The reaction of onlookers may be one of shock or, as recently by Russian president Vladimir Putin, undisguised amusement. But the topless actions of Femen do not leave anyone indifferent, regardless in what country or culture they take place. ‘Shock therapy,’ is how Inna Shevchenko, one of Femen’s leaders, callstheir practice of baring their breasts in public. Success guaranteed.
Femen started as a small group of Ukrainian feminists protesting against prostitution, human trafficking and sex tourism, all acute problems in Ukraine. The women first tried to attract the public’s attention to these issues using traditional methods, then altered their tactics and went topless. It was a controversial move even among sympathisers of Femen, for it seemed rather odd at first that women were explicitly using their sexuality to address issues like sexual exploitation.
But, as Shevchenko (now 23) has been eager to explain since, Femen use their bodies as weapons, as billboards, always creating a stark contrast between their sexuality and physical vulnerability on the one hand, and the sharpness and vociferous expression of their message on the other.
Hence the strict instructions given to newcomers not to give in to the urge to please by smiling or posing but, instead, express anger, show the women are fearsome, dead serious and determined, if needs be, to suffer for their cause.
Threats have become a part of everyday life for Femen activists, who aptly call themselves ‘sextremists’. No matter how gruesome, they usually laugh about them. Still, for Shevchenko a tipping point came in 2012, after she had cut down a large wooden cross in the centre of Kiev with a chainsaw. It was an act of protest against the trial in Moscow of three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who had been arrested for staging a provocative political act in a church, and also against the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Soon after, Shevchenko woke up early in the morning to discover that six men were trying to slam her front door. She managed to escape and with little more than her passport and a mobile phone left Ukraine for France, where she applied for political asylum and took to organising Femen as an international movement against masculine oppression and religion.
Always provocative, Femen soon started to make
headlines in France and lots of other countries. In France, members of the centre-right UMP party have even called for a ban of the ‘satanic’ group. Today, Femen is an international movement, with probably several hundred participants all over the world. A measure of the success of Femen is the fear it incites, writes Inna Shevchenko in the French-language edition of The Huffington Post. ‘They are tearing their hairs out, thinking from what angle they can attack Femen.’
By Geert Groot Koerkamp