The Sunday Times Magazine: Topless Feminists

Sisters of the revolution! Time to blow your tops

Militant feminists in Ukraine have gone further than burning bras in the fight against patriarchal repression. Katie Glass joined them on manoeuvres

Katie Glass Published: 8 April 2012

Let’s be honest. You did not wake up this morning worrying about the state of the women’s rights movement in Ukraine; you haven’t been panicking that it’s a country where women are under-represented in government and significant jobs, where domestic violence is widespread and the sex industry rife.

But pictures of naked girls? That got you reading… And that is how a bunch of feminists from Ukraine have managed to do something unthinkable: they have made the women’s movement spectacular again.

If you google Germaine Greer, 1m search results come up. If you google Femen, you get 23.5m. Topless feminist protesters sound like an invention from the pages of Viz, but they are politically savvy, with an international following and a praetorian guard of activists. In Rome, they protested against Berlusconi — topless but body-painted in the colours of the Italian flag, screaming, “Italy is not a brothel!” In Paris, they dressed — well, half-dressed — as French maids after storming Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s apartment (after he was accused of attempting to rape a hotel maid in New York). At the Vatican, wearing see-through habits, they demanded “freedom for women”, drawing attention to the misogyny of the Pope. In Milan, they ambushed catwalks to protest against the sexual exploitation of models. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, bearing signs reading “Crisis: Made in Davos”, they stripped in the snow to protest against women’s under-representation in politics (this came a year after the remark by their prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, that delegates should visit Ukraine in spring, when girls start taking off their clothes).

Femen’s current bête noire is the Euro 2012 tournament, coming up in June and co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland. The group claims that the Ukraine government aims to legalise prostitution, which will turn the country into a magnet for sex tourists. Protesters invaded the pitch at the Olympic stadium in Kiev last October, demanding “Euro 2012 Without Prostitution” in front of 60,000 fans who’d just watched the singer Shakira perform. 

‘We’re cool girls, we’re attractive, we are trying to draw attention to problems. We are offering a new feminism’

The Femen HQ is Cafe Kupidon in Kiev (Cupid, Roman god of desire, was the child of Venus, goddess of love, and Mars, god of war). It’s a smoky bar in a dimly lit cavern. Industrial pipes run across the grey ceiling; mismatched wooden chairs scrape the concrete floor. It smells of dumplings and lard, like most cheap Ukrainian cafes do.

Under a haze of cigarette smoke, with a waft of perfume and surrounded by a hub of laptops and mobiles, I found Anna Hutsol, 27, Oleksandra Shevchenko (known as Sasha), 23, and Inna Shevchenko, 21 — Femen’s core activists.

They began Femen in 2008 with Oksana Shachko, who is 25 and is currently in jail in Moscow (we’ll get to that later).

They’ve been described as “babes” and, well, they are. In Ukraine there are other slim-hipped, Slavic-featured blondes with bottom-sweeping hair, wearing stilettos in the snow. But few are as glamorous as the Femen cadre.

Sasha, a fragile blonde studying for a degree in economics, is wearing a fashionably cut black leather dress. Inna — formerly the Kiev mayor’s press officer before she was fired for her protests — is poured into a skin-tight black outfit and knee-high boots, with tassels running up the back.

They are flawlessly made up and accessorised, down to Sasha’s eye shadow and the tiny crystal earrings beneath Inna’s Lady Godiva blonde hair.

They started Femen, they say, because young women needed a new kind of feminism. “Classic feminism no longer works,” Inna insists, “It is, if you excuse me, impotent.” Oksana adds: “In the beginning we were trying hard to stand away from the word ‘feminism’. We’re cool girls, we’re attractive, we’re beautiful, we are trying to draw attention to problems, to find solutions. We are offering a new feminism.” They’re not man-haters, morons or marionettes. They started out campaigning for Ukrainian women’s rights — specifically anti-sex tourism and prostitution — but now their scope is broader, embracing socialism in the belief that equality for women depends on equality for all. They just happen to have worked out the best way to advertise it.

Femen weren’t always topless — they did some early protests clothed, but nobody really cared. Then one day, demonstrating in Kiev, in August 2009, Oksana spontaneously ripped off her top. The press went wild — and the girls took note. “Patriarchy has invented the weapon to fight itself,” grins Sasha, “You can see a lot of exploitation of the female body. On pizza flyers, billboards — there’s always a woman. From that perspective, a woman’s body belongs to a man. We decided to win it back. We decided to use a woman’s body to promote our ideas. My body is a powerful weapon, and I will use it.”

Their protests appeal to a YouTube-watching, glamour-model-idolising generation because they are visual, “quick, instinctive and easy to understand”, explains Sasha. “The way we look says everything we want to say. We stand with our legs apart. With our faces angry, not smiling. Our fists above our heads. This is not the pose of a woman trying to be sexually appealing. It’s a position that suggests we have something to say — and we do.”

The plump flower wreaths adorning their heads are the traditional vinoks of unmarried Ukrainian girls, but also, they tell me, a reference to the Statue of Liberty’s crown and Jesus’s crown of thorns. “We might seem like girls from Playboy,” grins Sasha, “but we stand for something very different.”.

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