Femen Leader: British Women Need Us

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Femen, the topless feminist & lesbian protest group, is coming to Britain next month. One of its leaders, Inna Shevchenko, 23, tells why British women should strip off and join them!

On a hilltop overlooking Kiev’s city centre stands a five-metre high wooden Orthodox cross. Bearing a figure of Jesus Christ, it serves as a memorial to victims of Stalin’s repression and the famine of the 1930s. On an average day in August 2012, a topless activist, Inna Shevchenko, is captured on camera felling the cross with a chainsaw. The click of shutters is not enough to soften the thump of the structure as it falls backward into the trees that surround the capital of the former soviet republic.

Videos show Shevchenko holding the chainsaw above her head before mimicking the cross in its prior place. The act, in support of the jailed Russian punk feminists, Pussy Riot, has become the most provocative and emblematic of Femen protests to date. It led to Shevchenko being charged with hooliganism and successfully seeking political asylum in France.

The Femen movement began in Ukraine in 2008 in protest against the three main evils of a global “patriarchal society” – sexual exploitation, dictatorship and religion. At just 23, journalism graduate Inna Shevchenko is one of the group’s leaders and most high-profile members. Shortly after the cross incident, she went on to open Femen’s European headquarters in Paris. The group has since set up 10 other branches across Europe, as well as in Canada and Mexico.

Last month, Femen revealed that they will also be extending their activism to Britain. “Usually, the reason to open a new branch is the wish of the women in those countries. We were contacted by up to 20 British women saying they needed Femen in Britain and would like to join our movement,” Shevchenko tells me.

The launch of Femen UK means Britain will see a new wave of street protest by recruits trained in “sextremism”, Femen’s form of topless activism. “It is not possible to become a Femen activist without going through special preparation to become a extremist,” Shevchenko continues. “Members spend two to three hours a week training both physically – learning how to resist, how to scream slogans, how to keep their pose – and ideologically.”

Until now the group has done all of its training in Paris but British women will be trained on home soil. But what issues do Femen want to tackle in Britain, a country with no dictatorship or authoritarian rule? “I remember when I first came to France people said the exact same thing,” Shevchenko says. “They’d say ‘we love Femen and what you did in Ukraine and Russia, but here there aren’t so many issues you could tackle.’

“Yet during one of the first actions we did in France, in support of the legalisation of gay marriage, we were beaten up so brutally that I lost a tooth. Everyone was shocked; they couldn’t believe this was happening in modern France. But this is what Femen does, we open the truth. We’re taking off masks from those wearing masks.”

In Britain Femen want to protest against a large range of issues from the full legalising of prostitution (which the group is firmly against), to the growth of Islamic extremism on UK shores – as well as the latest immigration laws – making it more difficult for non EU residents to move here.

“One of the main problems of society is that everyone treats feminism as specific women’s issues such as abortion or periods. We’re trying to make a point that feminism is about the participation of women’s opinion in each political protest and social decision of the country,” Shevchenko notes.

“Many people criticise Femen for fighting broad issues like immigration – but we want to force the world to accept the fact that women’s opinions will be everywhere, their political demands will sound in each corner of each government and each street.”

Indeed, since the group’s establishment, Femen’s campaigns have consistently made international headlines. Activists confronted Vladimir Putin at a German trade fair in Hanover, shouting “f*** you dictator!” (To which Putin later replied: “I didn’t have time to see if they looked good or not, whether they were blondes or not”); they bullied Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder and chief, into reinstating their account on the social network after it was removed because of all the topless posts; they invaded the catwalk at Paris fashion week; and most recently, they protested against Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right Front National party, during a visit to the town of Fougères in Brittany. “Sextremism, not fascism,” the activists chanted, with “Marine, repent!” painted across their naked torsos. They were pulled away by Le Pen’s security team.

The most violent reprisal in the history of the movement came in Belarus in December 2011, where members protested against president Alexander Lukashenko on the first anniversary of his re-election. They were kidnapped and tortured by men Shevchenko believes were KGB agents.

“We were captured by more than 10 men who gagged us and put us in a minibus,” she recalls matter-of-factly. “We were interrogated overnight and threatened. Every 10 minutes someone would remind us that we were going to be killed. ‘Imagine the faces of your mothers when they receive your dead bodies’ they’d whisper.” The women were dropped off in a forest where they were stripped, covered in oil and filmed. “They’d say things like ‘see how those Ukrainian bitches look now’. Then they left us in the middle of the forest with only our jackets.”