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Topless feminism from Ukraine takes to French streets

media Members from the topless women's rights group Femen, shout slogans as they react inside their 'training camp' at the Lavoir Moderne Parisen in Paris Reuters/Jacky Naegelen

France’s debate over the legalisation of same-sex marriage took a violent turn on Sunday, as conservative Catholics physically attacked activists from radical feminist group Femen. It was the latest in a series of combative protests the Ukraine-born movement has staged around the country since setting up a training centre in Paris in September. RFI recently visited a training session.

A dozen recruits line up on the upper floor of the Lavoir Moderne, a politically-engaged cultural centre in a former warehouse on a side street of northern Paris’s Chateau Rouge neighbourhood. Despite a few sculptures and bookshelves stuffed with old films, Femen’s presence dominates the space. Strewn around the floor are posters with various slogans, including Let’s Get Naked, No Sharia and Kill Kirill, in reference to the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Hanging over the heads of the trainees is a large banner reading “Femen is a new feminism.”

“Everything we do is to get reaction back,” Ukrainian native and core member Inna Shevchenko explains to the recruits, who hail from France, Germany and the United Kingdom. “Our faces are always angry, aggressive, not smiling. Don’t show that you are scared, even if you see snipers around you.”

The women break into a drill resembling one of their protests, coordinated yelling of one of their slogans, “Nudity is Freedom”. Femen calls its confrontational approach “sextremism”, and the training focuses on how to remain coordinated during their actions, which involve ripping of their clothes in public places, revealing bodies painted with political slogans and screaming at their “enemies”.

“We believe we need to destroy three manifestations of patriarchy, which are the sex industry, dictatorship and religion,” Shevchenko says. “They are three things that always deny women and are always the illustration of men’s domination in the world.”

Shevchenko herself fled Ukraine after chopping down an Orthodox cross with a chainsaw, in protest at the imprisonment of Russian punk band Pussy Riot. Since spearheading the launch of the Paris centre in September, she has seen Femen recruit 20 French activists and supporters and hold attention-grabbing protests against rape cases outside a French courthouse and inside the Louvre museum.

“Feminism is not about writing books or organizing conferences and talking to each other,” Shevchenko says. “Feminism should be provocative, and feminists should be active. We train them to put them in the street, and show that women can act.”

The training session progresses from Shevchenko’s coaching to a series of drills in basic self-defence. Although Femen does not advocate violence, neither do its members shy away from staging protests that could provoke potentially violent reactions. Many of their actions end in arrests, and some end with physical conflict. Most recently, on Sunday, nine Femen activists dressed as nuns and infiltrated a march against same-sex marriage organized by traditionalist Catholic group Civitas. They removed their habits and sprayed flour on demonstrators as they shouted anti-Church slogans. A short but heated exchange followed, in which several members were physically attacked, and at least two came away with swollen lips and bloody noses. Shevchenko herself suffered a broken tooth.

In anticipation of potentially violent situations, the training involves being prepared, come what may.

“Inna talks a lot about how she wants to build an army,” says jiu jitsu instructor Laura-May Abron, who approached Femen to offer training after learning about the group. “Obviously she doesn’t want to build literally an army. I think she wants women to be empowered. It’s a new generation of feminists and they haven’t had all the stuff that was so outrageous before. Now it seems there are no problems in society, but now they’ve discovered that there are, and that we need to be angry.”

Quizzed between lessons, new recruits say Femen’s deliberately provocative approach fills a gap in feminist activism, even if it brings a mixed response of praise, derision and accusations of exhibitionism.

“In a country like France, with a long tradition of painting and the arts and the avant-garde, it’s very funny to see this reaction,” says Julia Javel, 25, who joined Femen when they came to Paris for the alternative it offered to French feminist groups. “If you show breasts, people say it’s impossible, you’re not a feminist. They also say you’re pretty to be a feminist, too young, too thin, too tall, too white…. so why are you a feminist?”

Although Femen acknowledges the accomplishments of French feminism, they say it tends to rest on its laurels when there is still work to be done.

“We are a democracy, but women are still oppressed on different levels: social, salary inequalities, street harassments,” says Eloïse Bouton, 29, a core member of Femen France, adding she observes a change in the women who join. “[Our activism] is really moving, psychologically. It’s really radical. Most of the time, after their first protests, the women feel very powerful. They tell us they’re not scared anymore when they walk alone at night, when people harass them in the street or in the metro.”

For Shevchenko, the Paris training centre is a step in building a movement that is international in scope. “Supporters here in France gave us this space, where new soldiers can be born”, she says. “But they will be sent to different points of the world and share the ideology of Femen and new feminism.”

For Shevchenko, this new feminism has to be prepared to fight the same enemies everywhere. “We want to be wolves and not sheep, and that’s how we are going to fight for equality and destroy patriarchy,” she says. Then, lowering her voice, she adds with a slight laugh, “and maybe even matriarchy, too.”

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