FEMEN’s founders have fled Ukraine, just days after a police investigation of their Kiev headquarters showed up a gun, grenades and pictures of Putin in cross-hairs. FEMEN claimed the gun was a police plant, although it’s worth noting that back in January they cooperated in a YouTube video posting under the headline ‘Breasts as Bombs’ – FEMEN Says They’ll Turn to Guns if Necessary (the group have been keen to backtrack on this of late, plastering the slogan ‘My Only Weapon is my Body’ everywhere they can). Anyway, guns, boobs, the works – it’s time to take a look back on an organisation which has done so much in recent years to put Ukraine on the map, for better, worse, but always in the nip.
FEMEN originally formed on April 10th 2008, in Ukraine’s western town of Khmelnytsky, comprised mainly of young Ukrainian female university students, and formed by former economist and assistant to Ukrainian pop star Tina Karol, Anna Hutsol. Hutsol, Russian born, was 24 at the time, making her one of the older members (photo shows from left Hutsol, co-founders Oksana Shachko and Alexandra Shevchenko, who were around 20 at the time, and current ‘star’ of the movement Inna Shevchenko). They quickly established a strong presence both online (although Facebook blocked an early FEMEN page believing it to be pornographic, and in June of 2013 removed their page again, once more classifying it as pornography – they are however, safe on the ‘Russian Facebook’, Vkontakte, with near 17,000 members there). While the initial response generally ranged from curious to amused, FEMEN attracted many champions and a host of complimentary tags including ‘new suffragettes’, ‘modern feminists’, ‘female warriors’ etc.
The group have long communicated their message through their official portal www.femen.org. The site is a curious beast, with its English generally good, though clearly Ukrainian-written, reference to the group as ‘The FEMEN’ making them sound rather like an aspirant indie band. Rather comical misspellings, such as ‘FEMEN brakes with Tunisian activist’, belie the vinegary invective of much of the site, given over as it is to attacks on individuals and organisations, and claims FEMEN (or The FEMEN) are being attacked by individuals and organisations. However, there’s no denying a well-honed media-friendly wordcraft, combined with an eye for a photo opportunity. The opening to a release reading ‘FEMEN convened the first international gathering of sextremists for training in Paris,’ showing a group of attractive t-shirt clad young ladies jogging. Interestingly, the group made a great point of speaking only English or Ukrainian earlier in their career, but have softened that stance, with FEMEN star Inna Shevchenko a Russian speaker. The website is available in English, Russian and French.
Formative protests saw members dressed in underwear, then in August 2009 after member Oksana Shachko bared her breasts at a Kiev protest, the group adopted topless protesting as their chosen method. Drawing criticism from other female rights organisations for their naked tactics, FEMEN have hit back by accusing other feminist groups as being staid, conservative, and having forgotten the relationship between feminism and the body. FEMEN members have, since the first dishabille demonstration, been delineated into two categories, those prepared to go topless, and those willing to turn up at demos. As of 2010, the group had around 20 topless activists and 300 clothed. The reason for topless protesting has been stated by the group on their website as: “This is the only way to be heard in this country. If we staged simple protests with banners, then our claims would not have been noticed“. Photos of bare-breasted campaigners clashing with police have become a defining symbol of their movement, with FEMEN keen to emphasise the danger their activists are in. However, apart from short-term police cell detentions, none has yet been sentenced to a prison term in Ukraine (early member Yana Zhdanova, also reported to have fled Ukraine, served a 15-day ‘administrative arrest’ in August 2012).
Arguably FEMEN’s actions have been even more extreme than those of Russia’s Pussy Riot, who FEMEN have long since pledged allegiance to, and who were, amid great fanfare and fulmination, imprisoned in Russia. FEMEN has never shied away from violent imagery, rather they’ve positively embraced it with images of blood, burning torches and chainsaws used extensively in campaigns. Even chainsaws themselves have been used on occasion, as when Inna Shevchenko cut down an Orthodox cross, bearing an image of Christ, in Kiev. The cross had been erected in memory of victims of Josef Stalin’s regime, and was felled in the aftermath of Pussy Riot’s August 17th 2012 prison sentence as a show of support. It’s unclear how much ‘The Riot’ appreciated the camaraderie of their Ukrainian sisters. Shevchenko herself, who is 23 and from Ukraine’s south-eastern Kherson, has grown in stature in recent times to become indisputably the most prominent member of FEMEN.
Shevchenko’s Twitter account is now the defacto official account of the group, and her tall, blonde, tattooed form an image so iconic it takes centre stage on the FEMEN website and has even been immortalised on a French stamp. Shevchenko, now resident in France having been granted political asylum there as of July 2013, responded that those enemies of her would not have to lick her arse to send her a letter. A nice line, but such ‘trolls’ as there are usually seem quite happy to take on Shevchenko on Twitter, with her readily responding in unkind.
It was after she was fired from her job at the Kiev mayor’s office in December 2010, over her involvement with FEMEN, that Shevchenko went full-time with the group, and protests became more frequent, and international. FEMEN took part in numerous actions throughout 2011, with Hutsol having confidently announced in early 2011 the group boasted over 150,000 supporters. By late April 2011 FEMEN had announced plans to set up operations in Warsaw, Zurich, Rome, Tel Aviv and Rio de Janeiro, for starters. Demonstrations began to take on a more charged, and coordinated anatomy, with this one from June of 2011 in Kiev, against censorship, seeing the group tear off their jeans, then tear up their jeans, before a baying press pack. Rougher treatment was meted out to the group next month when they protested at the Georgian embassy, with members manhandled as the provocative element of their protests escalated. September saw the group in Warsaw setting out their stall for the upcoming Euro 2012 by acting out the drunken sexual orgies they warned were headed Poland and Ukraine’s way.
November saw the group protest (against the Catholic Church’s ‘misogynist policies’) in Italy at Pope Benedict XVI’s Sunday sermon at St Peter’s Square. As the end of the year approached, FEMEN had racked up protests in Paris against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Rome against Berlusconi, and a sortee to Switzerland for a kind of combi press conference, topless-demo against prostitution. In Switerzland, where prostitution is both legal and tolerated, the group were met with police smiles rather than batons – allowed to have their fill of shouting and clambering over cars without any intervention. Then, In December of 2011, after having staged a topless protest in Belarus’s capital Minsk, 3 FEMEN members claimed they had been abducted and beaten by Belarusian police.
Things got going in Ukraine in January, with a protest at the Indian Embassy against India’s plans to closely vet Ukrainian women visiting India, and was seen in most quarters as well-intentioned, though ultimately largely irrelevant given the low number of Ukrainian women considering India a tourist destination. Another freezing cold action followed, with a trip back to Switzerland, the group protesting at a freezing cold Davos World Economic Forum. This time they met a firmer police response, with several members arrested. March saw a FEMEN activist attack a Ukrainian politician live on air, in response to his branding her a “mentally ill, drunk slut”.
April’s 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy saw the group on the streets of Kiev bearing placards reading that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was “worse than radiation”. FEMEN were now largely seen as an amusing, well-meaning diversion by most international media, but sentiment in Ukrainian had been more nuanced for a while, with a May 2011 article on Newsland writing of the embarrassment of Ukrainian politics being associated with the group. As Ukraine began building towards Euro 2012, Hutsol and FEMEN, having earlier come out with their own mascots (Blyadek and Blyadko), unleashed their slogan – “Fuck Euro 2012‟. It hit an off-note with a Ukrainian public beginning to look forward to a tournament it had seemed set to lose at one point. FEMEN also incited an angry response from prostitutes, with a group convened to combat FEMEN’s anti-prostitution campaigns, pointing out that many prostitutes were actively looking forward to Euro 2012 and its money-making opportunities.
FEMEN members stormed ceremonies of the cup itself twice, in Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk, as their actions began to evince what seemed to many misfocused hostility, with them going so far as to attack flower murals of the official Euro 2012 mascots. Even football fans, earlier eagerly commenting on forums their desire to come face to face with the topless crusaders, chafed, with the group referring to them as “absolute pigs” as they presented a pig to UEFA president Michel Platini on his birthday to mark those they believed were now entering Ukraine. An invasion of the Swedish section of the Fan Zone by Alexandra Shevchenko saw her state: “We came here today to stop this Euro fan lowlife from making a bordello out of Ukraine.” It was poorly received by the otherwise genial Swedes….