In France, members of the protest group have been beaten and detained, but they're using the experience to train for a bigger challenge.
PARIS -- In mid-November, when Inna Shevchenko, 22, Femen's leader in France, and Oksana Shachko, 25, a veteran Femen activist, heard that the militant Catholic organization Institut Civitas was planning to protest against a proposed law that would legalize same-sex marriage in the country, they decided to stage an in situ counter-demonstration in the controversial, deliberately provocative style for which their group has won no small measure of notoriety. Along with eight French members of Femen, they donned nuns' habits, painted their bodies with slogans (FUCK CHURCH, GAY IS OK, FUCK RELIGION), equipped themselves with aerosol canisters of white powder marked Jesus Sperm, and set out for the Civitas rally. Once there, they stripped down to their black panties and black and white head veils, and began marching, breasts bare, brandishing their "sperm," and chanting, in an ever more strident crescendo, "In Gay We Trust! In Gay We Trust!" A minute later, they halted and sprayed their "ejaculate" into the startled, predictably hostile crowd of Catholic fundamentalists.
In the ensuing gaseous white-out, male Civitas demonstrators set about savagely beating and kicking the Femen activists, who tried to keep up their chanting between blows to the head and body and screams of fear. Most of the women retreated halfway down the block, stopping nevertheless to blow kisses to their assailants and shout, rather unconvincingly, "We love you!" But demonstrators pursued them. They took off again and reassembled at a safe distance, and, battered and visibly shaken up, chanted some more for the cameras, before allowing police vans to carry them out of range of further mayhem.
In the brawl, Shevchenko lost an incisor and Shachko got a bloody nose, and most of their cohorts suffered cuts and bruises. Though Shevchenko knew of Civitas' extremist reputation, such violence was hardly what she expected when arriving in reputedly liberal Paris to establish, at the behest of French feminists, Femen's international "training center" and its first official presence abroad.
A minute later, they halted and sprayed their "ejaculate" into the startled, predictably hostile crowd of Catholic fundamentalists.
Beneath a banner reading "We Came, We Stripped, We Conquered," as Shachko jumped rope nearby, her hoodie up, I spoke with Shevchenko just after a training session in the historic, if run-down, Lavoir Moderne Parisien theater that serves as Femen's international headquarters in the poor, mostly Muslim Goutte d'Or neighborhood. (Femen wasted no time in making its presence felt here, inaugurating their new home abroad in August with a topless march through the district, their naked torsos painted with slogans such as "Muslims Let's Get Naked!" and "Our God is a Woman!") She shrugged off her injury, telling me, in a slightly tremulous, surprisingly vulnerable voice, that she "had no problem losing a tooth" for Femen. (For all the anger she displays at demonstrations, she comes off as warm and modest in person.) Far worse was her all-night detention a year ago in Minsk after protesting on the steps of the KGB building against the country's dictatorial president Alexander Lukashenko. Then, members of the country's security services seized her, along with Shachko and another activist, and drove them into the forest, where they were threatened, taunted, disrobed, beaten, and dowsed in oil and feathers, before being finally abandoned during the winter night somewhere near the Ukrainian border. Undaunted, she called that the "best day . . . because I realized what I'm capable of doing for my cause."
A journalist by profession who once worked for the mayor's press office in Kiev, Shevchenko had not expected to end up living in France. In 2010 she took part in her first demonstration with Femen -- a topless protest against Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov and his remark that political "reforms aren't a woman's business." She was fired from her prestigious job as a result, and decided to devote herself fulltime to Femen. But last August, after she sawed down a cross (to express solidarity with Pussy Riot members jailed for performing their Femen-inspired "punk prayer" in a Moscow cathedral), Ukraine's ex-con president Viktor Yanukovych publicly demanded that she be harshly punished. Early in the morning a few days later, several men -- agents of Ukraine's security services, she assumes -- tried to break into her apartment. She grabbed her passport, jumped out the first story window, and fled Ukraine for Paris. She was subsequently charged in absentia with "hooliganism."
Femen now has 150,000 members worldwide. Femen in France so far counts 30 local activists, the only Ukrainians regularly present being Shachko and Shevchenko. At the weekly orientation session preceding my visit, 20 aspirants showed up, many spurred to attend by the publicity surrounding l'affaire Civitas. Here as elsewhere, Femen has pledged to fight the sex industry, the church and its traditionalist stances against women, and "patriarchal society," as well as those who oppose equal rights for the LGBT community. Recently in Paris they marched on the Egyptian embassy in defense of Egyptian blogger and women's rights advocate Aliaa Magda ElMahdy (who earned death threats by posting nude pictures of herself in protest against "a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy"); stormed an IKEA store (angered by the company's decision to Photoshop women out of its Saudi Arabian catalogue); and attempted to occupy the Ministry of Justice, which it dubbed "a club of rapists" following a Parisian court's surprise acquittal of 10 men accused of raping minors.
Each Femen demonstration is contrived to shock, generate publicity, and come off well on camera. Though in theory any woman may join, almost all the activists are 20-something, fit, and attractive. In protest-spirited France, they quickly became media darlings. The newspaper Le Figaro selected Shevchenko as one of the most influential women of 2012, and the weekly culture magazine Les InRocKuptibles featured her and French activist Éloïse Bouton, a 29-year-old singer, on one of their December covers. Last month, Shevchenko even spoke at the prestigious Institut d'études politiques de Paris, aka Sciences Po, about her group's "popular kind of feminism adapted for the younger generation."
Shevchenko has resisted well-meaning French attempts at adoption: she remains a staunch Ukrainian patriot and told me that she regrets she can no longer work in her own country. Femen, she pledged, will be international. "We have members in Brazil, Germany, the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria, and Tunisia. And we are not just about bare breasts, but bare breasts in action."
But why should "bare breasts in action" draw so much attention here in France, where topless bathing on beaches has been common for decades? (Nudity elsewhere in public is proscribed.) I put the question to Marie-Carline, a 26-year-old French journalist and Femen activist who had just gone through the training session.
"Showing breasts on the street is a guerrilla act," she replied, "a work of art. Many here are extremely conservative and see this as debauchery." Was Femen really needed in France, widely regarded as one of Europe's most liberal countries? I asked. "Certainly," she said. "One out of eight women here suffers violence, you get harassed on the street, and we are paid less than men. My own episode of sexual violence pushed me to join."