Is Femen Dying?

The French government surely has cause to regret its decision to shelter Shevchenko and even put a likeness of her face on the national postage stamp— an honor she shares with movie-star icons Brigitte Bardo and Catherine Deneuve. Outside the government, Femen’s enemies include the French far-right and French nationalists, but the country’s Muslims in particular (who account for up to 10 percent of the population) have reason to find the group problematic, even threatening.

The French postage stamp said to be modeled after
Femen's Inna Shevchenko (Francois Mori/Reuters)

Femen angered Muslims across the globe when, in April 2013, they burned a Salafist flag in front of the Great Mosque of Paris. Afterward, the group launched a “Topless Jihad Day” during which it dispatched half-naked activists to besiege Tunisian embassies in Europe and demand the release of its first Tunisian member, Amina Sboui. Sboui had opened a “Femen in Tunisia” page on Facebook and uploaded to it topless photos of herself, with the words “MY BODY BELONGS TO ME AND IS NOT THE SOURCE OF ANYONE’S HONOR” written across her chest in Arabic. For this, she had been drugged, beaten, and kidnapped by her own family. In response to Topless Jihad, offended Muslim women put up a still-popular “Muslim Women Against Femen” page on Facebook. And then Sboui herself, freed from prison in Tunisia last summer after having written “Femen” on a cemetery wall in the city of Kairouan, denounced the movement as Islamophobic and parted ways with Shevchenko.

Shevchenko seemed to deliberately invite charges of Islamophobia when, during Sboui’s detention, she tweeted her outrage at the prison authorities’ forced imposition of the Ramadan fast on inmates: “What can be more stupid than Ramadan? What can be more uglier [sic] then this religion?” The tweet led to vehement denunciations of Femen from the once-favorable French press and calls for the postage stamp bearing Shevchenko’s image to be withdrawn. But, scornful of the constraints of political correctness, she only doubled down with more invective against Islam and its treatment of women. A recent tweet, issued with the URL of a BBC report on ISIS’s rumored, and since debunked, decree mandating female genital mutilation, contains the declaration, “Islam is ugly and disgusting. Islam oppresses, cripples and kills.”

I asked her whether the outrage her anti-Islamic tweets had elicited had given her pause.

“Call me an Islamophobe, but I hate Islam! The masses cannot tolerate bold political announcements. If you say what you really think and ignore the rules of political correctness, people reject you. But such ‘tolerance’ is not for us. Repression against women always comes back in some way to religion, whether it’s Catholicism or Islam.” She turned contemplative. “Wherever I am,” she declared, “I always feel resistance from people. I’m always an outsider.”

I asked her how she judged Femen’s success since her arrival in Paris in 2012.

“We have aimed to encourage the Left and irritate the Right and point out problems women are suffering from. We have done that.” (Indeed, the persecution that drove her and Femen’s other senior members from Kiev to Paris exposed the repressive nature of the Yanukovych government in Ukraine long before the Euromaidan protests erupted.) “We were very happy to have outraged Marine Le Pen”—the leader of France’s far-right National Front—“with our 'Fascist's Epidemic' protest.” That demonstration, which took place in April 2014 as it became apparent that the National Front was headed to victory in elections to the European parliament, involved more than 20 Femen activists with Hitler-style mustaches painted beneath their noses marching on the National Front’s headquarters in Paris. Le Pen had earlier characterized Femen as a “sect of hysterical leftist women.”

Despite her bravado, Shevchenko had changed since I first met her in December 2012. Notes of melancholy occasionally crept into her voice. She had often spoken to me and tweeted about feeling tired; and now and then, her face betrayed fatigue.

She is studying French intensively and may enroll in the Sorbonne next year. But she would not elaborate on her future plans. “I am searching for something new,” she said. “I have dreams but it makes no sense to talk about them now.”

Could she really make the transition from her chaotic existence as a prominent activist to the quiet life of a student?

Possibly not.

“Almost 60 percent of the French didn’t vote in the last elections [to the European Parliament] because they believed there was no one to vote for. I’m thinking of getting French citizenship and founding a political party here—one for women,” she told me.

This would jibe with the aspiration voiced to me by one of the movement’s founders, Anna Hutsol, who hoped that Femen would eventually be “the sinful past of future female politicians.” Femen’s protest in France’s National Assembly may well be the first step in the movement’s transformation to something more influential in the political life of the country that, if only grudgingly, has adopted it.

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

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