The Body Politic Getting Naked to Change the World
The Ukrainian activist group Femen has made headlines around the world by baring their breasts to protest against prostitution, exploitation and corruption. But can their naked stunts change anything, or are they just providing images for a sex-obsessed media?
Oksana Shachko, a girl with a doll-like face, is supposed to go to prison for five years.
It's a cool spring Thursday in Ukraine as the 24-year-old walks through the streets of Kiev with her attorney. She is wearing a leather jacket and black boots, and dangling an almost-finished cigarette between her fingers. Five years, because she bared her breasts in public once again.
The hearing at the Interior Ministry is at 5 p.m., and they are in a hurry. They walk past tall, brown and gray buildings from the Stalin era. They discuss ways to put a positive spin on the expression "kiss my ass," which is what Oksana said to the Indian ambassador. "It was a happy protest. A happy protest for the rights of Ukrainian women," Oksana finally says. She's decided it's what she will say in the hearing at the Interior Ministry.
Shachko is a Ukrainian women's rights activist, and her weapons are attached to her pale, petite body like the two halves of an apple.
Her weapons are the symbol of femininity, motherhood and sexuality, and filmmakers and marketers have used them millions of times to sell everything under the sun, from yogurt to vacuum cleaners. They have put Oksana and her fight onto cover pages around the world, and they've made her and her fellow activists into the cover girls of an international protest movement -- the icons of a naked rebellion.
Their supporters believe that by using these weapons, the women have invented a new feminism. Their critics say that they are turning themselves into pornography with these weapons.
Marxism Instead of Marriage
They were in their late teens, the oldest in her early 20s, when it all began, says Oksana, and their parents hoped that they would get married early. The creators of the movement are Oksana, Anna Hutsol and Sasha Shevchenko. At first, they lived in Khmelnytskyi, a city with 300,000 inhabitants and two nuclear reactors.
There were hardly any jobs to be had, and the men drank. The girls, for their part, spent long evenings discussing philosophy, Marxism and the situation of women in post-Soviet society. They decided that instead of getting married, they would bring about change.
There were only three of them at first, but now the movement, whose ranks include students, journalists and economists, has spread throughout Ukraine and includes more than 300 women. Calling themselves "Femen," they have started a movement that has also caught hold among women in Tunisia and the United States. It's a movement that even encourages experienced women's rights activists to undress.
"Maybe I'll need political asylum," says Oksana. "What they're accusing me of is absurd." She and her attorney have arrived at the Interior Ministry.
Accused of Hooliganism
Oksana is a professional icon painter and lives in a run-down studio apartment in Kiev with greenish mold on the ceiling. In other words, she has a profession and is living an ordinary Ukrainian life of poverty and turmoil. But her apartment is full of protest signs, and she has drawn a picture of a Femen activist, with flowing hair and bare breasts, on the wall. It's a self-portrait of a woman who is causing a lot of trouble.
She was released from a Moscow prison a few days ago, after having tried -- topless -- to steal the ballot box containing Russian leader Vladimir Putin's ballot during the March 4 presidential election. The stunt got her two weeks in a prison cell.
Now she stands accused of hooliganism and occupying the Indian Embassy to protest a claim by the Indian Foreign Ministry that women from post-Soviet countries are going to India to work as prostitutes.
Although the Indian Embassy denied the claim, this didn't stop Oksana and three other women from storming the building. They waved the Indian flag and banged it against windows and doors, shouting: "Ukrainian women are no prostitutes" and "kiss my ass."
Using the Body to Sell Ideas
Such protest campaigns usually begin at the Café Kupidon. While Oksana is making a statement at the Interior Ministry, Anna Hutsol is sitting at a table in the café, working on her next campaign. Café Kupidon is in the basement of a tall townhouse on Pushkinskaya ulitsa, or Pushkin Street. The windowless café serves as the headquarters, office and press center of Femen. It's where the activists recruit new members, although some don't need to be recruited. The group already includes 30 nude activists, attractive, idealistic young women. They meet at the café, where they drink apple juice and chain-smoke.
The image of the Ukrainian woman is colored by the cliché that she is beautiful, poor and easy to get. Trafficking in women and prostitution are rampant in Ukraine, which is co-hosting the upcoming European football championships. Everywhere in Kiev, in the subway and in classified ads, women are recruited with spurious promises of employment. A phrase like "waitress in a club" is often code for prostitute in a brothel.
Many fall for these offers because they are poor and have no prospects. Almost 9 percent of Ukrainians are unemployed, and many of the jobless are women. "If the female body can sell all kinds of things, we also have to use it to sell social ideas," says Hutsol, as she puts out her cigarette in an overflowing ashtray. They staged their first protest in the summer of 2008, when they took to the streets in prostitutes' clothing. "Ukraine isn't a brothel," they shouted, as they held up their signs. The protest attracted media attention and promptly triggered a debate. Suddenly the women realized that producing scandal translates into power. That, at least, is their hope.
They staged their first nude demonstration in 2009 on Khreshchatyk, Kiev's main shopping avenue, to protest against Internet pornography. "It was embarrassing at first," says Hutsol, "and we covered our breasts with our hands." But the public response was good, and so they did it again the next time. Eventually they came to see their breasts as nothing but a uniform.
The issues they protest about can be found in the news. They don't just demonstrate for women's rights, but for issues like the economy and corruption, and against politicians like Putin and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. They aren't, however, protesting over the prison conditions endured by former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who seems to have caught the attention of much of Europe at the moment. In fact, say the Femen women, Tymoshenko is part of a clique of oligarchs who are fighting with other oligarchs, and they see no reason to do anything for the jailed politician.
Today they are planning a trip to Paris, in response to an invitation by a group of French feminists. "I have to fly to Moscow tomorrow, for a TV show," says Anna. Oksana was originally scheduled to appear on the program, but now she has been barred from entering Russia for the rest of her life.
Anna Hutsol has become a sought-after face. She doesn't look like most of the Femen girls, who put their beauty on display with peroxide-blonde hair, heavy eye makeup and high heels. Anna is petite and serious, wears red rubber boots and keeps her hair cut short and dyed red. At 27, she is the oldest member of the group and, together with Oksana and Sasha, is in a sense its chief ideologue.
When they began the movement in Khmelnytskyi, she was 21 and just starting to read August Bebel, the founder of the social democratic workers' movement in Germany. She read that Bebel had introduced a bill in parliament on equal rights for women at the end of the 19th century. After reading that, she thought about her own life and that of her female friends, and concluded that nothing had changed.
Not a Typical Movement
She told everyone about what she had read. She found supporters and, together with Oksana and Sasha, founded a group they called "New Ethics." They organized discussion groups at the university, where Anna was studying economics, and soon they held their first demonstrations -- fully clothed, at first. They didn't start baring their breasts until two years later in Kiev.
"I knew from the start that I didn't want us to mutate into a typical feminist organization," says Hutsol. "I didn't want an organization in which women talk, talk, talk, while the years go by and nothing happens. We have brought more extremism into the women's movement."
Starting in 2008, the three women moved to Kiev -- first Anna, then Sasha and, finally, Oksana. They began campaigning for the rights of female students. But soon the fight against prostitution and sex tourism became their central concern. "The issue was in the air," says Anna, explaining that it was annoying to them that they, as normal women, couldn't even walk along Khreshchatyk street without someone asking them for sex.
That was when they began calling themselves Femen. Anna had read that there was a part of the female femur that is called "femen" in Latin. This isn't entirely correct, though. "Femen" simply means femur, both in women and men. But it sounded good and, most importantly, it evoked an image of strong women.
- Part 1: Getting Naked to Change the World
- Part 2: 'We Scream and Show Our Bodies'