Femen

Ukrainian activist Inna Shevchenko, from the topless women's rights group Femen, poses in Paris

It is in Paris where the training center of this extraordinary activist group that calls itself Femen is located. The Guardian newspaper calls them “topless warriors.”

Last week on this blog I posted the news of Stéphane Hessel’s death, a dissident who encouraged citizens to stand up and express outrage over all forms of injustice. I wonder what he thought of this all-female militant group who do exactly that.

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The Femen movement was created in the Ukraine in 2008 to protest against sex tourism, prostitution and the exploitation of women in the former Soviet state. Inna Shevchenko (pictured in the first photo above and here below) is the feminist crusader in charge of the Paris boot camp.  Daughter of an army officer, she took off her top and joined the Kiev protests. Ukraine is not a Brothel was their slogan.  As a consequence she lost her job as a press officer.  She then fled her country after a well-publicized stunt in which she wielded a chainsaw and chopped down a large wooden Orthodox cross in support of the jailed Russian feminists Pussy Riot.

Femen has set up camp in Paris’s poor and ethnically mixed Goutte d’Or district.

“The decision to bring the fight to France and open a training centre was a French initiative, an invitation from French feminists who sent us a message saying they needed us,” said Inna.  “Before then we thought of France as a first world and already feminist country that didn’t really need us. Since arriving, I have met many Frenchwomen and they say they need to start the fight again. We are bringing a new face, new blood, a new fight to feminism.”

inna

Is it not contradictory, a journalist asked her, that the new feminists are using nakedness to rail against female exploitation?

“Ah, but we have a different idea; we are talking about peaceful war, peaceful terrorism,” Inna said. “We are taking off our clothes so people can see that we have no weapons except our bodies. It’s a powerful way to fight in a man’s world. We live with men’s domination and this is the only way to provoke them, the only way to get attention.”

Activists from the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN

“We don’t hide our bodies, we don’t hide our faces, we confront our enemies face to face. We look them in the eyes and we have to be well prepared physically for that.”

There was, she explained patiently, no contradiction in going topless or naked to protest against what they view as the three main evils of a global “patriarchal society”: sexual exploitation, dictatorship and religion. Protesting naked, as Femen’s slogans insist, is liberté, a reappropriation of their own bodies as opposed to pornography or snatched photographs which are exploitation.

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On a less intellectual level, taking their clothes off ensures a lot of publicity.

She added: “Believe me, it is really difficult for me to take my clothes off and stand in a public place. But this is the fight, and the fight is never easy.”

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Oh, look…an early Femen painted by Eugène Delacroix in 1830.  It’s called Liberty Leading the People.  A woman personifying Liberty holds the flag of the French Revolution in one hand and brandishes a bayonette with the other.

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On a personal note, I’m blown away by the courageous audacity of these young women.  If I were 25 again and had small breasts, I think I’d join them.  I admire them.  But I’m also saddened because as a child of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s in North America, I have to ask:  What happened? Or rather, what didn’t happen?  Why, four decades later, are we still engaged in battle?  I thought we had abolished sexism, inequality and the rest.  It’s too clear that women the world over must keep affirming, keep defining and keep defending the cause in the face of subjugating forces that try to beat us down.  We must be ever-vigilant.

Today Femen protests against all forms of injustice.  Their slogans are concise:

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:  Gangster party in Davos.  Poor because of you.

Better bare than burka.

Fashion fascism (against anorexia)

Pope Benedict XVI:  Game over.

My body, my rules.

FEMEN members demonstrate at the congress centrum

Women of the world, unite.
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