Ukrainian feminist group Femen are taking their topless protests around the world, having already stripped off in Western Europe to highlight a range of issues from democratic violations to sexual exploitation, in what some call a new brand of feminist activism.
While enjoying little support at home, Femen’s protesters have become a symbol of Ukraine abroad, having taken their tops off in Moscow, Paris, Zurich, Brussels and even in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City, and now they plan to go even further afield.
“This year we hope to cover North Africa and South America,” one of Femen’s leaders, Anna Gutsol, said.
The group, which was founded in 2008, came up with the idea of its topless protests almost by accident.
During a demonstration in 2009, Femen activists decorated their backs with slogans and bared them to photographers. The pictures were a hit, leading the women to come up with an even more outrageous way to get their views across.
Since they turned to face the cameras, the international media has given them lavish coverage.
Femen’s first moment of glory came in 2010 on the day of Ukraine’s tense presidential elections.
Four young women boldly undressed in a polling station just before the arrival of presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych.
Recently, the group has shifted its activism to Western European countries.
In September last year, it launched its “first training center” in Paris to propagate its brand of “new feminism.”
Some academics see the group as successors to 19th-century suffragettes and the women’s rights movement of the 1970s.
Rejane Senac of the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research, said that Femen represents a “third wave of feminism,” but in Ukraine people have became increasingly irritated by Femen’s protests, which at one point were staged on an almost weekly basis, seemingly without a clear agenda.
Some Ukrainian critics slam the movement as overly commercial, although Femen members strongly reject this, saying they live modestly on income that comes only from donations and an online store, where they sell Femen T-shirts and mugs.
“In France, we feel moral and material support. [The French] do not say: ‘Aah, those whores again’ as [some do] in Ukraine,” Gutsol said.
Femen members blame a lack of political culture and the weakness of feminist traditions for their failure to win over Ukrainians, but some accuse them of seeking publicity at all costs.
“This is a simulation of feminism ... [with] no serious political or social meaning,” political strategist Sergiy Gaiday said. “They use their bodies just to attract attention.”
Mariana Yevsyukova, a senior staff member at Ukraine’s branch of La Strada international women’s rights group, said that she believed Femen’s members “damage both Ukraine’s image and the true feminist movement.”
“They protest against everything, but not a single problem has been resolved thanks to them,” she said.
Femen is defying such criticisms by blazing a new trail as the first Ukrainian group to break out of national politics into international activism.