Femen in Paris: Ukraine's Topless Warriors Move West

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.

"We're always raised being told, 'be careful or you could be raped; it's always the woman's fault.' But it's men who need to be taught not to rape." Inna added her perspective: "In Ukraine, you're always taught it's your mission to look good, but if you get raped, they say, 'Ah, look at how you look!' Always the women is blamed, always the woman's role is to please men."

Julia presented the clearest, most outlandish examples of retrograde remarks on rape she could find, which all happened to have come from U.S. Republican Party members over the past two decades. "'Legitimate rape' . . . 'honest rape' . . . 'forcible rape' . . . 'easy rape' . . . 'enjoyable rape' . . . 'gift from god' rape" -- the last, in reference, she explained, to the fetus conceived following the crime, which must not be aborted. (Several of the group members voiced disbelief that American politicians could have said such things.) She then returned to France, to the scandal-ridden Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who faced rape charges in New York but was not prosecuted, and who then fended off rape accusations levied by a French journalist. "Rich and powerful people rape and suffer no penalties. Look, DSK is free. This sends a message to young men, that you have power and money, so you can rape." (DSK has not been convicted of rape, but recently reached a civil settlement, the terms of which remain secret, with his New York accuser).

With that, the session adjourned. During our subsequent talk, I asked Shevchenko to describe working with French women. "We've created a culture called Femen. Here, maybe we would never otherwise be friends, but we share language and beliefs." She does not necessarily planning on remaining in France. Once Femen can sustain itself here without her guidance, she plans to "move to more faraway lands."

Where, specifically?

Her eyes lit up.

"The Middle East."

To confront regimes there, and bare-breasted at that, Femen activists will need all the training they get in Paris, and more. Compared with the reaction the group will surely face south of the Mediterranean, the confrontation with Civitas may end up looking like a minor skirmish.

Video edited by Sarai Suarez

Presented by

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

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