Inna, founder of the French branch of Femen, at their headquarters in Paris.
Last Friday, I took the Eurostar from London to Paris to meet the topless feminist protest group, Femen. Originally based in the Ukraine, the organisation has since spread out across the world. The idea was to film the build up to Femen's next protest, but I didn't find out quite what I was getting myself into until I arrived at their headquarters – a lofty space above a theatre in Goutte D'or – that afternoon.
The area has a large Muslim population and is dotted with Islamic cultural centres, so it seems quite a ballsy (or boobsy? Is that a thing yet?) move to base themselves there considering a large part of their shtick is protesting against conservative Islam. Their last protest action, for example, was Topless Jihad Day – a day where Femen members got their boobs out in various European cities to show solidarity with Amina Tyler. Amina, if you weren't aware, is a 19-year-old Femen member from Tunisia who was drugged and given a "virginity test" after posting topless protest pictures of herself on Facebook.
When I arrived, the Paris HQ was plastered with banners from previous demos – one that read "Sextremism" in bright red paint covered an entire wall. A few members were trying to decide on the best slogan for the massive new banner, which a girl called Oksana was already decorating with paintings of topless Femen activists. The reason for the extended deliberation was because of a heated discussion over whether "Nazi factions" should be spelled with or without an "s" at the end. No one's going to pay you much attention in the protest world if you mess up your spelling.
Femen members working on their protest banner.
Prolonging the whole thing even further, Inna Shevchenko – one of the original Ukrainian Femen members – then argued that the slogan ”Femen Action Against Nazi Factions” wasn’t strong enough. Inna started up the French branch of Femen in September, 2012 after fleeing Ukraine because, in solidarity with Pussy Riot, she'd chainsawed through an eight-metre-tall crucifix in Kiev's main square. Which is something the Russian government presumably wouldn't be too happy about when you consider that Pussy Riot were jailed for simply performing a "punk prayer" in a cathedral – a far cry from intentionally destroying a public piece of religious iconography with a massive serrated saw.
Inna was clearly the leader, but the cry of, "Let's make a democratic decision!" was frequently blurted out as the group tried to conclude whatever particular thing it was they were trying to conclude. After various suggestions had been tossed around and subsequently shut down – if not by Inna, then by the other girls – we were left standing in an awkward, angry, silent void. The vibe was tense.
The group didn't want to disclose what exactly it was they were planning in case authorities caught wind of it, giving them ample time to round the Femen members up before they could even unfurl their banners. But I'd guessed by this point (not exactly difficult, what with the all the arguing about the spelling on their banners) that the action was to be against far-right groups who were planning to congregate in Paris on that Sunday the 12th.
Femen member Margueritte working on their banner.
Inna explained that the last time they confronted neo-Nazi thugs they were badly beaten and she lost a tooth. So this time round they were planning a different, slightly more detached approach – waving their banners at the fascists from a distance. The plan was for Inna and Sarah, another core member of French Femen, to check into a luxury hotel by the Joan of Arc statue on Place des Pyramides, which is where the far-right groups were going to gather. Once the square was full of neo-Nazis and press, they'd roll down their massive banner and shout their slogans, wearing nothing but flower crowns from the hip up.
The following day, I was invited to one of Femen's weekly sextremist training sessions. As I walked in, the 11 gathered girls – most of them wearing jean shorts and Femen tank-tops – were standing in a circle furiously screaming their mottos: "Go rape yourself!", "Nudity is freedom!", "Fuck your church!", "Fuck your morals!", "Not a sex toy!", "In gay we trust!", "Homohobes dégage! [Homophobes get out of the way]" and "Where is Amina? Free Amina!" in support of their Tunisian sister.
Femen members practising their protest techniques.
Marianne – another Tunisian Femen activist living in Paris – explained how Amina inspired their Topless Jihad Day. When I asked her about the "Muslim Women against Femen" Facebook page that was triggered by their action, she assured me that Femen aren’t against women wearing burqas, they’re against women having to wear burqas. Accentuating the widespread female oppression in Tunisia, Marianne added that her Muslim family don't know she's a Femen member and claimed they'd disown her if they ever found out.
A new recruit to the group was then asked to demonstrate what she had learned during her inaugural training session at the headquarters the previous week. In front of everyone present, she got into position and started screaming the slogans at the top of her lungs. Inna told her she'd done well, but that her arms went a little slack as she was screaming, before going over the technical aspects of the Femen pose: legs in a wide stance and holding the sign high, arms straight and held a little behind the ears. “We’re not promoting yoghurt or beer, we’re reclaiming our bodies. This is aggressive nudity – we’re ready to attack!” Inna told her.
Action training at the Femen headquarters.
Being able to quickly get your top off before getting into position is also an essential skill for any Femen member. Some girls flashed their tits so quickly I barely even registered the fact they were undressing. After the exercise in aggressively disrobing, the members went on to their action training and everything got pretty full on. Half the girls took the role of Femen activists, the other half acted as police and security, dragging their topless cohorts across the room as they screamed slogans and practised making their actions as visible and audible as possible for the cameras. Inna firmly pointed out that everything they do at protests is for the cameras: "The action will go on until the last camera has left," she told the group.
The first practice attempt didn't go so well; "All I can hear is noise – you’re not coordinated. We want people to know exactly why we are here,” she said.
The second attempt was more successful, but it took me a while to discern what the girls were actually shouting through their thick accents (I eventually figured out it was, "Pope no more" after listening to them for a good five minutes).
Femen members about to be walked on.
Adrenaline was high and the girls were out of breath. Then they did sit-ups, lift-ups and planks, all in the style of a military boot camp. After a while, some of the girls started exclaiming, “Oh putain” [for fuck’s sake] at Inna’s orders, to which she replied, “15 push ups!” The girls even practiced being walked on, as is often the outcome at their protests. Pauline, a full-time French Femen activist, told me that women’s bodies are a lot more resistant to pain than you'd think. “We’re taught early on that we are frail, but we’re not! We’re probably more pain resistant than men. I’ve been beaten up during my six months as a Femen and I’m amazed at how much violence I can be exposed to and still be able to get back up and continue the action."
I caught myself thinking out loud that they all had pretty great tits. Inna assured me there was no casting process, then blushed, admitting that she didn’t particularly like her own boobs.
When the newer activists left, Inna, Pauline, Sarah, Oksana and another core member, Margueritte, put the finishing touches on their banner, which now bore the slogan: "SEXTERMINATION FOR NAZISM.” Once dried, they folded it into a suitcase. Inna and Sarah, who had got all dolled-up for the swanky hotel check-in, took the suitcase and hopped in a cab to kick off the action.
French fascists gathering at Place de la Madeleine.
The next day, I headed down to where the ultra nationalists were gathering at Place de la Madeleine. The army of flag-waving, banner-thrusting thugs in black bomber jackets – who were soundtracked by a truck blasting out dramatic classical music, kind of like the Helicopter Attack in Apocalypse Now, just a bit more fascist – were pretty intimidating. As soon as we got our cameras out, the PR guy from France's infamous Troisième Voie neo-Nazi group walked up and informed us of what we could and could not film.
We were then introduced to the group's leader, Serge Ayoub – a buff, middle-aged man in a suit jacket with a shaved head and a crooked nose. Serge explained that they had gathered for their annual celebration of Joan of Arc, who kicked the Brits out of France, but also to protest against globalisation, “which is destroying our national economy and identity”. After about an hour, the nationalist groups started marching towards the statue of Joan of Arc, where Inna, Sarah and the other Femen were waiting with their banner.
The Femen annoy loads of fascists with their banner.
Femen had managed to get a room on the third floor of the Hotel Regina, strategically located right behind the nationalists’ sacred Joan of Arc statue. At around noon, when the most violent faction of the ultra nationalists had arrived at the statue, Inna, Sarah, Pauline and Oksana emerged on the balcony, bare-breasted in their flower crowns, and swiftly rolled down their banner in front of the hostile neo-Nazis. Unsurprisingly, the fascists tried to storm the hotel, but were quickly pushed back by riot police.
As they couldn’t get their fists on the girls, the nationalists reverted to Nazi salutes and angry displays of their middle fingers while yelling, “Salopes!” [bitches], “Suicide toi!” [commit suicide] and all sorts of other unfriendly things. The girls answered by blowing kisses towards the furious fascists, all while holding position – chins up and straight arms holding smoke flares. A group of nationalist girls gathered beneath Femen’s balcony, shouting, “We’re waiting for you!”
After a little more back and forth between the two groups, a fire truck pulled up and evacuated the Femen activists down a long ladder. The girls descended, occasionally stopping to proudly salute the booing crowd, who were just about being held back from attacking the truck by an armed police brigade. Femen were then safely escorted away by the police before Serge Ayoub held a speech accusing them of being paid by the government and alleging that the tit flashing was all a conspiracy to disturb nationalist protests. In the eyes of the Femen members, the action was a success.
Before meeting Femen, I was in two minds about their tactics. On the one hand, they’ve found a genius way of getting noticed. But are people too distracted by their nipples for their messages to gain any traction? Either way, they have successfully managed to get feminism back on the front pages, which has to count for something. Femen’s non-violent topless protest tactics have even earned them the title of, "The new face of feminism," which hasn't gone down too well with feminists who consider flashing your tits to protest prostitution and male oppression as a bit of an oxymoron.
Angry fascist girls shouting at the Femen protesters.
Admittedly, that whole dilemma is a bit of a mind fuck, but Inna assures it's done on purpose: a wolf in sheep’s clothing type of move – just like how you probably clicked on this article because you read the word “topless” in the title. Maybe Inna is right, and the stigma surrounding female nudity and sexuality has been holding women back by objectifying them or spreading a fear of being objectified. Regardless, it's kind of amazing how much of a fuss people make over some tits being flashed. You'd think that, 40 years after the 1970s, it would be thoroughly played-out, that the tit stigma would be long gone.
Femen aren't hurting anyone and have found a form of non-violent protest that people actually notice, so why shouldn't they be allowed to walk around topless with flowers in their hair?
Don’t miss the VICE News piece on the Femen, coming soon on VICE.com.
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