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FEMEN: Getting Naked to Change the World

Femen activist Oksana Shachko is a professional icon painter and lives in a run-down studio apartment in Kiev with greenish mold on the ceiling. | Photo: Valeria Mitelman/ DER SPIEGELFemen activist Oksana Shachko is a professional icon painter and lives in a run-down studio apartment in Kiev with greenish mold on the ceiling. | Photo: Valeria Mitelman/ DER SPIEGEL

FEMEN: Getting Naked to Change the World

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

During the Russian presidential election on March 4, Femen tried to seize the ballot box containing Vladimir Putin's vote in Moscow.During the Russian presidential election on March 4, Femen tried to seize the ballot box containing Vladimir Putin's vote in Moscow.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

November 2009, FEMEN activists staged a protest in front of Ukraine's Education Ministry in Kiev to denounce the sexual harassment of students by some university professors in the country | Photo: AFP/GETTYNovember 2009, FEMEN activists staged a protest in front of Ukraine's Education Ministry in Kiev to denounce the sexual harassment of students by some university professors in the country | Photo: AFP/GETTYSuch 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.

Sought-After

The group also protests outside their native Ukraine. Here, a protest at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in the Swiss resort of Davos in January 2012.The group also protests outside their native Ukraine. Here, a protest at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in the Swiss resort of Davos in January 2012.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."

Alexandra Shevchenko gets seized by policemen outside the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev.Alexandra Shevchenko gets seized by policemen outside the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev.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.

Throughout its history, Western feminism has attempted a wide range of forms of protest, from committing acts of sabotage and placing bombs in the mailboxes of members of parliament in the 19th century, to major demonstrations and bra-burnings at the end of the 1960s.

In Germany, the fight against a law known as Article 218, which made abortion illegal, became a broad movement. In the early 1970s, under the motto "the private sphere is political," hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets to demonstrate for a woman's right to choose an abortion. But after the movement had reached its peak in Germany and Europe, nothing much happened after the 1990s. Women seemed to have achieved all of their goals.

Femen emerges from a part of Europe that has only tried its hand at democracy for the last 20 years, a Europe in which the greatest hope, for many 16-year-old girls, is to find a good husband after completing their university studies and eventually become a good mother. It's a Europe in which men can order women on the Internet as if they were running shoes, and in which women who bare their breasts in public can be locked up.

"That's why we scream and show our bodies," says Anna. And they don't do it just in Ukraine, but throughout Europe -- "because many things still aren't right in your countries, either." They take to the streets in maid outfits in Paris, shouting "Shame" in front of the house of former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn. They take to the streets in Kiev when a girl is raped and killed in Ukraine, as was the fate of an 18-year-old at the end of March. They also protest against the European Football Championship and the sex tourism it will bring. And they do all of this with naked upper bodies. "We are trying to give the breast, as a symbol, a different context." A breast, they say, can also be political.

"The reaction to a nude protest is a measure of freedom in a country," says Anna. "We were not arrested in Switzerland, but we were almost killed in Belarus."

The shrine of the movement stands in the hallway to the bathroom at Café Kupidon: a glass cabinet filled with Femen memorabilia, including coffee mugs and T-shirts imprinted with two stylized breasts in the Ukrainian national colors, the Femen logo. The display seems to have more in common with pop culture than with the women's movement.

'Quite Creative'

A protest in Belarus was one of the riskiest the group has done. "The reaction to a nude protest is a measure of freedom in a country," says one Femen activist. "We were not arrested in Switzerland, but we were almost killed in Belarus."A protest in Belarus was one of the riskiest the group has done. "The reaction to a nude protest is a measure of freedom in a country," says one Femen activist. "We were not arrested in Switzerland, but we were almost killed in Belarus."

Even EMMA, the leading feminist magazine in Germany, recently devoted a cover story to Femen. It was written by the magazine's founder, Alice Schwarzer, Germany's most prominent feminist and anti-pornography activist. "The girls aren't just courageous and clever," writes Schwarzer, "they're also quite creative."

Schwarzer has fought bitterly against media depictions of female nudity. So why is she now displaying the breasts of Ukrainian blondes on the cover of an issue of EMMA? When asked about her position on the group, Schwarzer preferred to respond to SPIEGEL's questions by email.

"The Femen women are catching the boomerang in mid-air and throwing it back," she wrote. "The bare breast, which would normally objectify them, becomes a weapon for them. They use it to attract looks, and to deliver their message to men, namely their protest against the exposure of women! Against prostitution! Against trafficking in women! I think that's a good thing."

Femen's methods are typical of the playful irony of the second or third generation of feminists, Schwarzer writes. But, she adds, the women are also performing a balancing act where they can easily slip and fall. "I recently saw that the women from Femen posed completely naked for the magazine Elle. That's one of those slip-ups. Now they have to be careful that the boomerang doesn't fly back, and they become objectified."

Despite her misgivings, Schwarzer has invited the women to Germany, where they plan to stage a joint protest. The old and the new feminists seem to be finding common ground: the older generation, which sometimes seems out of touch with the times, and the younger generation, which has recognized that it needs the media to attract attention -- and that the media happens to love breasts.

Femen isn't alone with its neo-feminist form of protest. Some of its contemporaries include the Pussy Riot collective in Moscow, with their feminist punk rock, who are now in detention awaiting trial. They could face seven years in prison for having stormed the pulpit of a church and raged against Putin. There are the Slutwalks in the United States. And there is Egyptian art student Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, who undressed to fight for her sexual self-determination and whose photo went around the world after she published it on her blog. A branch of Femen was even established in Tunisia recently.

Sometimes they meet in real life, the old and the new feminists, the one version of Europe and the other, and sometimes they use each other for their respective ends.

Scoping Out the Location

A week after her hearing at the Interior Ministry, on a spring-like Friday, Oksana Shachko is standing at the Trocadero in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in the background. A group of French women's rights activists has invited the Femen women to Paris, paying for their flight and providing them with accommodation in an apartment. They intend to get undressed together.

Shachko has actually been ordered not to leave Kiev until her trial, and she even signed a document stating that she would comply with the order. It will take at least another month before she knows what her sentence will be. "The main thing is that I'm here," she says. "It's such a nice place for a demonstration."

Together with Sasha Shevchenko, with her long blonde hair and aviator glasses, and Inna Shevchenko, also blonde and wearing hot pants, she stands among tourists as they take pictures.

To their left, someone is playing a pan flute, and a vendor is selling crepes to their right. But Oksana, Sasha and Inna don't notice any of this. There are actually here to scope out the square, looking for police officers, checking escape routes and minimizing possible points of attack.

Their plan, together with the French women, is to occupy the square the next day. Their protest will address the rights of Muslim women and the burka. The idea came from Safia Lebdi, the woman who brought Femen to France. Her office is in the Maison de la Mixité, a cultural center on the ground floor of a nondescript apartment building in the eastern part of Paris.

'Let's Get Naked'

She is known in France as a founding member of the women's rights organization "Ni putes, ni soumises" (Neither Whores Nor Submissive). She is also a Green Party politician, and she speaks with a loud voice as her black curls bob up and down. "We will throw our sex onto the public square tomorrow. It's cool. It's fresh," she says, although one has to wonder what the real issue is here: the rights of Muslim women or naked breasts? And where exactly do these protests lead? Do they cause men to change their way of thinking? Or do they simply give them a good look at beautiful bodies?

Oksana, Sasha and the other Femen women are standing in the next room, making signs for the next day with thick brushes and black paint, painting slogans like "Muslim women let's get naked," "Nudity is freedom" and "Afghanistan take off your clothes."

Lebdi has collected donations to bring the women from Ukraine to Paris. She spent weeks drumming up supporters, making phone calls and writing to all the women's rights activists she knows, including feminists who would be willing to undress for the cause. "It was very difficult to convince the women. There's a lot of fear, including the fear of talking about the burka," she says.

She contacted hundreds of women, and now she expects 20 of them, mostly with Arab backgrounds, to participate in the protest. Lebdi knows that she can benefit from Femen. She is using Femen to draw attention to her feminist causes, because it's easier to be heard when half-naked Ukrainian women are standing next to you. Conversely, the Femen women are using the French feminists to get to Paris and create new images of themselves for the world to see.

Slogan Dispute

The next morning, Oksana, Inna and Sasha are standing in front of a red table covered with paints and brushes, discussing what they want those images to look like. They will include the words they write on their breasts. Lebdi, standing next to them, discovers a sign that reads: "Islam is the religion of sadism."

"No," says Lebdi. "No, I'm not OK with that."

"Should we put a question mark after it?" Sasha asks.

"No, it's not a question," says Lebdi, her curls dancing on her head. "If we do that, the other women will back out." Islam, Islamism and fundamentalism are completely different things, she says.

Oksana, Sasha and Inna stare blankly at the sign, and it's clear that the thought never even occurred to them. They are good at making fanatical facial expressions and chanting slogans, and they are courageous and willing to take great risks. But the differences between Islam and Islamism? Lebdi, at any rate, makes sure that the sign ends up in the trash.

'You're Not Models, You're Soldiers'

The first activists arrive at the Maison de la Mixité in the late morning. The Iranian women's rights activist Maryam Namazie has come from London, and Lebanese born actress and author Darina al-Joundi is also there. The women eat cake and laugh and gradually take off their clothes. They staple together burkas out of pieces of black material, which they will put on and then tear off to increase the shock effect. Oksana, the artist, writes the words "Naked War" on the breasts of the younger women, and "I am a woman and not an object" on those of the older women.

They hide their passports in their underwear, in case they are arrested. Then they stand up in front of the other women and give them their final instructions. "We are a small army, but a powerful one," says Inna. "We'll count to four -- one, two, three, four -- and then we'll cast off our burkas."

The women stand in a half-circle, Inna counts to four, and they throw off their veils. "Don't pose," says Inna. "You're not models, you're soldiers."

Smiling Police

When they step out of several taxis at around 2 p.m., draped in their black veils, side by side, the old feminism next to the new, the activists encounter about 40 journalists with video cameras and microphones. Inna has informed the media about the time and place of the protest. It's the way they always do it, and it always works. Five police cars have also appeared.

Oksana, Inna and Sasha run into the square, and the other women run after them. They throw off their burkas and hold up their signs into the gray Parisian sky, the French women naked down to their jeans and the Ukrainians wearing nothing but black underpants, and they scream at the top of their voices.

The police officers follow the women into the square and stand in front of them, smiling. They don't want to arrest anyone.

They just want to watch.