Society Trends

Profile: Bare breasts, heads high

20 September 2012
Libération Paris

“Muslim women, let's get naked,” Inna Shevchenko proclaimed during a protest against the attitude of Islamists towards women, March 2012, Paris.

“Muslim women, let's get naked,” Inna Shevchenko proclaimed during a protest against the attitude of Islamists towards women, March 2012, Paris.

The women of the Femen association, noted for their bare-breasted feminist demonstrations, are the best-known activists in Ukraine. But some, such as Inna Shevchenko, have been pressured into leaving the country. Now settled in Paris, they have opened a training centre in order to instruct followers from the world over.

"We were young when we started," explains Inna Shevchenko, now 22. She crosses her legs and straightens up a bit in her narrow armchair. She smiles. "I am no longer young." An activist with Fenmen, a Ukrainian feminist movement famous for its bare-breasted protests, she arrived in France at the end of August, unexpectedly, on a tourist visa. A few days before, in Kiev, this tall, pretty, blonde, had chopped up an Orthodox cross with a chain-saw in support of Russian feminists Pussy Riot. This led to a scandal, obviously, and the threat of prison.

“Men” followed her everywhere. "One morning, they started to break down my front door. I grabbed my passport and I fled through the window," she says. First stop Warsaw, then Paris in the northern Goutte d'Or neighbourhood at the Lavoir Moderne Parisien (LMP), a neighbourhood theatre threatened with closure. The managers, however, were sympathetic to the cause and made the space available, free of charge, to Femen in order to set up “an international training camp”, which opened its doors on September 18.

Composed of psychological, theoretical and athletic exercises, the syllabus is jam-packed. "We want to train young women from around the world to become soldiers for the feminist cause," Inna Shevchenko says enthusiastically. For her, activism can be summed up in a single word: “work”.

The first Femen demonstration was held in Kiev in 2008. Three young women were disguised as prostitutes. They already knew that their brand of action – against sexism and prostitution – is street activism. At university, led by 27-year old Anna Hutsol, the “brains” of the group, they started an association, called New Ethics, open to women only.

Insulted, threatened and beaten

At the time, Inna Shevchenko was a journalism student while also working in the press office of Kiev city hall. "I had a good job, I was paying for my apartment without difficulty, I was a model young girl," she says . Originally from Kherson, on the Black Sea coast, she was enticed by Femen's “pop-feminism”. Her father is in the military, her mother works in a high-school and she has an older sister.

In 2010, the movement opted for a change of  strategy. Some members began demonstrating bare-breasted. The first such event was set for August 24, Ukraine's independence day. "We had a very long discussion," she remembers. "For my part, I didn't want to do it, but today, I think it was the best idea," she adds.

Young Ukrainian women, beautiful and slender, are demonstrating half undressed? Naturally the media comes running, more interested in the reputed perfect bodies than in the demands. "The press is our best protection," she explains. "If we are bare-breasted, our message is more widely spread and we are in less danger," she adds.

She accepts her responsibilities. "In Ukraine, there is no activist culture, we have to invent one. I would be incapable of undressing at the beach, but, when I demonstrate, I feel like I am wearing what I call my “special uniform”," she explains.

Demonstrations against prostitution, corruption, or even in France against Dominique Strauss Kahn ... Femen is on every front. Even if their methods are brash, their demands are those of traditional feminism. The general situation of women in Ukraine, seen by the young activist as “beautiful, poor and uneducated”, probably accounts for this. Often, Femen members are more or less violently evacuated by the police, but sometimes, things go very sour.

Suddenly, Inna Shevchenko lowers her voice, hesitates, hangs down her head and seems less self-assured. On December 21, 2011, in the Belarus capital, Minsk, three of them demonstrated, on that winter day, against the dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. She explains that they were arrested by about 15 men. While in custody, they were questioned for a long time, insulted, threatened and beaten.

“It was said that we were financed by Obama”

During the night, they were hooded, then handed over to another team. They were driven around for a long time before ending up in a forest. After a silent pause, the men advised them to take a deep breath of fresh air, because it “would be the last time”. And they suggested that they “close their eyes and think of the smiles” of their mothers. They cut off their hair. But, in the end, did not kill them. They left them there, in the middle of nowhere. They were not far from the Ukrainian border. They found a small village and called the media. The Ukrainian ambassador was obliged to exfiltrate them out.

Femen's success in the media attracts suspicion . "It was said that we were financed by Obama, Soros or even Putin! But it isn’t true. We have an online store that sells tee-shirts. We have donors who give small amounts and we try to get all expenses paid whenever we travel abroad," she says.

She would like to import this culture of commitment to Paris where she plans to stay because a return to Kiev is too risky. At night, she says, she has trouble taking a break. She is re-reading Woman Under Socialism by August Bebel, the group's reference manual.

Writing in 1883, the German political leader said "Woman, in the new society will enjoy total independence; [...] she will be placed, in relation to man, in a position of total freedom and equality."

Translated from the French by Pat Brett

Factual or translation error? Tell us.