The Woman Behind Femen's Topless Protest Movement

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Whether she's railing against the Catholic hierarchy or battling social conservatives, Ukrainian activist Inna Shevchenko's feminism is a contact sport.

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A Femen movement protester is detained by police officers during a naked protest in London on August 2, 2012. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

PARIS -- Heads turned toward Inna Shevchenko, the 22-year-old Ukrainian leader of the militant feminist group Femen, as she strode into the brass-and-mirrors environs of the café where we had agreed to meet, on the central rue Pierre Lescot, one evening in mid-February. Atop the six-inch high heels of her black felt boots, her wavy, strawberry blonde hair spilling out from beneath a black baseball cap, her eyes mint-green and penetrating, she cut an impressive figure. Femen professes to use female beauty as a weapon, and Shevchenko is well armed.

We exchanged greetings and I ordered us a bottle of Côtes du Rhône. Over the next five hours, she would take only infrequent sips. In her tremolo Russian, she told me that she gets her highs from demonstrating, not alcohol, and had tried vodka only "four or five times." She then complained about being sick with a cold. "I'm not used to being sick." She was supposed to tell me about her personal life, but our talk first turned inevitably to Femen's latest, and some would say, most unsuccessful, démarche of dissent, which took place on February 11.

The Democracy Report

That's when things turned sour for Femen, and for Shevchenko in particular. Within the space of a few hours, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, and, coincidentally, the French National Assembly approved a bill legalizing gay marriage - a Femen cause célèbre, at least since Shevchenko arrived in Paris last August to establish the group's international branch. She decided to fête both events with a coup d'éclat that would prove controversial even for Femen, already known for enacting daring, profanity-laced topless demonstrations involving physical confrontations that almost always end in arrests and, at times, in beatings for the participants. That afternoon, she led seven of her cohorts - all French women in their twenties clad in nondescript overcoats - onto the premises of Notre Dame Cathedral, which was celebrating its 850-year anniversariy with an exhibit of newly forged belfry bells. No mass was underway. As tourists milled about, the activists, having reached the nave, all at once stripped off their coats to reveal their naked torsos, produced felt-wrapped sticks, and jumped the felt-rope barriers around the bells. "Pope No More!" they began chanting, administering rhythmically timed blows to the bells, and halting after each strike, in choreographed fashion, to allow journalists (tipped off by Femen to attend) to snap flash-photos in the gloom and illuminate the messages painted in black on their breasts and backs: POPE NO MORE! POPE GAME OVER! HOMOPHOBE DEGAGE! (HOMPHOBE GET LOST!), and BYE BYE BENOIT!

Security personal quickly set upon the activists. The choreography broke down, with the chaos mounting when the lights were cut, turning the cathedral into a scream-pierced phantasmagoria lit only by flashing cameras. This afforded the nonplussed guards the chance, according to Shevchenko, to beat the women (one of whom lost a tooth) and drag them out onto the square. There, she and her de facto French spokesperson, Julia Javel, 26, explained their act to television crews as a celebration of the "homophobe" pope's departure and the adoption of the same-sex marriage law. Javel added a demand of a distinctly feminist nature: that a woman ascend to the papacy.

The police arrived and a brief pro-forma detention followed. But soon after came unexpectedly harsh official condemnation of the group till then coddled by much of the French media. Paris' mayor Bertrand Delanoë decried the protest as "misplaced" and "inopportune," lamenting it as an "act that caricatures the fine battle for equality between men and women and pointlessly shocks a number of believers." Manuel Valls, France's interior minister, called Femen's romp in the cathedral "futile," professed "consternation," and, though he holds office in a staunchly secular republic, offered his "support to the Catholics of France who might have been insulted by this rude gesture." Even some in the liberal French press accused them of going too far. The national radio station France Inter described the demonstration as "moderately clever" before opining that it recalled "a stupid provocation carried out by retarded adolescents." And that was in Femen's defense.

But there was more. Monseigneur Patrick Jacquin, Notre Dame's rector, then announced that the cathedral may pursue Femen in court on three charges, civil and criminal. Whether the French government decides to indict remains an open question, though it appears unlikely. In any case, in a Huffington Post (U.K. edition) blog post, Shevchenko responded to Jacquin's threats with scorn and defiance, calling the cathedral's administrators "the modern-day Hunchbacks of Notre Dame" and the "heirs to Torquemada," declaring their charges "as empty as the religion itself," and mocking Jacquin in particular as "tormented by forced celibacy," and thus "not capable of distinguishing a woman's breasts from her sex organs," which amounts to professional "incompetence" for one employed by an organization "regularly . . . enmeshed in various types of sexual and pedophilic scandals."

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Ukrainian activist Inna Shevchenko, from the topless women's rights group Femen, poses before the inauguration of their 'training camp' for their fight at the Lavoir Moderne Parisen (LMP) in Paris on September 18, 2012. (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)

Shevchenko both thought up and led the protest, one more in a growing litany of theatrical, attention-grabbing assaults on "patriarchal society" that pit half-naked young women against partisans of the sex industry, dictatorship, domestic violence, and the denial of equal rights for gays. She expressed no regrets.

"Minister Valls spoke in favor of those who had their religious sentiments hurt by our act. Well, we [in Femen] view [religious] tolerance as a sickness." She paused. "When I cut down the cross in Kiev" - the act, carried out in support of Pussy Riot, that angered Ukraine's president and led to physical threats against her and her flight abroad - "France was the first country to approve. But in France, a secular country, it's too much to demonstrate inside a church? Here we have freedom of expression. So I expressed myself freely about religion." She paused again. "Why doesn't anyone think of my feelings as an atheist? For me the cross is a symbol of the bloody Inquisition. Anyway, how can Notre Dame be considered holy? You see all these peddlers there, people walking around with their potato chips and Cokes. It's a business."

(In fact her words described the scene in front of, not within, the cathedral. But she was not far off the mark. In centuries past the Catholic Church sold gullible parishioners get-out-of-purgatory-early indulgences. Now, inside Notre Dame, church workers hawk crystal crosses for 250 euros and small, unadorned commemorative bronze bells for, yes, 850 euros. Who apart from marketing consultants would consider 850 years an "anniversary?")

Shevchenko continued. "Our protest did one thing: it stripped the French of their masks and showed what their so-called progressivism really is. Their reaction was purely Catholic. Their liberalism is just a cover-up, there's nothing behind it. It's all fake." This is strong, uncompromising anti-Gallic verbiage from one who is petitioning the French government for political asylum. Was she worried that such words, to say nothing of a criminal conviction, might adversely affect her chances?

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

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