Is Femen Dying?

“‘Split’ isn’t the right word,” she told me when we met in Paris. “People are always coming and going from Femen. [Sasha Shevchenko, Zhdanova, and Shachko] are only three members. We have 370 members in France and 25 regular activists in Paris, so how can three leaving be called a split?”

What does Shevchenko make of reports of her movement’s demise?

“Everyone’s so eager to say we’re dead or dying,” she said. “They’re trying to drive us into a corner and minimize our role. We’re used to it. It’s a strategy, a way of shutting doors in our faces. But now look: We’ve just protested in the National Assembly and have been invited to speak there.” 

Shevchenko believes predictions of doom stem from resentment against her movement and a desire, on the part of the French government, to shut down Femen and drive her out of the country. Though the government granted her political asylum in 2013, it has inexplicably refused to pay her the modest financial aid usually accorded refugees. (Two other Ukrainian Femen members say they have received both asylum and the subsidy.) Femen has operated under none-too-subtle surveillance from the French authorities, and Shevchenko finds herself subject to hour-long interrogations by airport security officers whenever she takes flights leaving Europe’s Schengen visa zone. Yet despite the surveillance, in July 2013, a fire erupted in her room at the Lavoir, incinerating the few belongings she had taken with her when she fled Ukraine. The blaze came after a day of death threats (“Burn!” read one message delivered via text message to her cell phone). The police have declined to confirm the fire’s cause, but it looks suspiciously like arson. This March, a man asking for Shevchenko entered the Lavoir and knifed two people, apparently mistaking them for Femen members, and almost wounding Shachko, who escaped spattered with blood. “[The assailant] rented a hotel room across from the Lavoir and was asking the staff where I was, but the police decided he wasn’t attacking Femen, he was just crazy,” Shevchenko told me. It’s more evidence, in her eyes, of official, if underhanded, disregard for her movement.

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.”

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

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