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Women Protest Naked to Wage War on Religion, Dictatorships and the Sex Industry

Known for its topless protesters, Femen is a worldwide movement against patriarchy. But are the activists’ breasts obscuring the message?
 
 
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One day last summer,  Inna Shevchenko went into a forest outside Kiev, to learn how to use a chainsaw. The lumberjacks who were instructing her couldn’t work out why she was so keen. “They thought I was just a crazy blonde,” she says, shaking her white curls. “I was acting like: ‘Oh really?’” She affects a coy, clueless demeanour. “‘That’s how you do it? Great!’”

The next day she went to a hilltop overlooking Kiev, and stripped to a pair of red denim shorts, worn with heavy boots, leather gloves, and a mask to protect her eyes. The  Pussy Riot verdict was due that day, and in tribute to the Russian punk activists – and to mark her opposition to all religions – Inna proceeded to chop down a 13ft wooden cross that had been there since 2005. Despite her preparations, it wasn’t easy. “When I started to cut it, I thought, ‘it’s not possible to destroy it,’” she says. But after seven minutes it fell, and she posed against the stump for invited journalists. With “Free Riot” scrawled across her bare breasts, she held out her arms to mirror the figure of Christ now lying on the ground.

Death threats arrived instantly. She says there were official calls for her arrest, and Russian TV reported that the cross was a memorial to the victims of Stalinism. Inna denies this, but Ukrainian journalists repeated the claim, and anger towards her sharpened. Men she suspected of being secret service agents immediately began milling outside her apartment, and a few days later, she was woken at 6am by the sound of her front door being kicked in. She escaped, jumping through a back window, then down from a first floor balcony, and made her way to Warsaw with $50, a mobile phone and her passport. She feared jail if she returned to Kiev, so some days later, she travelled to France, where women had expressed interest in joining Femen, the feminist group she runs with three Ukrainian friends.

Femen’s aims are straightforward, broad and radical. A war on patriarchy on three fronts, calling for an end to all religions, dictatorships and the sex industry. The group has been offered a space in a rundown theatre in Paris as headquarters, and it is here I meet Inna, 24, at the start of a training session with 20 young Femen activists. She is giving instructions on the correct stance – feet apart, firmly rooted, aggressive. Femen warriors never smile, she says, they are not there to please anyone. The group has been protesting topless since 2010, using their bodies to attract attention, to lure journalists, and they have been roundly criticised by some people, who accuse them of playing into sexist stereotypes.

In a room covered with posters and murals – Fuck Religion, says one, Go out! Undress! Win!, says another – the activists stand in rows, screaming slogans at each other. They’re dressed in T-shirts and tracksuits, occasionally stopping to swig bottled water. This is gym class for the revolution.

“Not a sex toy,” they scream. Then “Poor because of you” and “In gay we trust”. One by one, they take to the middle of the room, to show how they would behave at a protest. One new member shouts “Pope No More”, before two other activists launch themselves at her. For a moment all three are mid-air, then they hit the ground and start struggling in a blur. Inna has told them they must move constantly, to avoid being covered; their slogan will be written across their bare chest and back, and they need it to be seen. One woman fights hard, still screaming, occasionally breaking free, running a few paces, only to be brought down again with a brutal thwack. Finally, Inna calls a halt, and the woman stands up with blood running down her arm. Inna smiles, grabs her hand, and holds the injured limb aloft. There is clapping, cheering, congratulations.

 
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