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Topless Protesters, Tortured by KGB, Plan World Domination

January 10, 2013, 11:07 AM
Femen_photo

Imagine if nude women in fashion magazines, action movies, and music videos, suddenly screamed out against political corruption, debilitating income inequality, or oppression by religious leaders.  Femen, a group of all-female protesters who use their breasts to garner global media attention, want to change the interpretation of naked women from sex objects to democratic, secular militants. This profile-raising tactic has saved their lives.

Inna Shevchenko, a 22 year-old leader of the Ukrainian organization, survived 24-hours of torture by the KGB, in Belarus.  On December 19, 2011, KGB agents kidnapped Shevchenko and two other Femen members in Minsk, for protesting the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, known as “Europe’s Last Dictator.” The six agents drove the women blindfolded into a snow-covered forest, stripped them naked, doused them in oil, and threatened to burn them alive if they didn’t complete humiliating drills. The agents chopped off the women’s hair with knives, threatened rape, and videotaped them, presumably for Lukashenko. One agent allegedly said for the camera, "Look at those bitches that were traveling all over the world, protesting, look at them now.”

Lukashenko did not have the women killed, likely to avoid the media backlash Putin experienced over Pussy Riot. Shevchenko, and her two compatriots, Oksana Sachko and Aleksandra Nemchinova, were abandoned in the forest, naked and soaking wet, without money or identification.  They ran for hours and eventually came across a small village of loggers, all men. One had a cell phone that Shevchenko used to call Femen founder Anna Hutsol, in Ukraine, for help.  Shevchenko credits Femen’s fame for keeping them alive.

I met up with Shevchenko in the African and Muslim neighborhood of la Goutte d'Or of Paris. There, she runs Femen’s training headquarters from the Lavoir Moderne, a community theater and former public wash house immortalized in Emile Zola’s masterpiece novel about poverty, L'Assommoir. She laughs easily, and speaks with inspiring conviction even while battling a cold.

I asked how she sustains her fight, if she models herself on anyone historical. “My fight was not based at the beginning on a 700 page doctrine, not at all. It was based on my personal feelings,” she said. “But if you want to talk about heroes who can move me now? She’s anonymous. She’s that woman who can be raped or killed or beaten up today only because of her wish to be free, not to wear a burka, for example. I have a hero, for sure, and she’s just a normal woman.”

One of Femen’s heroes is Oksana Makar, an 18-year-old woman who was gang raped last March in Ukraine, choked unconscious, and set on fire. Two of the rapist-murderers had political connections that initially set them free. The crime outraged Ukrainians, who have long suffered under a corrupt government that ensures Ukraine serves as a brothel for tourists on sex safaris. Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, an ex-con and accused rapist, has touted his country’s beautiful women to attract foreign investors.

“Ukraine is not a brothel!” is one of Femen’s protest chants, a message spreading around the world in a growing movement raising awareness of violence against women and inequality everywhere. “Every action by Femen is a test for democracy,” said Shevchenko. “When we went out in support of gay marriage here in France, and we were beaten up by [Civitas, a fundamentalist Catholic group ], that was a good sign that in modern France, men are still beating up women, and there’s something to fight for.”  Shevchenko lost a tooth in the demonstration against Civitas’s anti-gay marriage march, where Femen members dressed as nude nuns and sprayed cans of white powder labeled “Jesus Sperm," and chanted "In gay we trust!" The women were physically beaten. Here's the video:

What does she think about feminists who think Femen’s nudity is crude attention-grabbing and defeats the message? “It’s something that disappoints you,” she said. “But my answer is: If you want your ideology to stay alive, then transform it. Adapt it to nowadays, to new interests, to a new generation.” (Obama’s digital army and Occupy Wall Street, take notice: Movements must evolve.)

She credits the books Woman and Socialism by August Bebel and Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy as inspiration. She deplores the past maneuvers by the women’s movement to look and dress more like men. “I think it’s kind of a controversial thing, it means that our god is a man,” she said. “We have to look as we are, as we are created. Equality is in difference, we’re different but equal.” She adds: “My god is woman.”

Femen was founded in Kyiv, Ukraine in 2008, as a protest against sex tourism. Shevchenko credits the 2004 Orange Revolution with her career in activism. “We are children of the Orange Revolution,” she said. At fifteen, she wore orange to school and her hair in the style of Yulia Tymoshenko’s peasant braids in support of the hundreds of thousands of protesters camped out in Kyiv’s Independence Square. The Orange Revolution eventually overturned a corrupt, Kremlin-backed election. Its excitement made a lasting impression on her, said Shevchenko: “I believe anything is possible with people power.”

But last year, President Yanukovych called for Shevchenko to be severely punished for chopping down a cross in Kyiv’s Independence Square, in solidarity with the arrested members of Pussy Riot. A group of agents followed her for three days. One morning, Shevchenko grabbed her passport and jumped out the window of her first floor apartment after she woke up to the five men who had been following her trying to break down her door. She took a train West to Poland, and accepted an invitation by French feminists to launch Femen in Paris. If she returns to Kyiv, she will likely be killed, or rot in prison like political opposition leader Tymoshenko. (Even demands by Hillary Clinton and European leaders have failed to free Tymoshenko, who is imprisoned under 24-hour video surveillance for trumped up charges.) Of course, she still misses her home country: “What I would give to spend one hour in Ukraine!” Shevchenko lamented.

I spent the afternoon observing Femen’s weekly protest training, which includes jujitsu. Around a dozen young women practiced resisting arrest while making their screamed voices heard. (Femen rules include: Never smile. Chant each slogan four times then pause, repeat. Never stop mid-chant: always complete the message.)  Personally, I found the training comforting; in Paris and New York I’ve been followed by lecherous men who have suggestively motioned to their groins. Such incidents are not rare; two occurred as recently as before leaving New York, where I live, and on my first day in Paris. Both times I was bundled up in a large winter coat, and I regrettably couldn’t help wonder if my Ukrainian face, inherited from both of my parents, spoke to them as an invitation.

So in a man’s world, desperate times call for desperate measures—which explains Femen’s guerilla tactics. But can you blame them, considering: In the past year, Republican leaders have made atrocious comments about rape; the worsening economic crisis continues to drive women into prostitution, creating countless victims of trafficking and slavery; and the world learned of India’s tragic rape epidemic. Femen’s message reflects signs carried by demonstrators in India: “Don’t tell me how to dress. Tell them not to rape.”

Shevchenko and Femen plan on world domination, with a training center to open in Brazil and another in Ukraine. “It just happened by itself,” she said. “One day, we’re sitting in Ukraine, and we see women in Brazil are calling themselves Femen and wearing Ukrainian flowers in their hair. It became international.” The group boasts 150,000 members and is supported by donations from around the world and its online shop. “The plan is to occupy the world with our aggressive but peaceful fight,” Shevchenko said. Watch out dictators, everywhere. Her eyes sparkling, she added, “Putin will sit one day in prison. I see it clearly.”

Photo image of Inna Shevchenko (center) with Femen protesters in Paris. Credit: Joseph Paris (Flickr)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Topless Protesters, Torture...

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