Photographs of breasts cover the walls of the Kiev basement that serves as the global headquarters of Femen, the women’s rights movement born in Ukraine.
The group of radical feminists has augmented its agenda with militant atheism, and members declare, controversially, that their main weapons in the fight against patriarchy in all its forms are their breasts. They like to refer to themselves as “sextremists” and their ideology as “sextremism”.
Sitting at the table are Anna Hutsol, 28, the movement’s founder, and Alexandra Shevchenko, 25. Both are fully clothed, but it was only a few weeks earlier that a topless Shevchenko was rushing towards Vladimir Putin at a German trade exhibition, getting within spitting distance of the Russian President before she was dragged away by security guards.
She was so close that Putin must have been able read what was scrawled on her naked torso: in English, “Fuck dictator!”, and in Russian, “Fuck off Putin!”. A startled Putin was captured in a photograph smirking, while the accompanying German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, looked as though she had seen a ghost.
“This was a really big one for us,” says Hutsol, who counts the ambush of Putin as one of the group’s two most successful stunts – along with confronting the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, last year.
“Everyone knows that they are scumbags and idiots, and everyone wishes they could say it to their face, but it’s difficult. They are two of the best guarded people in the world, I think Barack Obama has 100 times less security than Putin. And we, as women, were able to penetrate his security, approach him, and tell him to fuck off to his face.”
Founded back in 2008, Femen first hit the headlines with a demonstration against prostitution and sex tourism in Ukraine. With the slogan “Ukraine is not a brothel”, the women dressed as brides and ripped their clothes off, to protest against a New Zealand radio show that offered the winner the chance to come to Ukraine and pick a wife. The man never got his wife, and a movement was born.
Since then, they have protested against everything from corruption to discrimination and patriarchy in all its forms. The movement has spread, too, notably to France and Germany.
There have been criticisms along the way: for protesting on too all-embracing a range of issues (which sometimes seem to have more to do with a desire for column inches than with specific grievances); and for their trademark topless tactics, which opponents say buy into the degrading sexualised tropes they claim to be fighting against.
Hutsol rejects both accusations. “Topless protests are about demonstrating woman in the form of protest,” she says. “It’s about identifying yourself as a woman, about showing that women can change social opinion. We are reclaiming the idea of woman from a sexual object to a protest.”
Shevchenko adds that the topless protests will not necessarily continue forever. “This is our form of protest at the moment, but it could change at any time. If you look at topless protests a few years ago and topless protests now, they have completely changed,” she says. “A few years ago we would have thought it was sufficient to go to Red Square and hold up a sign saying ‘Fuck off Putin!’. But now we want to say it to his face.”
Shevchenko has been arrested more than 70 times, in various countries. She currently has a court case pending in Ukraine and is waiting to hear whether German prosecutors will press charges over her Putin stunt. During Euro 2012, in Ukraine, she was kidnapped for several hours by agents from the security services, to prevent a planned protest. Another group of Femen activists was kidnapped and disappeared for days in neighbouring Belarus.
The group has always had a core cell of a few dozen hardline activists in Ukraine. During the past year, however, Femen has started spreading across the world. In Germany and France, members of the original team have been dispatched for moral and physical training of the new recruits. (“You’re no good as a sextremist if you can’t vault a fence.”) In other places, the growth of Femen is perhaps closer to that of al-Qa’ida – with small, self-radicalised cells springing up across the world, from Brazil to the Philippines, inspired, but not necessarily directed, by the Femen leadership.
Most controversially, the group has found an active recruit in Amina Tyler, a 19-year-old Tunisian woman who in March posted topless photos online with “my body is my own” scrawled on her breasts. Tyler immediately received death threats and was forced to go into hiding; a video surfaced of her apparently being drugged and given a virginity test by members of her own family.
Then, in mid-May, she surfaced again. In the middle of a protest in a provincial town, she scrawled “Femen” on the wall of the local mosque and attempted to take her clothes off. She was promptly arrested.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Femen has taken an increasingly anti-religious turn. Last summer, activist Inna Shevchenko (no relation to Alexandra) destroyed a 13ft wooden cross outside Kiev. With the verdict against Russian punk feminists Pussy Riot due the next day, Shevchenko used a chainsaw to slice through the huge cross, prompting a wave of fury and even death threats.
The act lost Femen some supporters, but the women are unapologetic. “Feminists can’t be religious,” says Hutsol. “There is no such thing as Orthodox or Catholic feminists or, most absurdly of all, Islamic feminists. It’s ridiculous. They are antagonistic ideologies; mutually exclusive.”
Hutsol says that, given the historical abuses against women carried out in the name of religion, “all women are obliged to demand the destruction” of all religions. This sounds disturbingly like Bolshevik fanaticism. Does she mean actually destroying churches?
“That’s under discussion at the moment,” says Hutsol. “Some churches have an architectural and historical significance, so of course not. But these little new churches that are springing up everywhere, I would have no problem with that.”
Statements like this have put many people off Femen, but the women claim that they bring a forgotten radicalism back to feminism. “In Germany, the old generation like Alice Schwarzer [the author and journalist], they love and respect us,” says Shevchenko. “But these 30-year-old bookworms, who sit at home and argue about semantics and behavioural codes, they don’t understand it.”
Shevchenko says that Schwarzer, founder of the journal EMMA, told them she had “always been Femen at heart” and supported the agenda. “She likes it because she is a real feminist. She was out there fighting on the streets, not arguing about whether you should call someone a spokesman or a spokeswoman.”
Read more from The Independent's series The New Suffragettes here