International Women’s Day: Interview: Speaking of Femen-ism – Luxemburger Wort

Published on Friday, 6 March, 2015 at 15:32

Oksana Shachko in the Neimnster courtyard before attending a Luxembourg City Filmfestival screening of Alain Margot's I Am Femen documentary.

Before
attending a Luxembourg City Film Festival screening of I Am Femen,
Oksana Shachko set an hour aside to speak to wort.lu/en and tell the
story of the feminist movement that with topless painted bodies has
attracted global attention for the better part of a decade.

"This was a small provincial city where young people did almost nothing but study and drink beer in the streets."

Growing
up in the Ukrainian town of Khmelnytskyi, Oksana Shachko midway through
her teens started to become involved in gender equality issues. In
2006, she started the New Ethics feminist club together with friends
Anna Hutsol and Alexandra Shevchenko.

"This was a 'normal' organisation, we helped girls and children's houses and held some lectures."

Gradually
taking their convictions to the streets, they "discovered that the most
powerful thing young students with neither money nor power can do, is
to do activism and use journalists and their cameras. When people learn
about the problems and discuss them, things start to change."

Becoming Femen

In
2008, the three moved to Kyiv and created Femen. "We came up with this
name because it's something new, while still reminding of feminism."

Its
first major demonstration was called 'Ukraine Is Not A Brothel',
highlighting issues Femen thought nobody previously had talked about:
"the sex tourism, the sex industry, and the prostitution."

"In
Kyiv you could not walk in the streets without getting propositions
from men. Many European tourists believed that if they offered a girl a
cocktail or a cup of coffee, she would come with them."

While
prostitution is not legal in Ukraine, the activist group saw a society
where brothels were everywhere, recruiting "young, stupid girls" from a
corrupt education system.

Using the body as their weapon of choice

Femen
was always keen on trying new ways, or as Oksana describes them,
putting on "performances with a lot of decorations, posters and so on"
for its activism. Ukraine Is Not A Brothel for example saw the young
girls take their banners to the streets dressed in minimal bikinis and
high heels.

In their striving to challenge the norms, the group in 2010 decided to explore the taboo of nakedness.

"It
was me who first tried to make the topless protest with painted boobs.
It was an experiment but after we understood how powerful it was."

That this measure hit a nerve of society not previously touched became obvious.

"We
live in a patriarchal system where the female body is totally
controlled and used. Women are ashamed of their bodies, and this is a
deep problem. We are slaves of men because we do not control our
sexuality."

Oksana
believes that demonstrating bare-breasted was a way for the girls to
take control of their sex, and further describes the action as a very
pacifistic form of activism.

"The picture of a naked girl is the most peaceful, but also the most unveiling image you can create, so it is very powerful."

On April 4, 2013, Femen held a demostration outside the Tunisian embassy in Paris after the arrest of former Femen activist Amina Sboui.

Changing the essence of feminism

Although
recognising the strong progress of feminist movements before them,
Oksana believes that Femen has created "a new feminism for a new
generation", with the female body at its core.

"The
problem was that before, feminists often tried to be men: they cut
their hair, did not use makeup, walked like men, hid their breasts, used
men's clothing... they became men and we thought that was a dangerous
path for feminism."

In
that way, Femen's image may remind one of the ultra feminine image of
the UK suffragette movement, active in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. But of course, they were not naked.

"We
are not ashamed of our bodies. We are proud that we are women, that we
are different from men. This is the greatest thing we have achieved with
Femen, we have put the woman in the centre of feminism."

Moments to remember

One
of Oksana's favourite Femen actions dates back to 2013, when activists
stormed a trade fair in Hanover, Germany, and with 'FUCK DICTATORS'
written all over their naked upper bodies managed to come within metres
of the Russian president.

"It
was great to come so close to Putin and say 'fuck you' straight to his
face, almost two years before other Ukrainians understood what he was
doing to the country."

Another memorable moment came after events of a more frightening nature.

"You
know life is very funny, my favourite moment is also one of the
worst... It was when we came back from Belarus where we had been
kidnapped and tortured in the forest by the Belarusian KGB. It was a
miracle how we escaped, a crazy story but coming back to Ukraine was one
of the great moments."

A Femen activist comes close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the industrial fair in Hanover on April 8, 2013. Four bare-breasted demonstrators shouted fuck dictator towards Putin as he was visiting the Volkswagen stand.

The greatest fear of doing nothing

In
addition the Belarus episode, Oksana has been jailed, and often
brutally seized by security staff, in most countries she has visited to
participate in Femen actions. In 2012, a demonstration during the
Russian presidential elections landed her in a Moscow prison for two
weeks and she received a consecutive life ban from entering the country.
One may think Oksana was born without the slightest idea of the concept
of fear.

"Of
course I am human, sometimes I feel afraid and sometimes I am worried
because even though I am not afraid to spend a few years in jail, I
understand that my mother and friends will be worried. I always discuss
this in my head."

On the other side, the alternative of living a 'normal' life for Oksana comes off worse.

"I'm
more scared to live in this country, in this world, and do nothing: to
spend life too afraid of everything, too afraid to speak or go to
certain places, to just be in a normal work and don't create anything
for the next generation. In my understanding, that is much more scary
than to go to jail..."

She further mentions the biggest danger is of getting murdered by political adversaries at governmental level in some countries.

"They
can kill you in one second, you understand that you are a very very
small person. But in the same time one thinks: you are a small person
that can make such a big point that even Russia will send their secret
service after you!"

The situation in Ukraine

"I'm
happy because during the last year's revolution, the Ukraininan nation
was born, not 24 years ago with the fall of the Soviet Union, it
happened just last year. The Ukrainian citizens and nation are very
young, as we were just born."

Nonetheless,
arguing that politics has always been business in Ukraine, she believes
that the country now is ruled by yet another oligarch.

"The
people should always control the politicians' decisions, but after the
Maidan revolution they relaxed and believed the president would change
things. Because of wrongful decisions of Poroshenko and Putin, yes both
of them, we now have a crisis, and a war that nobody believed could
become so big and difficult to handle."

However,
for someone appearing so oriented toward fast action, Oksana surprises
with an emphasis on the long-term regarding her own country:

"Put
any president in Ukraine and it will take several years to stabilise
and make life good. It's very difficult to build the political system,
it should take a long time."

Can Femen become part of the political system?

Femen
have grown to incorporate several hundred members in international
branches. With its political nature, a possible next step could be to
enter national elections as a political party. For Oksana, this would
not be the right way to go.

"Going
into this system means you cannot be against it. It's good to keep a
non-governmental free organisation without money from the government,
and without having to play the political games. Just to be free and to
have the possibility to discuss and control each decision of the
political system from the streets... It's the best and most powerful
place to be."

Oksana is arrested by Swiss police as Femen makes a topless protest on January 28, 2012, against the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

'Naked boobs with painted slogans'

"Femen
is the feminist, the girl with the Ukrainian sign, the flowers in the
hair, the naked boobs with painted slogans, and in comfortable boots to
run and make action in front of the enemy on the streets."

The activist group has further developed a manifesto, that should be agreed on by anyone wanting to use the Femen name.

"Our
actions should be against the patriarchal system, against the sex
industry, against the fashion industry, against all religions, and
against dictatorship."

Oksana further points out the impossibility of copying the exact concept in different cultures.

"Girls
from, for example, Spain or Luxembourg all have their differences, but
if they accept and understand our idea, they can anchor it in their
experiences and put it to use in their context. We have let the idea
free and we are very happy with girls organising in countries like
Spain, Germany, and France."

No regrets

When
asked if she has any regrets regarding the different actions of Femen,
Oksana directly goes into operational details that could have made the
manifestations more effective, arguing "I could have jumped to come more
close to him".

Further
emphasising that she has become "stronger from this life with all its
experiments", Oksana in general has no major heartaches.

"I'm
very happy about what we did, what we do, and what we will do. That's
why I again say to women from all over the world, and especially from
Luxembourg: Let's be together, and let's fight together!"

By Daniel Isaksson

Oksana Shachko

Born: January 31, 1987, in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine

Lives in: Paris

Interests: Painting, reading, eating, and cats

The DVD release of Alain Margot's 'I Am Femen' documentary featuring Oksana, is scheduled for April 23.

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About FEMEN

The mission of the "FEMEN" movement is to create the most favourable conditions for the young women to join up into a social group with the general idea of the mutual support and social responsibility, helping to reveal the talents of each member of the movement.

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