“OUR GOD IS WOMAN, OUR MISSION IS PROTEST, OUR WEAPONS ARE BARE BREASTS!” – FEMEN
Ukraine’s depressed economy and ease of entry into the country have fuelled the rise of sex tourism in recent years. There are approximately twelve thousand prostitutes in Ukraine and in the capital, Kiev, it is estimated that up to sixty percent of the total number of sex workers are university students. Femen, a Kiev-based women’s rights organization, was formed in 2008 in an effort to fight against prostitution and the growing sex tourism industry. Femen now protests on a range of issues: from women’s rights in the Middle East to Internet censorship. The group consists mostly of young, female university students, and much of the media attention surrounding Femen has focused on the fact that its members protest topless. Threats from the Ukrainian Secret Services, multiple arrests, Facebook censorship, and a lack of money, have failed to deter Femen from staging their almost weekly protests. Sitting in Café Cupid, the basement bar that Femen uses as their headquarters, Inna Shevchenko, one of the key members of the group, chatted to us about what it’s like to be a member of Femen and the future of the organisation.
All images © Alvaro Canovas / Paris Match
FRAMED: So what’s life like for a young woman living in Ukraine today?
INNA SHEVCHENKO: Honestly, I should say that to be Ukrainian, for women in general, young or old, it’s really difficult here, because this is a country where the government is not saying and not thinking and not doing anything for women. In our cabinet of ministers there are not any women, only men: this is the country of man and for man. We are beautiful, we are smart, and we can do many things. We are intelligent and we want to work, but we don’t have possibilities here because nobody in this country explains to Ukrainian women that they can get a good education for free.
Do women earn significantly less than men?
Of course, yes, there is a big difference between the salaries of men and women for the same work; in every situation men are higher than women.
The women in Ukraine are really passive, they are scared to change something and do something radical, because they know that this is the country of man.
Femen covers many issues now, but the group's initial focus was protesting against prostitution and the sex tourism industry in Ukraine. Are these issues still at the heart of what you do?
Yes. You know, prostitution and sex tourism are really big problems for Ukraine. Our parliament, our government is interested in this business, this business is theirs and they are earning money from it.
Is prostitution legal in Ukraine?
No, prostitution is not legal here. By law it is not legal, but now I am sitting in the centre of Kiev in a café, and around this café I know three brothels that are working and everyone knows this. We will have a football championship here this year, and some of the politicians are talking about making prostitution legal for the championship, because they know that many sex tourists will come.
So what do you think leads women to prostitution in Ukraine?
You know, you should look at this problem through knowing the economic situation here in Ukraine—really we don’t have many possibilities here to earn money. Can you imagine when a woman has old parents who cannot work, she also has a small child, she doesn’t have a husband because he left her, and she has to earn money somehow.
She can go and work as a teacher for two hundred dollars per month, or she can go and work as a prostitute for two hundred dollars per night. So what will women choose in this situation?
Femen has expressed political aspirations—is the ultimate aim of the group to represent women in the Ukrainian parliament?
Well, now we are dreaming that we can go to the government, not just scream as we do in the street; we want to really change the situation. We are the first organisation here that is really bringing attention to women’s issues. We have many women’s organisations here in Ukraine, but they are all from political parties, and what they are doing I can only describe as sitting in an office and working for their salaries and I don’t know, writing their papers and nothing more.
Do you feel that the worldwide media attention you’ve received recently has raised awareness of the issues that you are protesting aganist? Or has much of the media attention served only to sensationalize the fact that you protest topless?
You know, one year ago I would say yes. Though now I can say to you for sure that mass media—especially international mass media and now also Ukrainian mass media—they are showing us as the real and only opposition to the government here in Ukraine. Now, publications like The Guardian and Corriere della Sera write about us. So I can say to you for sure that now mass media is really helping us, and that
they are not only sharing pictures of our naked bodies, they are sharing the idea.
And you asked about the media, but I also want to say that the people who are living in this country and also people from abroad they write to us. The women who we meet, the women in the metro station, stop us and say, “Girls we saw you on TV, you are really great heroes who are trying to change something, and you are the only ones in this country who are speaking the truth and speaking what normal people think”.
Many of Femen’s protests result in the police showing up and making arrests—you and other members of Femen have spent time in jail—does this affect how you approach future protests?
We are not planning to stop our activism because of the police. They are doing this because the government has told them to stop our activism, and really they are scared of what we can do and that is why they are trying to stop it. You know, we are not planning on spending our time in the police station in the future [laughs]. We know that really the police react like this not because we are doing something bad, not because we are breaking the law. I think that you’ll agree that it is really strange when you see policemen trying to catch young, small, naked women who are trying to fight for their rights.
I should also say that the police are working on this more than—I don’t know—stopping the people who kill, or people who are doing really bad things. They are working more with Femen girls than with people who should sit in prison. You know, in the future we really believe that we will create a culture of protest here in Ukraine, and that then even the police will understand that they cannot do anything.
Though of course sometimes they make our girls feel scared, because you must understand what it means for young girls to be arrested—it’s not normal.
So sometimes it makes us scared but for sure it will not stop our activism, no, never.
We’ve read that FEMEN is planning to organise a social revolution in 2017, can you tell us a bit more about that?
I mean, really we have many radical plans; one of them is to build an international organisation and another is to go to the parliament. We really do believe that we can start a revolution here in this country and spread it to other countries. We want to create a revolution of women, a revolution that is made by women’s bodies and minds. I don’t know, maybe you will react to this as if it’s a joke, but I can say to you seriously that we believe that in a few years that in the Ukrainian government there will be beautiful, intelligent women. They will share the idea of freedom, of women’s rights, and they really will support women here, and they will teach women how to be free in this country. Ah, you know, the girls are around me now, they are hearing you also and they say hi to you!
And they are really happy that your magazine will write about us, thank you!