Oleksandra Shevchenko and the rest of the other members of Femen want to be heard. And they’ve found that one of the ways to get noticed is to protest using their breasts as their uniform. Femen is a women’s rights group based in Ukraine founded in 2008 by Anna Hutsol which, according to their website practices the ideology of “sextremism”—that is, by defending “with their breast sexual and social equality in the world.” They seek to fight against patriarchy in its three forms—the dictatorship, the church, and the sex industry.
Headquartered in a small basement flat close to the main square of Kiev, Femen did not originally bare their boobs when they first started to protest the status of women in their country. But in an interview with Sam Wilson of BBC News, they said that going topless has encouraged people to listen to their cause. Shevchenko adds: “For centuries, women’s bodies and sexuality was used by men. We understood we have to control our bodies and sexuality ourselves. We decide what to do with our body, our sexuality, our boobs – whether to hide it or show it.”
Their “sextremist” tactics have included felling a large wooden cross in Kiev with a chainsaw—their most controversial so far; stealing the ballot box where President Vladimir Putin had put his vote in for this year’s elections; and lampooning President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. Last year, they also launched a protest against a contest in a New Zealand radio station which awarded a Ukrainian wife as a prize. Their latest includes protesting against furniture company IKEA, which had deleted all the images of women and girls in its Saudi Arabia catalogue. Needless to say, they do all this with their breasts bare and written with slogans, such as in the IKEA protest: “Allah created me visible” and “You cannot erase us! We exist.”
Is this topless brand of feminism getting their message across? International feminist groups have been sympathetic to Femen’s cause. They have landed in the German magazine Der Spiegel and have gotten invitations and funding from various feminist groups around the world.
But not everyone is supportive. In Ukraine, they are seen as “self-publicists, or even suspected of being a decoy devised to take pressure off the government they spend so much time attacking,” writes Wilson. One of his readers, D4, opines that Femen is not “newsworthy… Disruptive anarchy will not achieve any more than their removal of clothes; that just makes the authorities look bad when carting them off.”