Femen is notoriously well-known for its anti-authoritarian, anti-religion “top-free” protest activities in Europe, especially in the Ukraine (where they’re originally from) and in Paris, where they’re presently headquartered. Recent activities include disruption of a Catholic Christmas Mass in Cologne Cathedral in Germany, where Josephine – a Femen “sextremist” – clambered up and posed on the altar, arms widespread, with “I Am God” scrawled in black paint on her torso.
Femen isn’t just in Europe, though, they have contingents sprouting up everywhere – Turkey, Japan, Mexico, Brazil - even in North America. They’ve established a strong foothold in the Canadian province of Quebec, and they’re ambition, of course, is to invade the USA in the very near future.
Femen at Cologne Cathedral
I interviewed two members via email - Xenia Chernyshova, leader of Femen Canada (Quebec), and Neda Topaloski, spokeswoman for Femen Canada (Quebec) – to learn more about Femen’s past, present, and future.
Hank Pellissier: Can you tell us how you came to be involved in FEMEN?
Xenia Chernyshova: I connected with these “bad-ass” women when I saw Femen for the first time in Alain Margot’s documentary “Our God is Woman”: I saw real revolutionaries and fearless humans beings. I recognized myself immediately. From my point of view, their actions in Ukraine had a potent power that has now spread worldwide. Under their influence, I understood that the time had come to arise. A new society is currently under construction: a society that knows the meaning of “Égalité, Liberté, Fraternité”.
Femen began its revolt, exploiting the patriarchal codification systems. In other words, they wanted to hijack the subservient meaning of the symbols that are used by society and make them liberating. This was the first wall to breach, and now they’re engaging women in a real-time, worldwide aesthetic and socio-political revolution.
To get back to my story: I was born in Ukraine, but was raised in northern Quebec, in Canada. I went back to Kiev in 2012 for 3 weeks to introduce my one year old son to my relatives. I met with some girls from Femen because, being an artist in Montreal, I was attracted by their “political-street-art” actions and by what Oksana Sachko (Femen artist) names art-extremism (a mix between radical performance, sublimation and self-mockery). We talked about immigration, feminism in Canada, the Ukrainian people’s disillusion regarding the Orange Revolution, motherhood, women’s body complexes and how to spread a feminist social revolt.
Hank: Can you describe some of your activities with FEMEN, that you did in Ukraine, in France, and now in Canada?
Xenia: My activism started with one of Femen’s most scandalous actions regarding Christianity. On August 17th, 2012, three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years of jail. Femen needed to decide quickly what kind of action they would do and who would participate. Anna Hutsol (the founder of the movement) and Sasha Shevchenko (one of the strongest activists) asked me if I wanted to help Inna Shevchenko (current leader of Femen France) to cut down a crucifix in an act of solidarity with the Russian feminist punk group. Without any hesitation, I agreed. Being a mother, a woman and an artist, I cared about the destinies of these women. Having been raised within Christian-Orthodox values, I was proud to hear artistic confrontational rebellions directly state: Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist!
Inna had to escape from Ukraine because of what we did. I had to return back to Canada. You can see the complete action here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hG6-6HD7_HA
A month later, on September 18th, Inna, with french feminists, did a symbolic march in Paris saying that Femen is the new feminism, despite what the old guard say. The first international branch fully emerged on the world stage.
In October 2012, Sasha called me to say that some other girls from Germany wanted to be part of Femen and that Femen plans to organize an international action on the same day in France, Germany and, if possibly, in Canada to protest the fact that women were being airbrushed out of the IKEA’s Saudi catalogues. Although I tried to mobilize people, nobody wanted to go topless to make a political statement in my entourage. So, I did it alone.
Before this event, a woman named Sara Winter, also did some Femen protests in Brasil, but we can say that Femen started to become a truly global movement after the IKEA actions. Women from various countries began rebelling locally and some came to France to get in touch with Inna who quickly became the official spokeswoman for Femen.
A woman named Amina Taylor posted a topless photo of herself on Facebook in Tunisia. On her chest, she wrote in Arabic: My body is mine and is not the source of anyone’s honour. Muslim extremists never forgave this insurgency. Shortly afterwards, she was put in jail.
Femen arranged actions all around the world to help and support her. I organized a topless protest inside the Tunisian consulate in Montreal on April 4th, 2013. This time, we were nine, men and women.
As a follow-up action, on June 1st, I interrupted a speech by the former Tunisian prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, by jumping on stage and ripping off my shirt and yelling “Free Amina”. Men from the audience as well as security jumped on the stage and I got roughed-up.
Finally, after a lot of struggles, Amina was released from prison. She is in France now, but decided not be part of Femen anymore.
On my side, Femen Quebec started to develop slowly. We did protests in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto against many issues: Putin’s homophobic law; rape in the DR Congo; and the arrests of Saudi women activists Wajeha and Fawzia. We also protested the detention of Canadian mother Nathalie Morin, in Saudi Arabia.
In 2013, on October 1st, we did a topless protest against Parti Quebecois identity politics by erupting inside the Quebec legislature. In this way, we got involved in local Quebec politics, forming, officially, Femen Quebec.
We went with more actions against Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper and his colonial politics in what concerns First Nations fundamental rights.
Our latest action was in support of the EuroMaidan Revolution in Ukraine.
Hank: FEMEN is very anti-religious - is this primarily because religions oppress women?
Xenia and Neda Topaloski: Yes. We fight patriarchy in it’s three main manifestations: religious institutions, dictatorships (and any form of totalitarian regime) and the sex industry.
Religion has been one of the strongest forms of female slavery. All religions (and most importantly the three monotheisms) are all equally misogynous: in the holy books as well as in the human institutions that followed. They both openly establish and assert a much inferior status to women than to men.
We fight the concept of confining women to a specific role, we fight everything that tells a woman who and what to be. Religious institutions have created and perpetuated a destructive shame on women’s bodies: therefore on their whole identity.
When you trap a female body into the perception of a religious patriarchal society, you raise girls to actually believe that they are “sin and temptation”, that they should be ashamed of themselves and subject to male’s authority, desires and will.
We are against all religions, not against private personal philosophies.
Xenia at Femen demonstration
Hank: I have read that members of FEMEN go through extensive physical training. Is this true? Do you learn martial arts?
Xenia and Neda: In the headquarters of FEMEN, in Paris, yes, there is a very demanding physical training. We do not learn martial arts because we do not fight, but we don’t exactly adhere to Gandhian tactics either. We are trained to resist. We learn how to be strong physically. Our confidence comes from understanding of history and the current issues that determine our actions.
We do not use violence because our naked bodies speak for ourselves: they are our manifestos and our battleground. Our breasts are our weapons only because established power sees them as such. Nature gives us this weapon because the social, political and economical, rules, all governed by a conventional morality, criminalizes our attempt towards liberation.
In Quebec, we don’t train together simply because we do not have any funds for that, we don’t even have a room or a place of any kind to gather together. We can’t afford the space yet.
Hank: I have read that FEMEN is interested in doing actions in the USA. I am happy to bring you here. What sort of actions does FEMEN think would be valuable in the USA? Actions that challenge the religious powers?
Xenia and Neda: Definitely, some Femen actions would be effective in Utah, Indiana and Tennessee, where going topless in public is illegal according to state law.
Still, the main focus, in the USA, would be to confront the consumer society because it’s powered by women’s bodies and the constant sexualisation of their identities. Oversexualisation is a norm when it comes to representing women in the public sphere, particularly in media, advertisement and the fashion industry. This consumer society in the capitalist neo-liberal economy relies on objectification of women and reduces an entire gender to it’s sex-appeal.
Fueled by women’s sexual submissiveness, the mainstream culture doesn’t even glorify women’s own sexuality that is still very taboo, it only glorifies men’s sexuality though women’s bodies and sex-appeal. Women are not sexual beings but sex toys: in other words, men’s things. The sex-toy aesthetic (and not only role) is a look, and social code of conduct: it’s not about the actual sexual activity but about who evokes it best, creating perpetual competitivity between girls.
On the other hand, beauty is standardized: there is one way to be beautiful. Female figures in television and ads are one version of the same, that generic model teaches every woman to, above all, care about the way she looks because it’s the main vehicle of her identity.
We believe that after the end of totalitarian political regimes, the end of the church-state alliance, the first world countries built a fourth (in addition of the three mentioned in question 3), modern and contemporary, extremely efficient and pernicious form of patriarchy and female enslavement: the consumer society. The USA are it’s epicenter. In this so-called democracy of «freedom» and «equality» that USA is so proud of, a woman’s body is not sin anymore, it is her grave: never good enough.
A woman is, for her own self, a fantasized product made for consumption. And a patriarchal economy capitalizes on it. We want women to stop apologizing for their bodies. We want them to love their bodies. We want each and every woman to say: “I’m starting a riot, not a diet!”
Hank: I have talked to feminists that don’t like FEMEN for various reasons. Personally, I think they misunderstand FEMEN, and they need to learn more about FEMEN’s goals, etc. What do you think? Have you encountered resistance from “older feminists”? Why are they not supportive? Please be as blunt as you wish - it is very refreshing.
Xenia and Neda: Traditional academic feminism is theoretical, a little lofty and pontificates incessantly. Women should be exactly what they want, and not let others decide for them: THAT is freedom.
Traditional conservative feminists dislike us, thankfully.
Our era is one of errant, ugly, capitalist show-business. It is an era of exploitative, female nudity, much decreased in elegance. We will resist this on all fronts. With the support of traditional feminists, I hope.
Hank: What nations are FEMEN in right now? I have heard they are in 10 - can you name them?
Xenia and Neda: Revolutions are coming from people and places you least expect. The world is becoming turbulent, and rightfully so. Femen, in one way or another, is everywhere. The strongest actions can sometimes be just events coming from people who aren’t even calling themselves Femen but are using similar tactics.
Concretely, Femen has highly organized, active branches in France and Germany. Then, you have Femen Spain, Femen Sweden, Femen Nederland, Femen Mexico, Femen Turkey, Femen Britain, Femen Italy and Femen Quebec (Femen Canada).
We had a branch in Belgium, but they decided to go on their own road. Femen Brazil stopped their activism because of personality conflicts. Also, Femen Egypt existed with Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, then she had to seek asylum to Sweden where she did protests with the Swedish Femen group.
Femen Ukraine, because of political repressions, “collapsed”. The main activists and leaders had to escape imprisonment and extreme state violence.
Femen Tunisia existed even before Amina, but it doesn’t exist anymore because of state-repression.
Recently, we had women that made their first appearances as Femen activists in China, Israel and Australia. Some activity has also started in Japan and in Iran.
Femen has supporting groups in India, Poland and Romania. A Femen USA branch exists since december 2013.
Hank: My understanding is that you are the leader of FEMEN in North America. Can you describe to me what your goals and responsibilities are, as the leader?
Xenia: I am the first woman to uprise in Canada in a Femen-style. That’s it. Now, I became a very fierce defender of Femen in Quebec. My public speaking abilities gave me the capacity to properly present and explain our ideology. But we work in a very democratic way and our goal is to empower ALL women. Like we say in the Femen Manifesto, our objective is to, by strength of courage and personal example, initiate a global women’s mob-law over patriarchy.
It means that our role in this global revolution is to take the first frightening steps. Ukrainian activists (Anna, Inna, Sasha and Oksana) initiated a major breakthrough. Then I came along, following their steps, and just like them, I won’t stop.
My goal is to guide, to create an awakening, and to encourage others to become leaders of their destinies. Every women involved in Femen has the potential to become a strong leader. Each of us has her own strengths in different political, psychological, symbolic and logistic levels of leadership.
Patriarchy has a problem seeing women as efficient political human beings. As empowered women, we refuse the standard tactics of those in power at the moment.
One of my main concerns is also to find the best way to integrate men to our battle: we need to work together, to change the world together, in solidarity and support and not denial of each other (a mistake that has been done by some feminists in the past).
Hank: I think there is at least one FEMEN member in San Francisco now, because there is a red-headed women who was photographed topless in front of a SF mosque on Topless Jihad Day. Can you put me in touch with San Francisco area FEMEN members so that they can help me with a conference that I am working on?
Xenia: Unfortunately, I don’t have any concrete precisions concerning Femen activists in San Francisco. You can contact Femen USA at email@example.com to get in touch with the woman who officially started the American branch. She is in charge of recruiting allies and other activists.
On my side, I’ll send you more information as soon as I have some.
Hank: I am producing a conference in May, called “EROS EVOLVING – the future of Love, Sex, Marriage, Family, Gender, and Feminism. I want you to be a keynote speaker and present a slide-show history of FEMEN. And then, I’d like you to talk about what San Francisco activists could do to promote revolution FEMEN-style. I am hoping you can give us some ideas. Just let me know if that’s what you’d like to talk about.
Xenia: I’ll work directly with Inna Schevchenko and Anna Hutsol to make a strong and useful presentation about our activism. Furthermore, I’m studying at HEC, Montreal Business School, in Arts Management and working on a thesis about Femen as a Rebellious Organization. My research as well as some of the conferences I have presented may very well be of use to your event.
Additionally, Femen activists plan to meet in France at the end of April for a training/brainstorming session, which I am sure will contribute greatly to the issues involved at the Berkeley conference.
We look forward to participating at this conference and see this as a great opportunity to forge links with like-minded people in the United States.
Closing Addendum by Hank: To learn more about Femen, I highly recommend reading Topless Jihadis – inside Femen, the world’s most provocative activist group, written by Jeffrey Tayler, the Atlantic correspondent in Russia. Tayler’s exciting narrative provides insight into the revolutionary minds, fiery emotions, and thrilling daily lives of Femen’s top leaders, plus it chronicles their major actions. The book deserves recognition as a classic blueprint for human rights activists everywhere.