‘Men are scared by uncontrolled naked women’

Inna Shevchenko, a long-standing Femen member, is sitting with me in a beach
bar in Venice. She is fully clothed, I should point out, and is joined by
her fellow activist Alexandra Shevchenko (not a sister, except in the
broader sense). Both women have a wreath of bright field flowers woven
through their silver-blonde hair: a traditional Ukrainian accessory for
young, unmarried women. Femen’s appropriation of this is, of course, ironic.

“Ukrainian women would wear these to attract a husband, but we are playing
with standards of beauty and sexiness,” Inna says. “We transform that. Now
I’m making you scared, my dear man – you don’t find me attractive any more.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are
confronted by a topless Femen demonstrator in Hanover (EPA/JOCHEN LUEBKE)

With them is the Australian filmmaker Kitty Green, whose first feature,
Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, is now playing at the London
Film Festival
. The film charts the early days of Femen, and
particularly their entanglement with Victor Svyatski, a Svengali-like
oddball who for years had been the group’s de facto leader.

Sviyatski certainly had an eye for a good publicity stunt and an ear for a
snappy slogan. But in front of Green’s camera, he admits he is less
interested in the group’s original message – drawing international attention
to the plight of young Ukrainian women for whom adult life is a binary
choice between domestic drudgery and the sex industry – than the medium
(naked girls running around outdoors). Since the film was completed, he and
Femen have parted ways.

In Ukraine is Not a Brothel we see Sviyatski berating the women, calling them
“weak”, “spineless” and “bitches”. In one sequence, he explains that he
actively discouraged protesters he deemed to be less attractive from taking
part in Femen stunts. Having a rampant misogynist at the helm of your
anti-misogyny group was, Inna and Alexandra admit, problematic, although
both say they are glad for the opportunity to exorcise this particular demon
in public.

“Making the film was like a confession,” says Alexandra. “We decided to trust
Kitty and to show everything. When we started Femen we were trying to get
advice from different people and we turned to Victor, who then started to
oppress us.

“He didn’t beat us, but it was psychological, and this film shows it can
happens everywhere – even to feminists who have decided to fight against the
patriarchy. And we should recognise it in the very moment it happens, and
fight back.”

Green first encountered Femen in early 2011, in a report in a Melbourne
newspaper. Enthralled, she quit her job with the Australian Broadcasting
Corporation, flew to Eastern Europe with a camera, and spent the next 14
months living with them on the outskirts of Kyiv and documenting their work.

To many westerners, topless feminism will sound at worst murkily cynical and
at best a contradiction in terms, and Green admits she was sceptical at
first about the group’s methods. This changed quickly, however, when she
arrived in Ukraine.

“Everything was startling for me,” she says. “I grew up in a very progressive
area of Melbourne, and all the women I knew worked. I knew there was such a
thing as gender inequality of course, but never appreciated what it might
actually be like. And it was only when I got to Ukraine that I realised how
big the divide between the sexes is.

“The women stay at home and aren’t allowed to speak up. And at the protests,
when the police see women who aren’t doing either of those things, they
react brutally. They would push the girls and shove them and throw me down,
and me too for being with them.”

Alexandra adds: “When men see uncontrolled naked women, that they used to see
only in their beds, out in the street, screaming against them, they are
afraid. They see that this regime that has stood for centuries is starting
to shake.”

For me, too, Green’s footage of the reaction to the protests is shocking.
Burly, uniformed men grab at the women’s limbs and hair, dragging them
across the ground and hurling them into vans, in which they are driven to a
police cell, and perhaps worse.

A Femen protest in Kyiv, Ukraine (REX)

During a 2011 action in Belarus, in which Femen protested the alleged
vote-rigging that had returned Alexander Lukashenko to power in that country
the previous year, three members including Inna Shevchenko were scooped up
off the streets of Minsk by men in dark clothing and driven in vans to a
forest on the Ukrainian border, where they were stripped naked, beaten up
and doused in oil. Green, who had filmed the protest, had her camera
confiscated and her footage deleted.

When I ask Inna about the ordeal, she talks about it in flatly matter-of-fact
terms. “Every day I get hundreds of death threats on my phone,” she shrugs.
“Every time we speak out, we get threats – ‘we will burn you witch’ or ‘we
will cut your head off’ or ‘a bottle of acid is prepared for you’. It’s the
lifestyle.”

But for them, the alternative is unacceptable. “If we hadn’t started Femen we
would be living the terrible life of normal Ukrainian women,” says
Alexandra. “Sexual slaves or domestic slaves, or slaves to our work.

“It’s easy to become a prostitute in Ukraine because what else is
there? When a young woman goes to an office to look for a job, they say we
are too young, or not educated, or even if we have a master’s degree we will
be pregnant or married in a few months.

“I’ve been told that if I want a job I have to sleep with the boss. I don’t
want to? OK, then I don’t get the job.”

Later that day, it occurs to me that these Ukrainian women stripping off on
their own terms might have something in common with the black Americans who
have ‘reclaimed’ racist language: something that once symbolised the sheer
hopelessness of their situation becomes a means to push back.

And of course there’s an element of playing the media here – but if they
hadn’t gone topless, would Femen have caught the eye of a young
documentarist on the other side of the planet, looking for a subject for her
first feature? And would you have just finished a 1,350-word article on
women’s rights in Ukraine?

Ukraine Is Not a Brothel is showing in the London
Film Festival
on October 18 and 20

Via: telegraph.co.uk


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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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