Femen, Ukraine's Topless Warriors

Earlier in the day, I had dropped by Femen's headquarters to talk to Anna Hutsol, Femen's founder and director. (Femen clearly has a sense of humor: their office's steel entrance way door sports a pair of blue and yellow metallic breasts, nipples erect.) Aged 28, with cropped, carrot-orange hair and a pacific demeanor, Hutsol hardly resembles an "Amazon," modern-day or ancient. Her lucid, low-key manner of speaking and her frequent references to the works of French proto-feminist Simone de Beauvoir dispel the notion, so frequently voiced by both men and women in Ukraine (and Russia), that there is something flighty, unserious, or tawdry about Femen. Hutsol in any case took such criticism in stride. "Our society isn't used to protests and strikes, and doesn't understand these acts are a way to pressure the authorities. Yet we must protest. No one in power will give us anything otherwise."

Traditionalist gender relations and discrimination against women have served as the key targets of Femen's ire. "As a society we haven't been able to eradicate our Arab mentality towards women," she told me, referring to the widespread belief in Ukraine that women should marry, raise children, and stay away from politics. "We're against patriarchal society, where men try to control a woman's sexuality so that they can be sure who the father of their child is." She added, though, that Ukrainian women were themselves were to an extent culpable. "They just don't understand. They go to a club, show off their tits, and some guy buys them a cocktail, and it's great. No, we say. They don't have to orient their lives around finding a man."

Combating "patriarchal society" means also working to undermine Ukraine's overwhelmingly male political order. In fact, it was the country's virulent, divisive 2010 presidential election campaign pitting candidates Yulia Tymoshenko (now imprisoned on what appear to be politically motivated charges) against pro-Russian, recidivist former convict Viktor Yanukovych that first prompted, she said, Femen to "strip and go hard." The decision to strip was a tough one for the activists, motivated by one thing: "No one paid attention to us before we demonstrated topless." She and her cohorts showed up at the polling station where Yanukovych planned to vote, took off their tops, and chanted "Ukraine Has Been Raped Enough!"

"The police sent five patrol cars to deal with us," says Hutsol.  "The officers demanded to know who we were and what we were after." They were arrested but quickly released, but they had achieved their objective: national attention they had failed to gain when dressed. Always controversial, Femen would not be ignored again. Sometimes, though, approbation has come from unexpected quarters. When the group staged a protest against government plans to raise the pension age, said Anna, "little old ladies came out and really supported us, and some even said, take off your panties too!"

But it was Femen's demonstration in favor of Pussy Riot that brought them worldwide media exposure. On August 17 of this year, the day a Moscow court sentenced three band members to two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," Femen activist Inna Shevchenko stripped and, in front of the cameras, used a chainsaw to demolish a cross erected in central Kiev. Yanukovych, who had earlier dismissed Femen as a "flashy feminist commercial project," and who also, like Putin, regularly ingratiates himself with conservative elements in his society, called the act "a very alarming signal and a dangerous manifestation," and demanded law enforcement authorities give the "harshest response to this act of barbarism." Hutsol was called in for questioning, and a criminal case (for "hooliganism") has been opened against Femen. Ukrainian Cossacks then harassed the group, plastering Femen's door with a sign reading "A Woman's Path Goes Only From the Front Door to the Stove." Helping stir up negative sentiment against Femen, she says, were media accounts (which she calls untrue) that Shevchenko had destroyed a cross commemorating victims of Stalinist repression. "In fact we cut down a cross erected by Greek Catholic Ukrainians where they intended to build a church."

From prison a Pussy Riot member came out against Femen's desecration of the cross. Hutsol reacted with compassion to the disavowal, telling me that she understood pressure the band was under behind bars. In any case, Femen's new-found fame has sparked all sorts of rumors about their integrity, mostly centering around allegations that they are paid handsomely by unseen donors eager to undermine Ukraine's national identity.

"Tymoshencko and Yanukovych did pay people to protest, so many people think all demonstrators get money. We've heard that everyone from the patriarch to the State Department to Putin is paying us. There are so many rumors in the press but no one answers for them." An American businessman gave them modest, initial financial aid but has since distanced himself from the group. Funding now comes from donations collected through the group's web site and from Femenshop, their on-line emporium of t-shirts and other paraphernalia bearing their logo.

So what's next for Femen? Hutsol says Femen considered starting a political party but decided against it. Street protests remain their forte. Her November 2011 arrest by Vatican police on Saint Peter's Square during the Pope's Sunday address thwarted her plans to protest against the Catholic Church's stance on women, but only whetted her appetite for expansion abroad. (Another group member did manage to disrobe there that day and wave a placard reading FREEDOM FOR WOMEN.) Last fall Femen opened an affiliate in Paris -- and in a Muslim neighborhood, no less -- where they are training European activists and planning demonstrations across the continent; they also have members in Brazil, another country known for its sex tourism. Russia, for the time being, is out as a battleground; authorities recently detained Hutsol on a visit to Saint Petersburg, declared her persona non grata, and deported her.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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