Dominating International headlines of late with their in-your-face feminism, the women of FEMEN are causing controversy and outrage with their topless protests. Originally founded in Ukraine, the group now has followers in 12 countries. Dismissed by many as a bunch of ‘titillating’ Barbie dolls trying to attract media attention, can their persistence and aggression (and their breasts) be so easily brushed aside?
I went to meet Inna Shevchenko, a FEMEN leader who has recently moved to Paris. She is facing a blasphemy charge in Ukraine for cutting down a Catholic cross with a chainsaw. She runs the FEMEN office and training centre from a rickety theatre building in Goutte d’or, the most rundown district of Paris. When Inna, a petite blonde, opened the door and led me in, she was limping. She had been hurt during a protest two days ago. Scuffles with policemen often lead to injuries. That day, Inna said, she’d been among 15 activists trying to get to the Tunisian embassy. Five police vans were waiting at the exit of the metro station. “We are a bunch of naked women, but they pit us against snipers and armed policemen. We are arrested, kidnapped and beaten up,” she says.
I asked Inna what she’d say to those who think their nudity is just a publicity stunt. “Women’s bodies are used for things like selling beer or fast cars all the time,” she replies, “but we are using our own bodies to promote our own idea about our own freedom. There’s no boss who is selling our bodies to earn money.” She knows that nudity can make people uncomfortable. “Personally,” she says, “I would never go topless on the beach. I’m not comfortable with that. But when I’m protesting, I know that I cannot be shy.”
FEMEN often break into high-security, high-profile political meetings. They get close to leaders they are protesting against, take their shirts off and scream feminist slogans. They also profane the sanctity of religious places. Their website routinely uses offensive language. In fact, FEMEN’s choice of words makes more scholarly feminists squirm. the group’s favourite slogan is ‘Fuck Your Morals’. Isn’t that what most feminists want to say to oppressors of women? Apparently not. ‘Put Your Shirts Back On, Ladies’ trumpets a typical article in Foreign Policy by a woman who calls herself a feminist, but mocks FEMEN for describing themselves as feminists. Since when did feminists become prudish and intolerant? Why can’t the author of the article keep her shirt on and let FEMEN take off theirs?
The core team of FEMEN is made up of Ukrainian members, many of whom are pretty and blonde. They wear tiaras made of flowers, part of traditional Ukrainian costume. As Inna says, “When they see me, they see a woman with curly blonde hair with a little bit of make-up. They think I’m kind of sweet. They think it’s something for them. Something they can control. But once they see that this sweet girl is screaming, it makes them angry.” The idea of pretty feminists using their bodies as bait does not impress experienced activists either, ones you might expect to be on FEMEN’s side. Many cringe at the group’s ‘castings’ to recruit members. Inna admits they do cast their team, depending on the kind of action needed. Sometimes they have to climb fences or run really fast and that requires recruits who are not only mentally, but physically prepared as well. “It’s funny,” she says, “They used to say ‘feminists are all ugly’. Now they are saying ‘feminists are too pretty.’ Go to our website and you’ll see all kinds of women joining in. It’s never about age, colour or appearance for us.”