Femen in Paris: Ukraine's Topless Warriors Move West

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.

Though smaller-boned than many of her fellows, Shachko is perhaps Femen's most pugilistically gifted member. During training, she rarely smiled, and projected a self-assured, almost steely, air. Afterwards, when we spoke, she seemed almost shy, which surprised me given her proven pugnacity. A university graduate, artist, and former iconographer, she originally wanted to join a nunnery. Her parents' opposition to her desire to become, as she put it, "Jesus' wife," prompted her to turn away from religion, read philosophy, discover atheism, and adopt a militant Leftist worldview. She left home at 16 and has lived independently ever since. Routine humiliations she suffered in Ukraine first awakened her spirit of protest.

"In our daily life as women, any day we could be beaten up and raped and no one would know. With our protests we take risks, but at least the world will know what happens to us."

"We [women] were angered that we couldn't even walk around in Kiev without getting propositioned by foreigners, who thought they could buy us a cup of coffee and take us to a hotel for the night. This insulted us. Unfortunately, a lot of our girls do think they can marry a foreigner and find a better life with him in Europe. We think these men are insulting not only us, but our mothers and children by thinking Ukrainian girls are prostitutes."

Like Shevchenko, Shachko has had her share of troubles with the law. In Moscow, on the day of the tainted State Duma elections in December 2012, she and two Femen colleagues carried out a protest that presaged widespread demonstrations to come, and, in fact, the wholesale emergence from the shadows of Russia's opposition movement. At a polling station in the capital, they stripped to the waist, and, with Shachko in the lead, charged and grabbed hold of ballot boxes, shouting, "I'm stealing for Putin" and "Putin is a thief!" She and her co-activists were arrested for "hooliganism" and did two weeks' time.

"The FSB interrogated us," she said. "They wanted to know if the CIA was paying us, telling us we had to stand in Slavic solidarity against the Americans ." The authorities finally declared her persona non grata and deported her. She is wanted in Ukraine, too, for "desecrating a state symbol" -- the Indian flag -- which she used to pummel the door of the Indian embassy in Kiev during a protest against restrictive visa policies that presuppose, she said, that all Ukrainian women are prostitutes -- "an insult to our mothers and to us."

In the Civitas melee, Shachko displayed considerable physical courage, not retreating with the rest, and trading blows with multiple assailants. Wasn't she concerned about getting hurt?

"In our daily life as women, any day we could be beaten up and raped," she answered, "and no one would know. With our protests we take risks, but at least the world will know what happens to us. We fight against inequality, for the working class, against the rich and the politicians." Her tone hardened. "The important thing is I fight for what I believe in, even if it means fighting the police. I'm not afraid."

Once the physical training ended, Inna instructed the group to sit in a circle for the ideological part of the afternoon. Each week, a Femen member prepares a talk on a subject relevant to women. Julia, who sported short-cropped blond hair with magenta tints, introduced the day's topic -- rape.

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

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