Off with her tee!

After the Indian embassy in Kyiv opened criminal proceedings against a Ukranian group of topless feminist protesters, activist Inna Shevchenko questions India's notion of freedom, in a chat with Anuradha Varma.

While browsing the archive of a photo agency website, we spot an image of a 20-year-old attractive blonde, her shoulder-length hair held in place by a 70s-style headband, standing topless before a mirror applying lipstick with the focus of a sharp shooter. Visible in the mirror too, is the reflection of a friend holding a paint brush doused in black paint, waiting to write a slogan against her breasts.

A day after this 'rehearsal' in a flat in Moscow, we are told the girls - all topless - barged into a polling station, where Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had voted. These young women were questioning the legitimacy of a vote they say is skewed to help the former KGB spy return as Russia's president. Police officers dragged them out of the room by their hair. This was just another day at work for the activists of provocative Ukranian feminist group, FEMEN.

It was India's turn to taste their venom, when topless activists sporting nose rings, maang teekas and mehendi climbed the balcony of the Indian ambassador's residence in Kyiv, Ukraine, in January. They knocked down the tricolour and carried banners that read, 'Ukranians are not prostitutes'. They were reacting to the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs directive to monitor the visa applications of Ukrainian, Russian and Kazakh women aged 15 to 40 to weed out sex workers. Earlier this month, a furious Indian embassy began criminal proceedings against the demonstrators, who now face up to five years in prison, and the possibility of a lock-down of their organisation.

"The reaction is strange," says 21-year-old Inna Shevchenko, in a telephonic chat from Kyiv. Her voice is sombre. That's strange for someone with enough grit to go head-to-head with the KGB and Minsk police after a demonstration against the authoritative Belarusian president. The police reportedly stripped Shevchenko and two colleagues, doused them in petrol and threatened to burn them, before abandoning the girls in a forest near the village of Beka.

Excerpts from an interview: What is your reaction to India pressing criminal charges against FEMEN demonstrators? The Indian reaction is strange. We were protesting against what they said - that all women of the Soviet Union are prostitutes. And we did nothing wrong with the Indian flag. Their reaction indicates that they are wary of women activists and their opinion. It's a comment on the mindset of the people working at the embassy. FEMEN's role is to protect any woman, even if she's an Indian.

What attracted you to FEMEN? I was a student of journalism in Kyiv and worked part-time with the city government press office, when I met FEMEN founder Anna Gutsol in 2009. The group wasn't all that big then. Nothing drove me to it; it's not like someone raped me. Initially, I had found the idea of women activists strange. But, then, when I grew aware of the problems Ukrainian women faced, I realised I could change lives. Suddenly, a month after I started, I lost my job because I was working for FEMEN. In the last two-and-a-half years, I have raised awareness about women's rights and emancipation among young girls.

Isn't a topless protest against the very core of feminism? Aren't you commodifying the female body? We're new-age feminists, not the sort that believe in writing articles and hanging around bookstores. We believe in fighting for our rights. We are saying the same things feminists are, but in a different way.

Was it easy to go topless? I couldn't imagine doing it, but we needed to if we wanted to draw attention to our cause. We wanted to shock people. They see pictures of naked women on billboards and in magazines, but when they see us in the streets, they jump.

Do you remember the first time you went topless? Clearly. It was on Ukrainian Independence Day in 2010. Taking the decision to go topless was very difficult, but it changed me in an instant. I forgot what people would say. It was complete liberation. And that's how I feel each time I strip.

How did your family react? My parents come from the erstwhile Soviet Union and for them, it's a shock. My mother has come around, but she's worried because I end up getting arrested. But, we continue to talk about what's wrong in the country - the importance of equal rights for women, poverty and the lack of jobs.

FEMEN is against legalising prostitution. Wouldn't it, in fact, empower sex workers with the right to choose? We have enough problems surrounding prostitution in Ukraine. Imagine what legalising it will do. Girls at massage salons are merely sex slaves. We want women to enjoy opportunities so that they needn't turn to prostitution. In Germany, it is legal, but research has revealed that only one per cent of sex workers have benefitted.

Has the Soviet Union hangover left women vulnerable? Yes, men are discriminatory. There is only one woman minister in our Cabinet, and she's not the sort to speak up for women's rights.

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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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