dame Cathedral last year to celebrate the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, whom Femen decried as a homophobe.
Femen is a genuinely radical organization, and almost anyone can find something to object to in its work. Last year the group railed against Islam’s repression of women by protesting outside several European mosques during what they called International Topless Jihad Day. Several Muslim feminist groups complained that Femen was forcing its beliefs about nudity on them. “Femen doesn’t choose politically correct messages,” Shevchenko says. “With our political breasts, we are shocking, irritating, frightening, inspiring.”
But enough women agree with Femen’s tactics that Shevchenko claims the group is now more than 300 women strong, with a headquarters and training camp in Paris. A feature film about Femen, Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, has screened at the Venice Film Festival and South by Southwest. One of its more surprising assertions is that Femen might have been run by a man for a time.
It’s possible, of course, that Femen might have gotten its message across even fully clothed. But sex sells faster than almost anything else. And Femen is anything but patient.