Interview: Speaking of Femen-ism
Before attending a Luxembourg City Film Festival screening of I Am Femen, Oksana Shachko set an hour aside to speak to wort.lu/en and tell the story of the feminist movement that with topless painted bodies has attracted global attention for the better part of a decade.
"This was a small provincial city where young people did almost nothing but study and drink beer in the streets."
Growing up in the Ukrainian town of Khmelnytskyi, Oksana Shachko midway through her teens started to become involved in gender equality issues. In 2006, she started the New Ethics feminist club together with friends Anna Hutsol and Alexandra Shevchenko.
"This was a 'normal' organisation, we helped girls and children's houses and held some lectures."
Gradually taking their convictions to the streets, they "discovered that the most powerful thing young students with neither money nor power can do, is to do activism and use journalists and their cameras. When people learn about the problems and discuss them, things start to change."
In 2008, the three moved to Kiev and created Femen. "We came up with this name because it's something new, while still reminding of feminism."
Its first major demonstration was called 'Ukraine Is Not A Brothel', highlighting issues Femen thought nobody previously had talked about: "the sex tourism, the sex industry, and the prostitution."
"In Kiev you could not walk in the streets without getting propositions from men. Many European tourists believed that if they offered a girl a cocktail or a cup of coffee, she would come with them."
While prostitution is not legal in Ukraine, the activist group saw a society where brothels were everywhere, recruiting "young, stupid girls" from a corrupt education system.
Using the body as their weapon of choice
Femen was always keen on trying new ways, or as Oksana describes them, putting on "performances with a lot of decorations, posters and so on" for its activism. Ukraine Is Not A Brothel for example saw the young girls take their banners to the streets dressed in minimal bikinis and high heels.
In their striving to challenge the norms, the group in 2010 decided to explore the taboo of nakedness.
"It was me who first tried to make the topless protest with painted boobs. It was an experiment but after we understood how powerful it was."
That this measure hit a nerve of society not previously touched became obvious.
"We live in a patriarchal system where the female body is totally controlled and used. Women are ashamed of their bodies, and this is a deep problem. We are slaves of men because we do not control our sexuality."
Oksana believes that demonstrating bare-breasted was a way for the girls to take control of their sex, and further describes the action as a very pacifistic form of activism.
"The picture of a naked girl is the most peaceful, but also the most unveiling image you can create, so it is very powerful."
Changing the essence of feminism
Although recognising the strong progress of feminist movements before them, Oksana believes that Femen has created "a new feminism for a new generation", with the female body at its core.
"The problem was that before, feminists often tried to be men: they cut their hair, did not use makeup, walked like men, hid their breasts, used men's clothing... they became men and we thought that was a dangerous path for feminism."
In that way, Femen's image may remind one of the ultra feminine image of the UK suffragette movement, active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But of course, they were not naked.
"We are not ashamed of our bodies. We are proud that we are women, that we are different from men. This is the greatest thing we have achieved with Femen, we have put the woman in the centre of feminism."
Moments to remember
One of Oksana's favourite Femen actions dates back to 2013, when activists stormed a trade fair in Hanover, Germany, and with 'FUCK DICTATORS' written all over their naked upper bodies managed to come within metres of the Russian president.
"It was great to come so close to Putin and say 'fuck you' straight to his face, almost two years before other Ukrainians understood what he was doing to the country."
Another memorable moment came after events of a more frightening nature.
"You know life is very funny, my favourite moment is also one of the worst... It was when we came back from Belarus where we had been kidnapped and tortured in the forest by the Belarusian KGB. It was a miracle how we escaped, a crazy story but coming back to Ukraine was one of the great moments."
The greatest fear of doing nothing
In addition the Belarus episode, Oksana has been jailed, and often brutally seized by security staff, in most countries she has visited to participate in Femen actions. In 2012, a demonstration during the Russian presidential elections landed her in a Moscow prison for two weeks and she received a consecutive life ban from entering the country. One may think Oksana was born without the slightest idea of the concept of fear.
"Of course I am human, sometimes I feel afraid and sometimes I am worried because even though I am not afraid to spend a few years in jail, I understand that my mother and friends will be worried. I always discuss this in my head."
On the other side, the alternative of living a 'normal' life for Oksana comes off worse.
"I'm more scared to live in this country, in this world, and do nothing: to spend life too afraid of everything, too afraid to speak or go to certain places, to just be in a normal work and don't create anything for the next generation. In my understanding, that is much more scary than to go to jail..."
She further mentions the biggest danger is of getting murdered by political adversaries at governmental level in some countries.
"They can kill you in one second, you understand that you are a very very small person. But in the same time one thinks: you are a small person that can make such a big point that even Russia will send their secret service after you!"
The situation in Ukraine
"I'm happy because during the last year's revolution, the Ukraininan nation was born, not 24 years ago with the fall of the Soviet Union, it happened just last year. The Ukrainian citizens and nation are very young, as we were just born."
Nonetheless, arguing that politics has always been business in Ukraine, she believes that the country now is ruled by yet another oligarch.
"The people should always control the politicians' decisions, but after the Maidan revolution they relaxed and believed the president would change things. Because of wrongful decisions of Poroshenko and Putin, yes both of them, we now have a crisis, and a war that nobody believed could become so big and difficult to handle."
However, for someone appearing so oriented toward fast action, Oksana surprises with an emphasis on the long-term regarding her own country:
"Put any president in Ukraine and it will take several years to stabilise and make life good. It's very difficult to build the political system, it should take a long time."
Can Femen become part of the political system?
Femen have grown to incorporate several hundred members in international branches. With its political nature, a possible next step could be to enter national elections as a political party. For Oksana, this would not be the right way to go.
"Going into this system means you cannot be against it. It's good to keep a non-governmental free organisation without money from the government, and without having to play the political games. Just to be free and to have the possibility to discuss and control each decision of the political system from the streets... It's the best and most powerful place to be."
'Naked boobs with painted slogans'
"Femen is the feminist, the girl with the Ukrainian sign, the flowers in the hair, the naked boobs with painted slogans, and in comfortable boots to run and make action in front of the enemy on the streets."
The activist group has further developed a manifesto, that should be agreed on by anyone wanting to use the Femen name.
"Our actions should be against the patriarchal system, against the sex industry, against the fashion industry, against all religions, and against dictatorship."
Oksana further points out the impossibility of copying the exact concept in different cultures.
"Girls from, for example, Spain or Luxembourg all have their differences, but if they accept and understand our idea, they can anchor it in their experiences and put it to use in their context. We have let the idea free and we are very happy with girls organising in countries like Spain, Germany, and France."
When asked if she has any regrets regarding the different actions of Femen, Oksana directly goes into operational details that could have made the manifestations more effective, arguing "I could have jumped to come more close to him".
Further emphasising that she has become "stronger from this life with all its experiments", Oksana in general has no major heartaches.
"I'm very happy about what we did, what we do, and what we will do. That's why I again say to women from all over the world, and especially from Luxembourg: Let's be together, and let's fight together!"
By Daniel Isaksson
Born: January 31, 1987, in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine
Lives in: Paris
Interests: Painting, reading, eating, and cats
The DVD release of Alain Margot's 'I Am Femen' documentary featuring Oksana, is scheduled for April 23.
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