Five Ukrainian protesters gather in front of their country’s embassy in Paris to register their disgust with the authoritarian regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. They shout. They pump their fists. Their breasts exposed, covered in revolutionary slogans. They pull their underwear to their ankles, squat down, and unleash streams of piss on a photo of a grimacing Yanukovych.
“Dictatorship in its pure form originated in Ukraine, that’s why we are coming today here to pee on this face--in the face who is bringing dictatorship to Ukraine under the protection and influence of Russia and Putin,” Inna Shevchenko tells a phalanx of tittering reporters and photographers, in heavily accented English. “We are giving an alarm to Europe that we need help, and no one has to hear [Yanukovych’s] face. We just have to pee on his opinion.”
In 2008, a handful of female students in Ukraine formed a women’s rights group to protest sex tourism and prostitution, calling themselves Femen. A year later, 19-year-old Shevchenko received a message on Facebook asking her to join the movement. The Femen girls hooted, hollered, and held up posters calling for an end to patriarchy and Ukraine’s burgeoning sex industry, but no one paid much attention until they adopted a head-turning strategy: painting feminist messages on their tits. Femen has transformed into a global movement led by Shevchenko and backed by 250 activists in nine countries. It now plans to open its first outpost in the United States.
The Daily Beast talked to Shevchenko about taking off her top for feminism, banning religion, and the violence that has overtaken her native Ukraine.
Why does Femen need a branch in the United States?
Femen has been developing as an international movement since 2012. During this time we’ve spread Femen to many places, setting up branches in nine countries. Our goal is to occupy the world with Femen’s tactics of modern feminism, and we appear in countries when called upon by women to come there. We set up Femen branches when women say "we need Femen in my country" and where some are ready to act as sextremists.
American women expressed their support and impatience when fighting puritanism and conservatism using Femen tactics. We got the call, so we’re giving an answer and helping commit Femen revolution in the United States.
Who is Femen aiming to target in the U.S.? Will you take on religion, politicians, and public figures you consider to be misogynists?
I can't name enemies, as it’s strategic information that we don't share. But I can assure you sure that once American women are trained and ready to act as Femen, every place of gender injustice, every representative of patriarchal culture, will be a target of Femen USA.
We will not leave religious institutions in peace, with their lobbying for anti-women policies. And Republican politicians will not walk the streets without worry [if they] lobby for anti-women laws. Femen is a special troop of reaction and punishment.
Femen has gotten a lot of media attention, particularly for staging topless protests. The Guardian recently wondered whether “the breasts are obscuring the message.” Everyone knows who Femen is, so the bare-breasted demonstrations are clearly working. But does everyone know what Femen is trying to accomplish?
Everyone has to know what our mission is, what Femen’s goal is. We exist as a radical nonviolent women's group of street activists acting with the goal of pointing to problems, to force society to recognize and react to them. To recognize a problem is the first step in solving it. Femen is taking off the masks of those who wear them. We show gender injustice, we catch missioners of patriarchy.
Femen’s tactic is a dramaturgy of gender reality. Femen’s idea is transforming the sexist point of view of naked a woman's body; we show it not as weak and smiley, but aggressive and powerful.
Femen is a group of street activists acting in the field of public opinion. Femen has the world’s eyes to prostitution and sextourism in Eastern Europe; we were the first who reacted to the proposed law forbidding abortions is Spain; we were denouncing Viktor Yanukovych’s dictatorial regime that everyone is now fighting right when he was elected president.
What is Femen’s role in—and position on—the current uprising in Ukraine?
On February 7, 2010, Femen staged its first topless demonstration in Ukraine. It was the day Yanukovych was elected president. And then, for the first time, five topless Femen activists broke into a polling station shouting slogans like “The war will start soon.”
Now it’s February 2014 and we’re at a war in Ukraine--the war Femen warned about. We were first fighters and then victims of the regime, being persecuted and forced to flee. The revolution in Ukraine that has lasted for three months started as a protest against Yanukovych backing out of EU agreements. It transformed into a demand to rebuild the country’s entire political system. Neither the government nor the opposition were ready for such a huge riot by Ukrainians. And because of the president’s inability to understand the situation, combined with the weakness of the opposition, Ukraine is now on the edge of national catastrophe.
What are your thoughts about the news that former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko--a powerful female politician--has been released from prison?
About Tymoshenko, I'd say that she already showed with her [term in office] that she doesn't bring anything to the country. She betrayed the ideas of the Orange Revolution and, unfortunately, despite being a woman in politics she never says a word in the name of gender equality or women's rights in Ukraine--and it is badly needed there.
But Ukraine needs new blood. Ukraine has had the same politicians for 20 years and this is why the country is in a national crisis now. Tymoshenko won’t bring anything new. She definitely won't be my hero anymore, even though she was during the Orange Revolution.
Femen protests sex trafficking and sex tourism. Yet your group is considered “sex positive” (you even call yourselves “sextremists”). You want prostitution decriminalized but the solicitation of prostitutes to remain criminal. Are you also against the porn industry?
We fight the sex industry in general, not its component parts. Porn is one instrument [of the sex industry]--it’s a promotion of men's sexual domination and exploitation of women. We demand the criminalization of prostitutes’ clients as a way to fight violence against and exploitation of women.
Sex business is a business owned by men--for men--and women are just an instrument to earn money and pleasure.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, you said that you “strongly believe that one day religion has to be forbidden, the same way fascism was forbidden." Do you think this instinct is at cross-purposes with other aspects of your activism? Isn’t this a totalitarian instinct?
Well, my personal emotions regarding religion are expressed in a very radical way sometimes. And I do not regret it and will repeat it again and again. I can't tolerate such an intolerant thing as religion. I don't want to respect my enemies, I want to fight them. You call this a "totalitarian instinct.” I wouldn’t. I named evil as evil. I said something bad is bad.
We can't clean up the world from religion completely and I wouldn’t suggest banning it. But I call to give religion the small place [in society] that it deserves: as fantasy, literature, etc. But not as the only truth and law. As it’s still that way for billions around the world.
Religion is not a personal issue anymore, it has become political. It doesn't exist only to provide moral support anymore, but to replace constitutions and supplant human rights with [religious] tradition.
Religion is oppression and we are going to fight it with whatever “instincts” necessary.
In August 2012, you took a chainsaw to a 13-foot cross in Kiev to protest religion and Pussy Riot’s prison sentence. Next came arrest attempts and death threats, forcing you to seek political asylum in France, where women had expressed interest in becoming affiliated with Femen. But some conservatives are now making moves to try and make Femen illegal sect in the country. Would you leave France because of the backlash?
Me leave a fight? Never. I can leave to spread our ideas, as I’ll do in the United States. Or as I did in Spain last month. But I never leave any of those places where we start the fight.
France became my second homeland. I’m a refugee here and the European headquarters of Femen is now based in Paris.
As for the reaction of French conservatives’ reactions...well, what can be better than a riot by fascists opposing you? If the extreme right is fighting you, it means you’re endangering their ideology. And this is proof that Femen is on the side of good.
I don't want to be loved by fascists and religious fanatics. I want them to be irritated by women's freedom and bravery.