News / Europe

Femen's Topless Protest Tactics Hit Paris

Lisa Bryant
The Ukrainian feminist movement Femen, best known for its topless protests, is opening its first international training camp in Paris. New recruits are expected to start classes this month - learning how to apply warpaint and jump, run and fight against exploitation.

It is downtime for a group of young feminists, veterans of in-your-face manifestos. Sunlight slants into the first-story loft where they prepare signs for future battles. Signs with slogans like "Muslim Women: Let's Get Naked!"

Inna Shevchenko, 22, is painting slogans on a black punching bag. She's a long way from her native Ukraine. But in Paris and Kiev, she says, women share a common cause.

"We are fighting against the same thing, for the same reason; we are fighting against patriarchy, all manifestations of it - church, religion, sex industry and dictatorship," she said.

Shevchenko is in Paris to open the first international office of Femen - the Ukrainian feminist group whose topless protests capture headlines and rile the establishment.

Actually, make that a boot camp to train new battalions of Femen soldiers. And yes, that means physical workouts.

"We run, because we need to run straight to our enemy," Shevchenko said.  "We jump because we protest in really difficult locations, on the top of cars or buildings."

Shevchenko knows how to cut crosses. That's why she fled Ukraine last August, after demonstrating in support of jailed Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot.  

Shevchenko joined the feminist movement as a university student in Kiev. The protests started off modestly, big crowds of women wearing pink. Then they became more daring, staging their first topless event in 2009. Shevchenko was fired from her job as a city hall press officer.

Femen protesters have targeted Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko and church leaders.

Last year, they exported their fight to France. Dressed in skimpy maids' outfits they shouted "shame on you!" in front of the elegant Paris home of disgraced former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. They have also stripped off their T-shirts at Trocadero Square to protest Islamic Sharia law and the treatment of Muslim women.

French activist Loubna Meliane joined Femen a few months ago.  The daughter of Moroccan immigrants, Meliane says it's important to support women in Arab countries who are in revolt and demanding their liberty. Femen protests may seem shocking, she says, but they help shed light on sometimes violent realities.

The northern Paris neighborhood where Femen is located is no stranger to the exotic. Called Goutte d'Or, it is home to first-generation Africans and Arabs, working-class French, and drug dealers.

Struggling theater owner Herve Breuil gave Femen activists free space to open their boot camp. Breuil welcomes the new residents, who staged their first topless demonstration here last month.

Breuil says local reaction to the protest was fantastic. African women in traditional boubous shouted 'bravo!' Although the event left others puzzled.

Femen also plans to open training camps in Brazil and Ukraine, but Shevchenko says it makes sense to open the first one in Paris.

Shevchenko says now is the time for feminists to be provocative. To irritate what she believes is still a male-dominated world. In Goutte d'Or, at least, the war has begun.

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