FEMEN’s Inna Shevchenko: We took our bodies and made them into instruments of feminism

Source: Wikimedia CommonsSource: Wikimedia Commons

Tucked away in plain sight just walking distance from Saint-Germain-des-Prés stands the cosy, mahogany-kissed Café Bonaparte. Just like its immediate vicinity – once the nucleus of French intellectual thought, frequented regularly by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, and, in distant, former times, grand Encyclopédistes such as Voltaire – the café is often abuzz with conversation, both leisurely and consequential.

In spring and summer, supplementary tables are retrieved from storage and generously spread across the pavement, extending far beyond the reaches of the red awning overhead. Waiters run from table to table, serving clients with enviable efficiency in time for the afternoon gouté. One café here, one jus d’orange there, one carafe d’eau to quench the thirst. Couples, friends, colleagues. Their laughter orotund, yet hearteningly coquettish. Secrets past and rumours present tangle lazily with coiling cigarette smoke. This is Paris. The city of love.

It was here, one sunny afternoon, that I met Inna Shevchenko – feminist activist, leader of self-proclaimed “sextremist” international women’s liberation movement FEMEN, and journalist – for an interview for The Cambridge Globalist. Shevchenko, who, in July 2013, was granted asylum in France, recently won the country’s prestigious 2017 Secularism Award (Prix de la Laïcité).


RAISA: FEMEN’s activity is known for its vibrancy and blatancy. What effects does your activism have on your daily life?

INNA: I receive death threats constantly from Islamists and from the extreme right. They even burnt down our Paris office in 2013 after a postal stamp was designed depicting [the French republican symbol] the Marianne. The designer said that I was the inspiration for this Marianne and it angered the French extreme right. In 2015, I lost very close friends in Charlie Hebdo. We started to take the threats we received very seriously when we saw that those who received similar threats had been killed. We had to move from our publicly-known headquarters. Now, I change my places of residence constantly. I was speaking at a conference in Copenhagen in February 2015 about freedom of expression when a terrorist entered the place firing a Kalashnikov and screaming. There were police protecting the event. Though I’m not known as a friend of the police, it is thanks to them that we survived.

But the feeling of danger has been there for a while, ever since we were kidnapped and tortured in Belarus in December 2011 by men who called themselves the KGB. They drove us somewhere over the course of 6 hours; we had to bend our heads down and wore plastic handcuffs. We couldn’t speak or move; we were hit and threatened. They told us every quarter of an hour how and why they would kill us. Then they took us in the forest, where there were around 15 men wearing balaclavas. Two of them filmed the whole thing. They filmed it for someone. I can’t wait for the collapse of Lukashenko’s regime … to when all of this torture will be known to the public. They then left us in the forest. I think the objective wasn’t to kill us, but to make an example out of us. We roamed the forest for 3-4 hours, before hearing the sound of chainsaws, of people working. We reached a village called Becky, where we found some people.

RAISA: What was your childhood like? Did any childhood experience push you towards activism?

INNA: I grew up in a normal Ukrainian family, where both of my parents worked. I didn’t have a patriarchal father or a silent mother. My parents were friends. But gender roles were very visible in society.

I was born in Kherson, Ukraine, in a country that had just gained its independence after the collapse of the USSR. There was no currency, no jobs, no power, and no control. Suddenly all the factories stopped working, all the libraries were closed, and all the shops were empty. I remember doing my homework every night by candlelight because the electricity in my town was turned off each night from 7-9 pm when everyone was coming home. My parents earned salaries in either bicycles or sausages – all sorts of things, but not money – which they would have to exchange for something else afterwards. We had coupons, some for cloths, others for furniture. Everybody was living with the constant thought of one question: ‘what will we eat tomorrow?’. Nobody was thinking about how to provoke social or political changes in the country. Unfortunately, twenty-five years later, many people are still preoccupied with the question of what they will feed their children.

At 9 o’clock, after the electricity was turned back on, I would watch television and see politicians in parliament. There was an impression that we lived in different countries … It was impossible for a child not to notice this gap between the government and citizens. I remember asking my parents about who turned off the lights in the evening and I remember them saying: “Oh, it’s 450 idiots.” This was something which remained in my mind. I knew that the 450 deputies in Ukraine’s parliament could influence everything in our lives; determine whether we would have electricity at night, or hot water. I think it was only 2002 that we finally had electricity all the time, but even today hot water is given on a schedule.

RAISA: What events led to the formation of FEMEN?

INNA: Our lives happened. The reality in Ukraine from the moment we were born, the events in our childhood and adolescence all provoked the activity of FEMEN and our involvement in it. My personal sentiments were that I didn’t want to live like any of the women I saw around me. After the fall of the USSR, my mother always worked longer hours than my father and earned two times less. She could only count on serving jobs, despite her education and skills. This is something that a child may not be able to understand, but can still see.

When we were teenagers, we started to be sexually harassed everyday by men and boys just for being a woman. There was this idea that a Ukrainian girl had to look beautiful and wear short skirts and a lot of makeup, not because she wanted to, but because this is one of the ways to survive. Why? Because your goal in life was to find a husband who would take care of you, because you couldn’t provide for yourself. Our whole life and existence was a reason to revolt and search for something new. I think that FEMEN was a fight to create a reality that did not exist yet.

RAISA: How did you get involved in FEMEN?

INNA: I joined FEMEN in 2009, while studying journalism in Kiev at Taras Shevchenko University. My story, of course, wasn’t the saddest: I was studying at the most prestigious university in the country and living in the capital. When I was nineteen, I was invited to work at the press office of the city’s mayor and became financially independent from my parents. But even so, I couldn’t have an independent mind. I had to write what I was told and lie about the city and the government. Every night, I would go back home and, in telephone conversations with my mother, say how unhappy I was with my life. She would say: “But, you have this great job and everything ahead of you.” But I didn’t feel that way.

Out of curiosity, I went to my first FEMEN meeting at a Soviet-style café not far from Independence Square [Maidan Nezalezhnosti] in Kiev. Nobody knew what FEMEN was at that point. I found around 15 girls seated around two tables sharing two cups of tea. The majority were not from Kiev. Everybody shared their anger about being harassed. Some girls had to have sexual relationships with professors to pass exams; others complained about sex tourism in Kiev, though prostitution was illegal. There wasn’t much beyond emotion at the early meetings; nobody had any political experience or knowledge of feminism. On some level, I’m proud of this. It’s life experience that helps you build your ideas. We were like sponges.

The first year and a half were focused only on fighting prostitution and sex tourism in Ukraine. We organised spectacular protests of 70-100 participants – all young girls holding banners with statistics – and wore pink cloths. No one thought of protesting topless at that point.

RAISA: What is FEMEN’s position on prostitution, specifically with regard to the criminalisation vs. legalisation debate?

INNA: It’s ridiculous to call prostitution voluntary in Ukraine. There’s no such thing. I’m talking about an industry that’s well-organised and owned by men, where women are used as tools for male-enrichment and sexual pleasure, where someone stands behind each woman and takes 80% of what she earns. I’m talking about a machine that eats the destinies of girls who are just trying to survive.

Even, here, in Paris. Look at who the prostitutes are. In Barbès, there are the Africans; in Belleville – the Asians; in Pigalle – the Russians, Ukrainians, Slovenians, and other women from Eastern Europe. These are women who come from economically unsuccessful countries, women who don’t have financial independence. Some of them come here to earn money to send to their relatives; some of them were trafficked. Many women who work as prostitutes don’t have any papers. That’s the reality of the sex industry, which is very often romanticised, which I think on many levels is a moral crime. I think that it is irresponsible and wrong to romanticise prostitution and to say that it’s a choice, which is something that even other feminist movements do. Many movements see prostitution in connection with sexual freedom, but it is a modern form of slavery for most of the women involved. I would never support criminalisation for prostitutes. I think that the Swedish model, where the clients are punished, is a good one, because it denies the opportunity for exploitation. But, criminialising clients is only the beginning. Prostitutes needs to be requalified and provided other options of employment.

RAISA: Why do FEMEN activists wear the traditional Ukrainian headdress?

INNA: Traditionally, this crown was worn by young, non-married women. Married women took it off and wore a scarf. When we started to use nudity in 2010, it was about taking the tools of patriarchy, but putting our own meaning in them for use against them. Men are used to seeing naked female bodies and saying: ‘Okay. It’s sexy. It’s for me. For men. For my pleasure, to advertise my products cars, beer, or yogurt.” We took our bodies back and made them into instruments of feminism, of self-liberation. We reclaimed our bodies as posters to carry our political messages. Even today, we do not always have the opportunity to speak with our voice; so, our bodies speak and they say a lot. We also took the headdress back and made it a crown of a victorious, female warrior.

Ironically, FEMEN uses all the codes of beauty to both attract and provoke. We purposefully wear lots of makeup, heels, and short skirts, because they are illustrations of our reality. They created us as Barbies, but now these marionettes are running on their own. When you see a woman who is supposed to smiling, posing, or sexually attracting, but instead she is angry, shouting, running, climbing onto politicians’ cars, she delivers a message. I think we break a lot of stereotypes.

RAISA: So, for FEMEN, nudity has proven to be a more effective method than traditional forms of protest? How do you respond to people who say that you are losing the respect of your audience by not prioritising dialogue?

INNA: Women have always had to fight for the right to speak. Negotiations and conversation were traditionally organised by and for men. Everybody wants to look at woman, but nobody wants to talk to them or listen to them deliberately. So, we had to force them. We had to break into their events, summits, official meetings, and press conferences, and shout out messages with a female voice. Very often we are still fighting for the basic right to speak. All over Europe, women got the right to vote just recently. In Switzerland, this was as late as 1971. Everybody only pretends that society is egalitarian.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons


RAISA: What can you say about machoism amongst post-Soviet men? Are women in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus better off today, in terms of rights, than they were in the Soviet Union?

INNA: I was born the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union. We can criticise what was happening in the USSR politically, but the socialism revolution brought the following: there was not much distinction between women and men. Women had to work, men had to work. Women were building railroads, men were building railroads. In the USSR, my father was earning 200 roubles a month as a sailor, which was a good salary; but my mother was earning 350 roubles a month working in a factory, which was really a lot. Things like the sex industry were just not a reality in the Soviet Union. This illness of prostitution in Eastern Europe started in the 1990s, when everything collapsed and rich people started to build their businesses. Food, sex, and entertainment have always been there for money. So, women had to serve. I can decry a lot of political decisions and repressions during the USSR, but it would be irresponsible for me to suggest that the situation between men and woman was the same as it is now.

I do believe that Ukraine’s independence was important and necessary, but when the country collapsed, a lot of different inequalities appeared. The segregation of men and women comes in crisis. Most of the time, war or military conflicts bring back traditional definitions of what it is to be women and men. Women were left in the house to take care of their children. Men could take greater risks.

RAISA: What advice would you give to women living in oppressive, paternalistic societies? What can they do on a personal level to secure greater rights? What can they do on a global level?

INNA: FEMEN opposes religious institutions and their political power. This does not mean that we are atheists. There are many believers in the movement who understand, nevertheless, that religions institutions bring the oppression of women, traditional views on family, intolerance for gay rights, etc. A feminist can be a believer, but feminism cannot be religious. You putting your religious identity before your political views, means that your religion replaces all of the views that you can have and informs your perception of the world.

RAISA: What can you say about the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict? What about the annexation of Crimea in March 2014?

INNA: The annexation of Crime was certainly surreal and I think that the international community didn’t react to it as it should have. There was a certain acceptance or a silent reaction, and sometimes silence means being an accomplice of injustice.

I believe in the power of democratic laws, constitutions, and rights, and I believe that people should be convicted when these laws are violated. The problem is that our presidents, whoever they are, are not treated as ordinary citizens. Nobody tried to bring Mr. Putin to The Hague for the international crime [of violating the borders of a sovereign nation]. Mr. Putin was not treated as a criminal, but he should have been. This makes European laws look as if they don’t exist.

RAISA: What do you say to people who argue that Vladimir Putin’s revanchism is essentially the West’s fault?

INNA: I definitely think that Putin’s quest for power and desire to show that he is an all-powerful tsar are behind his political activities, particularly in Ukraine and Syria. The West regularly makes the mistake of ignoring a lot of inequality, discrimination, and conflict in the world, because they happen in other countries. Just because Mr. Putin was elected by the people doesn’t mean that he’s a democratic president. I think policies should determine whether a politician is democratic, not how they were chosen.

In some ways, what’s going on today in Russia, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia – where women and men are killed for little signs of freedom – is the fault of western countries who keep collaborating economically and politically with them. But, ultimately, the fault for Mr. Putin’s activities – in Russia and outside it – lie with the Russian people, who let him maintain power.

I believe in revolution. I believe in the power of the people. I know that in Russia this means being arrested, but Ukrainians had two revolutions in 10 years. Even if they did not bring a lot of visible results, these revolutions were important. Russia has not had a revolution in far too long. Revolution isn’t the mere moment of protest in the street; it’s the very moment of resistance. Revolution is what Russian artist Petr Pavlensky does. It’s a mono-revolution, he’s alone, but I think that he delivers deep things that are needed in Russia.

RAISA: What do you think about Pussy Riot?

INNA: I think that what Pussy Riot did when they were active was definitely amazing. These great acts remain needed in Russia today. I’m disappointed that this very raw and real political punk group has today become more of a commercial; it doesn’t do what Petr Pavlensky does anymore. But, I was very inspired by the idea of Pussy Riot and what made Pussy Riot known – those powerful songs and acts of opposition.

RAISA: Do you find that there are women who hinder the progress of other women? What can you say about this phenomenon?

INNA: I find that many women, whether they have power or don’t, often contribute to the oppression of other women, either by their policies, like Marine Le Pen, or ignorance to women’s questions, or by following patriarchy. I think there’s an element of fear of responsibility, of the unknown, or of being an outsider in society in stepping back from traditional rules. Every human being is scared of losing comfort.

We observe how many women gain power only to follow male rules. We saw this in Ukraine with Yulia Tymoshenko. She was a strong woman; a revolutionary, who inspired a lot of people in the beginning. Even I wore her hairstyle as a fifteen-year-old. But then we saw her policies. She just continued the politics of oligarchy, followed the male game, and never mentioned women’s rights. She wasn’t a woman in politics, though she may have worn beautiful women’s clothes and looked feminine.

I don’t think female femininity’s a crime. Nor do I think that female masculinity’s a crime. We need to look the way we want. Seriously. Feminine yesterday, masculine tomorrow. But the truth is that Tymoshenko attracted a lot of attention, because she was feminine and beautiful. But she definitely betrayed all the hopes that men and women put in her. She played the male game.