Femen in Paris: Ukraine's Topless Warriors Move West

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."

Bouton concurred. "Always here men get the jobs and are better paid, treat women as objects, and have affairs with prostitutes. For me this is the real face of French misogyny."

Shevchenko summed things up: "France is so nice and developed, and relations between men and women not so difficult. But women are oppressed everywhere and raped every day. Even here."

"Guerrilla" aptly describes Femen's protests, which are extremely confrontational and can verge on the anarchic. The rigors of their weekly training session aim to prepare members to both incite reactions and deal with the response (which is usually from the police; Civitas was an exception). I had arrived at the Lavoir Parisien to find nine French members -- fully dressed in leotards or tracksuits -- standing in front of Shevchenko in the dimly lit hall, holding posters with slogans -- "Saudi Arabia Take Off Your Clothes!" "Nudity is Freedom!" "Liberté Laïcité!" (Secularism [is] Freedom!) -- above their heads.

"We are not trying to be beautiful or sexy," Shevchenko said, addressing them in English. (Neither she nor Shachko has had time to learn French, so English is the language of instruction.) "We use our nudity as a weapon, to irritate people. We're taking off what's on the outside to show we can't stand it anymore on the inside. Femen gets naked for our freedom." She explained the correspondence between a government's reaction to female nudity and the amount of freedom women enjoy. Then she showed how to demonstrate, Femen-style. "Always feel the aggression and anger. Stand with your poster held high and your feet apart, like a winner, and show that you're secure in your every motion, even when a man is going to beat you. Show me now what you can do!"

The trainees approached her individually, raised their posters, and shouted their slogans in her face. "Fuck the Church!" "In Gay We Trust!" "Nudity is Freedom!"

"No, stop smiling!" Shechenko replied. "Femen never smiles, it's a rule! . . . Scream as a wild animal! . . . we work in front of cameras, so we need to illustrate our message and show anger! . . . scream -- no, scream your message! . . . hate the pimps! . . . It's not usual for us to show aggression, but we're Femen and we do!"

Shevchenko then put the women through an improvised obstacle course. Trying to keep their posters in the air, they jumped over a red-and-white "police tape," crawled between and under tables, and jumped up to circle back and repeat, shouting, "Nudity is Freedom!"

"Faster!" ordered Shevchenko. "Hold your slogans higher! We do our actions on the top of cars sometimes, you must be fit!"

The women then paired off for calisthenics -- sit-ups, push-ups, and even partial squats with partners riding piggyback. Self-defense followed -- mostly drilling in jujitsu moves to break (an arresting police officer's) grip on wrists and arms.

But even when detention is inevitable, the protest doesn't end.

"When the police attack," Shevchenko said, "they have one goal: to stop you from protesting, take you somewhere, and let you go. Your goal is to try to gain time for your demonstration. You fall down when attacked, and pitch and roll around, shouting your slogan."

With Shevchenko watching, pairs of trainee "officers" then attempted to detain an "activist," meeting with varying degrees of her approval. Then Shachko stepped up. When her "officers" grabbed her arms, she lurched, yanked, and twisted about, almost pulling them off their feet. But she did not drop to the floor.

"What are you doing, Oksana!" Inna shouted in Russian.

"I usually feel very strong during a protest, so I don't fall," Shachko replied. The next time, she did hit the ground, squirming, kicking, and rolling, breaking her assailants' hold and leaping to her feet, poster held high.

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

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