Five girls are standing topless in skinny jeans, heeled boots and flower crowns yelling into the camera. One is complaining that she is late for her job as a history teacher at the Sorbonne. Four of the five women here are French, although they regularly switch into English — the common Femen language —around Inna Shevchenko, their unofficial leader. Shevchenko, 23, is the only Ukrainian here and the co-founder, alongside Anna Hutsol (still in Kyiv) and Alexandra Shevchenko (now in Germany), of the original movement, which started as a post-Soviet protest and has grown into an international phenomenon.
It seems odd that just as the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign gains serious traction in the UK, across Europe women are signing up to join a topless protest movement. And now Femen is coming to London. Shevchenko says she has been in touch with around a dozen UK sup-porters about setting up a British chapter and wrote recently: ‘Prostitution, laws about immigration, Islamic extremism in UK will not escape Femen’s naked massacre now. Whether it’s Derby’s Al-Madinah school or Buckingham Palace, Femen will always find the way to be where it’s needed.’ She is planning a trip in December, though she is necessarily reluctant to name those who might become involved. Earlier this year, one of her colleagues noted: ‘Our challenge in the UK is to find women who are not afraid of being arrested.’
They have been told that it’s very difficult to create a public disturbance in London — something that is key to their modus operandi. Femen has demonstrated against the Pope in Rome (they were detained by police) and in recent weeks made headlines worldwide when they targeted Paris Fashion Week by storming the catwalk at Nina Ricci, and the Spanish Parliament, where they stripped off in the public gallery to protest about abortion laws. They ambushed Berlusconi at the polling booth in February and ran bare-breasted towards Putin at a trade fair in Germany in April, shouting ‘F*** the dictator’. (He looked on appreciatively.) In Brittany last week topless protesters shouted, ‘Marine, repent!’ at far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Inna Shevchenko, the Ukrainian co-founder of Femen
‘Femen has become international now,’ says Shevchenko. ‘There are 80 of us in Paris, 70 in Kyiv. Lots of other places are showing interest: Belgium, Canada. I’ve just come back from training a group in Spain. Europe is a beautiful place. But it’s a façade. We are scratching that façade.’ During training, Femen activists work on their physical fitness to make them ready for confrontations. They have strict rules about their protests: no smiling in photographs, bare your teeth and be aggressive. At their Parisian headquarters a huge poster from Elle magazine asks the question that now defines Femen: ‘Do you have to show your breasts to make a point?’ The blown-up photographs on the walls depicting Femen in action show that their uniform is not standard, though: while lots of the Femen demonstrators wear the regulation jeans or denim cut-offs, there are a few in thigh-high boots and frilly pants. Yes, women should be allowed to wear what they want. And, yes, they have the right to peaceful protest. But topless in thigh-high boots and frilly pants? Is this really the modern equivalent of starving yourself until women get the vote?
Shevchenko says the movement is being taken seriously: ‘In the Ukraine, people would criticise us and try to marginalise us, saying, “Oh, you’re all just young and pretty...” And it was true: we were all students. But in France we have women aged 20 to 50 involved. This one woman, who was 40 and had two children, wanted to be involved. I was a bit shocked. I said to her, “Our actions are extreme. Sometimes we end up getting arrested. What about your children?” She replied, “They have a father.” To me, that was revolutionary.’
This story represents the great paradox at the heart of Femen. Shevchenko is the first to admit that she is, by some standards, conservative. Having grown up in post-Soviet Ukraine, she had no idea what feminism was and when Femen first started in 2008 they refused to see it as ‘feminist’, simply calling it a ‘women’s movement’. Surely fighting for women’s rights in the Ukraine is not the same as fighting for them in Paris? And yet something about what Femen represents has caught the imagination of women in other countries.
‘I lived to the age of 20 in a country of political ignorance,’ she says. ‘People did not discuss politics.’ She grew up in Kherson, a small town near the Black Sea; her father is in the military, her mother works as an administrator. They have struggled with her activism but are now more tolerant of it, although they speak rarely. She moved to Kyiv to study journalism and eventually worked in the state press service for the mayor’s office in Kyiv. ‘At first it seemed prestigious. And then I realised it was all propaganda. I became disillusioned with the media.’
Femen activists storm the Nina Ricci S/S 2014 show in Paris in September
Femen was set up by a group of students. They wanted to protest against sex tourism, the ‘Ukrainian bride’ industry and the prevalence of domestic violence. ‘It was about what we saw around us. So many women whose boyfriends beat them up.’
They held protests in which they used street theatre — dressing up in men’s suits or as prostitutes — to get attention. But it was always reported as a protest by a ‘student movement’ rather than a ‘women’s movement’.
Then came the toplessness, famously suggested by Victor Svyatski, a male activist who was, as Shevchenko has written, ‘the father of Femen’. ‘I was surprised: why have we suddenly acquired a father? Where is the mother? Having been born in a country in which feminism was unknown, in the best traditions of patriarchal society we just accepted the fact of a man taking control of us. We accepted this because we did not know how to resist and fight it.’ Now, she says, they make their own decisions. According to a recent interview in Der Spiegel, Svyatski says he is no longer involved: ‘Femen has already shaken off a small patriarchy, namely me.’
The toplessness was not something Shevchenko approved of initially. ‘I would never go topless on a beach,’ she laughs. ‘I would be too embarrassed.’ She agrees that it’s not an ideal situation but a ‘necessary evil’. ‘If Femen hadn’t gone topless, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. At first people were shocked. Now they want to understand. They say, “Do you really think you can change the world like this?” And, yes, I think we can.’
Shevchenko came to Paris 18 months ago after events in Ukraine made it unsafe for her to stay. ‘I didn’t imagine I would ever leave my country and never be able to return. But the President has said, “We demand the arrest of these types of activists.” So I realised there was no way back and asked for political asylum here in France.’ What does she live on? ‘Donations from the public. Money from a book deal I’m working on with a French journalist. The organisation is poor, though. We have lots of groups who have offered us money but who have their own agenda.’ They also get some money from the online Femen Shop, which sells mugs, T-shirts and a ‘boobsprint on canvas’ poster.
Throughout our conversation, I’m impressed by Shevchenko’s idealism and commitment. She hasn’t heard of Germaine Greer, but that’s pretty normal for someone born in Ukraine in 1990. I just can’t approve of Femen’s tactics, though. It’s not that I particularly mind them baring their breasts, even though it often causes the reverse of the effect they’re trying to achieve — Putin gave a thumbs-up to it, for a start — I’m more worried about their safety. When Shevchenko talks about what happened to her after a protest in Belarus in December 2011 was broken up by what she calls ‘the KGB’, she is in tears. A group of alleged kidnappers bound and gagged her and two other Femen members, cut their hair and poured petrol on them. She says they thought they would die.
A Femen portester is removed from the High Court in Stockholm last month
Of course, the human race needs brave people who will stand up for a cause and speak out against injustice. But is this a cause worth risking your life for? Shevchenko says the Suffragettes would argue that it is. I worry that Femen actively courts the outrage of other marginalised, extremist groups. This summer a fire broke out at their Paris headquarters the day after they received a threat: ‘Burn, witches.’ They blame ‘Islamists’. Perhaps this would be worth the risk if their message was getting out. But I think it risks being unintentionally obscured by topless photo opportunities.
Shevchenko says this is typical patriarchal thinking: ‘People say, “What have you changed?” Well, we don’t want to change laws. We are a street movement. Our mission is to shake things up and get people like Putin and Berlusconi to realise they are not so powerful. It’s our revenge for everything that has been done against women in the name of patriarchy.’ So it’s not about equality then? ‘No. Not equality. Superiority. They took everything from us. They left us only our sexual function.’
She reminds me that Femen’s weapon of choice — breast-baring — came from a simple idea: ‘If you do it topless, everyone will listen.’ The thing is, I’m not sure they are listening. But they’re definitely looking. ES
FEMEN COMES TO THE CAPITAL. BUT CAN IT DO ANY GOOD?
‘Feminists? They’re more like sextivists,’ says Charlotte Raven
There are no ugly members of Femen. Or middle-aged women with sagging breasts and Caesarean scars. They wouldn’t let me loose with a chainsaw at one of their protests. This always made me suspicious about their sextivism; Femen is pitched at the global media.
Femen is one of the many depressing features of the internet age — an international brand with as much name recognition as Gucci, that captures attention and doesn’t convert it into anything. Femen’s version of girlpower is as sterile and alienating as the Spice Girls, and more patriarchal.
‘No woman would think of that,’ my nine-year-old daughter averred. ‘Running around the streets naked is a total man idea.’ She wasn’t surprised to learn that Femen was conceived and managed by a Simon Fulleresque Svengali. A recent documentary about the group outed Victor Svyatski as the mastermind behind it.
‘These girls are weak,’ he says in the film. ‘They don’t have the strength of character. They don’t even have the desire to be strong. Instead, they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors that prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities that it was essential to teach them.’
There was no male Svengali behind Feminist Times. Perhaps we would have benefited from a patriarch like Svyatski at the helm.
I might have been more punctual and less prone to hysteria. We probably would have decided that getting our tits out in public was the quickest way of getting our message about third-wave feminism across and found a vast international audience for our ideas.
But we would have felt terribly embarrassed, as Femen must do, if this dependent relationship was brought into public view. I feel sorry for them as I wonder whether they’ll live to regret their time as sextivists.
Charlotte Raven is the founding editor of Feminist Times
‘They take their tops off because nobody will listen to them,’ says Alex Clark
Bodies are powerful and all the more so when they are naked. When the actual and symbolic protection of clothing is removed, the nude is rendered utterly vulnerable but also possessed of a primal power to arrest and disturb. One reason that nudity is confusing is because it makes us think of lots of different things at once, things that ought not to go together: newly born babies are often naked, as are the ill, the elderly, the insane and the dispossessed, but also the people we find sexually attractive or are about to have sex with.
Criticism of Femen has focused on this last resonance to the exclusion of very much else. The women of Femen, it is argued, are using their sexuality to gain attention, but they are also its unwitting victims; they think that men are looking at them because they are shocked, but in fact they are just ogling them.
Last month, Femen co-founder Alexandra Shevchenko (right) found herself on Channel 4 News alongside The Sunday Times’ Eleanor Mills, who remarked that she had done a ‘quick canvass’ of her newsroom and been met with a lot of ‘wry smiles’. I felt my hackles rise. Why is it the breasts that are the problem and not the newsroom?
If Femen populates its movement with attractive young women to the exclusion of others, that sucks; ditto, if they collude with the commodification of dissent. But before we assume that’s inevitable, why don’t we listen to what they are telling us? They take their tops off because nobody will listen to them otherwise. Which says more about us than it does about them.
Alex Clark is the acting deputy editor of ES