Femen in Paris: Ukraine's Topless Warriors Move West

In France, members of the protest group have been beaten and detained, but they're using the experience to train for a bigger challenge.

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Police detain an activist from women's rights group Femen as she protests in front of the Olympic stadium in Kiev on July 1st, 2012. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

PARIS -- In mid-November, when Inna Shevchenko, 22, Femen's leader in France, and Oksana Shachko, 25, a veteran Femen activist, heard that the militant Catholic organization Institut Civitas was planning to protest against a proposed law that would legalize same-sex marriage in the country, they decided to stage an in situ counter-demonstration in the controversial, deliberately provocative style for which their group has won no small measure of notoriety. Along with eight French members of Femen, they donned nuns' habits, painted their bodies with slogans (FUCK CHURCH, GAY IS OK, FUCK RELIGION), equipped themselves with aerosol canisters of white powder marked Jesus Sperm, and set out for the Civitas rally. Once there, they stripped down to their black panties and black and white head veils, and began marching, breasts bare, brandishing their "sperm," and chanting, in an ever more strident crescendo, "In Gay We Trust! In Gay We Trust!" A minute later, they halted and sprayed their "ejaculate" into the startled, predictably hostile crowd of Catholic fundamentalists.

In the ensuing gaseous white-out, male Civitas demonstrators set about savagely beating and kicking the Femen activists, who tried to keep up their chanting between blows to the head and body and screams of fear. Most of the women retreated halfway down the block, stopping nevertheless to blow kisses to their assailants and shout, rather unconvincingly, "We love you!" But demonstrators pursued them. They took off again and reassembled at a safe distance, and, battered and visibly shaken up, chanted some more for the cameras, before allowing police vans to carry them out of range of further mayhem.

In the brawl, Shevchenko lost an incisor and Shachko got a bloody nose, and most of their cohorts suffered cuts and bruises. Though Shevchenko knew of Civitas' extremist reputation, such violence was hardly what she expected when arriving in reputedly liberal Paris to establish, at the behest of French feminists, Femen's international "training center" and its first official presence abroad.

Beneath a banner reading "We Came, We Stripped, We Conquered," as Shachko jumped rope nearby, her hoodie up, I spoke with Shevchenko just after a training session in the historic, if run-down, Lavoir Moderne Parisien theater that serves as Femen's international headquarters in the poor, mostly Muslim Goutte d'Or neighborhood. (Femen wasted no time in making its presence felt here, inaugurating their new home abroad in August with a topless march through the district, their naked torsos painted with slogans such as "Muslims Let's Get Naked!" and "Our God is a Woman!") She shrugged off her injury, telling me, in a slightly tremulous, surprisingly vulnerable voice, that she "had no problem losing a tooth" for Femen. (For all the anger she displays at demonstrations, she comes off as warm and modest in person.) Far worse was her all-night detention a year ago in Minsk after protesting on the steps of the KGB building against the country's dictatorial president Alexander Lukashenko. Then, members of the country's security services seized her, along with Shachko and another activist, and drove them into the forest, where they were threatened, taunted, disrobed, beaten, and dowsed in oil and feathers, before being finally abandoned during the winter night somewhere near the Ukrainian border. Undaunted, she called that the "best day . . . because I realized what I'm capable of doing for my cause."

A journalist by profession who once worked for the mayor's press office in Kiev, Shevchenko had not expected to end up living in France. In 2010 she took part in her first demonstration with Femen -- a topless protest against Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov and his remark that political "reforms aren't a woman's business." She was fired from her prestigious job as a result, and decided to devote herself fulltime to Femen. But last August, after she sawed down a cross (to express solidarity with Pussy Riot members jailed for performing their Femen-inspired "punk prayer" in a Moscow cathedral), Ukraine's ex-con president Viktor Yanukovych publicly demanded that she be harshly punished. Early in the morning a few days later, several men -- agents of Ukraine's security services, she assumes -- tried to break into her apartment. She grabbed her passport, jumped out the first story window, and fled Ukraine for Paris. She was subsequently charged in absentia with "hooliganism."

Femen now has 150,000 members worldwide. Femen in France so far counts 30 local activists, the only Ukrainians regularly present being Shachko and Shevchenko. At the weekly orientation session preceding my visit, 20 aspirants showed up, many spurred to attend by the publicity surrounding l'affaire Civitas. Here as elsewhere, Femen has pledged to fight the sex industry, the church and its traditionalist stances against women, and "patriarchal society," as well as those who oppose equal rights for the LGBT community. Recently in Paris they marched on the Egyptian embassy in defense of Egyptian blogger and women's rights advocate Aliaa Magda ElMahdy (who earned death threats by posting nude pictures of herself in protest against "a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy"); stormed an IKEA store (angered by the company's decision to Photoshop women out of its Saudi Arabian catalogue); and attempted to occupy the Ministry of Justice, which it dubbed "a club of rapists" following a Parisian court's surprise acquittal of 10 men accused of raping minors.

Each Femen demonstration is contrived to shock, generate publicity, and come off well on camera. Though in theory any woman may join, almost all the activists are 20-something, fit, and attractive. In protest-spirited France, they quickly became media darlings. The newspaper Le Figaro selected Shevchenko as one of the most influential women of 2012, and the weekly culture magazine Les InRocKuptibles featured her and French activist Éloïse Bouton, a 29-year-old singer, on one of their December covers. Last month, Shevchenko even spoke at the prestigious Institut d'études politiques de Paris, aka Sciences Po, about her group's "popular kind of feminism adapted for the younger generation."

Shevchenko has resisted well-meaning French attempts at adoption: she remains a staunch Ukrainian patriot and told me that she regrets she can no longer work in her own country. Femen, she pledged, will be international. "We have members in Brazil, Germany, the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria, and Tunisia. And we are not just about bare breasts, but bare breasts in action."

But why should "bare breasts in action" draw so much attention here in France, where topless bathing on beaches has been common for decades? (Nudity elsewhere in public is proscribed.) I put the question to Marie-Carline, a 26-year-old French journalist and Femen activist who had just gone through the training session.

"Showing breasts on the street is a guerrilla act," she replied, "a work of art. Many here are extremely conservative and see this as debauchery." Was Femen really needed in France, widely regarded as one of Europe's most liberal countries? I asked. "Certainly," she said. "One out of eight women here suffers violence, you get harassed on the street, and we are paid less than men. My own episode of sexual violence pushed me to join."

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.

"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