Women's protest group Femen use nakedness to gain attention

Known for its topless activists, Femen is a global movement against patriarchy. Butdo the bare breasts obscure the message?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 4:53am


One day last summer, Inna Shevchenko went into a forest outside Kiev - to learn to use a chainsaw. The lumberjacks instructing her couldn't work out why she was so keen. "They thought I was just a crazy blonde," she says, shaking her white curls. "I was acting like: 'Oh really?'" She affects a coy, clueless demeanour. "'That's how you do it? Great!'"

The next day she went to a hilltop overlooking Kiev, and stripped to a pair of red denim shorts, worn with heavy boots, leather gloves, and a mask to protect her eyes.

The Pussy Riot verdict was due that day, and in tribute to the Russian punk activists - and to mark her opposition to all religions - Inna proceeded to saw down the 4 metre wooden cross that had been there since 2005. She posed against the stump for invited journalists.

With "Free Riot" scrawled across her bare breasts, she held out her arms to mirror the figure of Christ now lying on the ground.

Death threats arrived instantly. She says that a few days later, she was woken at 6am by the sound of her front door being kicked in. She escaped through a back window and made her way to Warsaw with US$50, a mobile phone and her passport. She travelled to France, where women had expressed interest in joining Femen, the feminist group she runs with three Ukrainian friends.

Femen's aims are straightforward, broad and radical: a war on patriarchy and an end to all religions, dictatorships and the sex industry. The group has been offered space in a rundown theatre in Paris as headquarters, and it is here we meet Inna, 24, at the start of a training session with 20 young Femen activists. The group has been protesting topless since 2010, using their bodies to attract attention.

"Not a sex toy," they scream. Then "Poor because of you" and "In gay we trust". One by one, they take to the middle of the room, to show how they would behave at a protest.

One new member shouts "Pope No More", before two other activists launch themselves at her. For a moment all three are mid-air. Then they hit the ground and start struggling. Inna calls a halt, and one woman stands up with blood running down her arm. Inna smiles, grabs her hand, and holds the injured limb aloft. There is clapping, cheering and congratulations.

As the activists start the next stage of training, journalists and cameramen swirl around. There is no attempt to hide the fact this session is being played out for the press. It doesn't matter how many people come to a protest, Inna says, if there's one camera, that's what they need to target, to get their message out to millions.

On some level, this is working. Each time Femen stages an action, videos pop up on websites worldwide. But are their breasts obscuring their message? Their message also risks getting lost in the breadth and sprawl of their protests.

Over the past few years they have protested for gay rights in St Peter's Square during the Pope's weekly prayers; against the use of ultra-thin models at Milan fashion week; and during Euro 2012, in Ukraine, they grabbed the championship trophy to protest against the sex industry. At Davos, in January this year, they protested against male domination of the world economy. And in February, they raised eyebrows and provoked a few sniggers by launching themselves topless at Silvio Berlusconi.

Their campaigning has one central aim: to use their naked breasts to expose corruption and inequality.

British Femen activist Pippa, 25, says Femen aren't subtle, they aren't inoffensive, and they certainly aren't sorry. "We're provocateurs," says Inna, "and the reaction depends on those who are provoked."