When four young Ukrainians banded together in 2008 to break the mould for protesting sexism and violence against women, they set off a wave of bare-breasted “sextremism” that eventually spread around the world.
But despite continued sporadic protests the Femen movement has been losing steam, even as the MeToo revelations and outrage over Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein have kept condemnation of sexual harassment and assault in the spotlight.
Wearing body-paint slogans and crowns of flowers, Femen activists captured widespread public attention for the first time in February 2010 with a topless protest at a Kiev voting station against Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych.
The women would prove a formidable challenge for security services hoping to keep them at bay, blending easily into crowds before staging their demonstrations to the amazement – or dismay – of their targets and onlookers.
Politicians were high on their list, the latest just last Sunday as Silvio Berlusconi was ambushed as he voted in Italy’s general election by a woman with the slogan “you have expired” on her chest.
Cost of success
“They are very brave, they’re not afraid of violence, of putting themselves in harm’s way,” says Francoise Picq, a French historian who has long studied feminist movements.
“But they have not really developed their ideas,” Picq argues.
Such criticism resonates with Inna Shevchenko, 27, a Femen leader based in France, who says “French activists taught me to have ideological debates and study the theories”.
The group, whose name signifies “thigh” in Latin, was formed by four young women – Anna Gutsol, Yana Zhdanova, Oksana Shatchko and Sasha Shevchenko – hoping to counter misogynist violence with bold action.
Their tactics quickly gained traction, even though nobody seemed to have a clear idea of how many women were Femen members.
In their native Ukraine they were harangued as prostitutes under the sway “of a political party, of the West, of a man, of the US”, says Inna, who joined the group a few years later.
Their protests eventually started targeting authoritarianism and racism alongside sexist violence, with Russia’s Vladimir Putin a particular target, or France’s far-right National Front party.
And in October 2011, “they came from Ukraine to lead an action against Dominique Strauss-Kahn”, who had been accused of rape while at the head of the International Monetary Fund, “while French feminists had not yet reacted,” recalls Eloise, a French woman won over by the campaign.
But the activists also learned how perilous their protests could be: during a 2011 tour in Belarus, “we were arrested in front of the secret service headquarters, brought into a forest and tortured,” Inna says. Back in Ukraine a few months later, at risk of arrest after police said they had discovered weapons at the Femen offices, the group’s leaders decided to close up shop.
In the meantime French feminists had got in touch, hoping to create a Femen cell in France, and who provided a refuge for Inna in the summer of 2012 after she quit Kiev.
‘Not enough nuance’
Oksana Shatchko and Sasha Shevchenko later joined Inna in exile in France, but the group was unable to infuse the movement with the same intensity – and they eventually fell out.
“When we arrived, we saw that Inna had not created a group of activists but a fan club,” says Sasha, 29, who now lives in Paris.
“Sasha and Oksana were critical of the militant strategy of the French Femen,” Inna counters.
Supporters were abandoning the group, in particular as it set its sights on religious symbols, including a demonstration at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2013. Such moves drew the ire of politicians and confused Femen’s message, with many unsure what the group stood for.
“There wasn’t enough nuance or explanation,” says Eloise, who did not want her full name disclosed. She has since quit what she calls a “very hierarchical movement, like a pyramid”.
Meanwhile, some activists have been physically attacked at protests, while fines and run-ins with the law have also dampened spirits.
But even as the movement tries to find its footing in France, members are trying to regroup back in Ukraine – though their actions have been more modest than in their heyday.
“Unfortunately, our mission is the same as the one we had in 2008,” explains Gutsol, who stayed in Ukraine.