Femen, the provocative women’s movement in Ukraine, burst on the scene in 2008 and became internationally known for going topless (and, well, almost entirely naked) to protest sex tourists, sexism and other social ills.
Group members are now hoping to capitalize on their fame and good intentions by going into politics and running for seats in the next parliamentary election, scheduled for 2012.
But will anyone take them seriously? Femen’s leader, Anna Hutsol, thinks so.
Aleksandra Shevchenko, one of the Femen's leaders
“We understand that the solution to female problems needs some political will, not just shouting and drawing a wide response,” Hutsol said. “There is a strong need to create a new and female political party, different from what there is in parliament now. It may sound naive, but we want to change something for good in Ukraine’s international image as European destination for sex tourists.”
“We understand that the solution to female problems needs some political will, not just shouting and drawing a wide response.”
Viktor Svyatskiy, 32, a political strategist and one of the few men in Femen, said the group’s evolution is inevitable. “The girls can’t run around Independence Square for all their lives,” Svyatskiy said. “We need to move to the political area and influence the decision-making and legislative process.”
There is international precedence showing that overt sexuality has helped some women climb the political ladder.
In 1987, for example, Hungarian-born Italian porn starIlona Staller, known by her stage name “Cicciolina,” was elected to the Italian parliament and become famous for her stripteases during parliamentary sessions.
Her win is an exception to the rule, however. While there may be no organization comparable to Femen in other nations, women who flaunt their sexuality – porn stars providing the most extreme examples – don’t usually fare well as political candidates.
And Ukrainian political analysts doubt that Femen will have success with voters.
Aleksandra Shevchenko, one of the Femen's leaders
“Their technologies are rather effective for a social movement, not for a political party,” said Lviv political consultant Volodymyr Tsybulko.
But Tsybulko said: “Shocking behavior is not enough to become a political party. They should have a political party’s infrastructure and a certain program ‘for’ something, not just ‘against.’
'Ukrainian society is conservative enough. It won’t accept any provocative programs that Femen could make. And it is clever enough to judge politics by their actions, not by their taking part in TV shows,” political consultant Volodymyr Tsybulko said.
Femen has taken the first step: Its members have applied for registration as a non-governmental organization.
Some also think that, while the scantily-clad protests are popular, Femen may need to adopt more conventional approaches of feminist organizations – such as workshops, publishing educational materials, providing legal assistances, etc.
“If they want to draw public aware of female problems, topless protests could be a method, but not the only one,” said Urszula Nowakowska, director of the Women’s Rights Center in Warsaw, Poland. “If there is a negative attitude towards feminism in the country, I think such provocative methods may have negative impact on feminism as well.”
In Poland in 2007, some female candidates posed naked for election posters. But while gaining lots of media attention, the Polish Women's Party (Partia Kobiet) got only 0.28 per cent of the votes and no seats in the Polish Senate. “I don’t believe a political party has success based only on the fact that its members are women,” Nowakowska said.
Not all is well with the families of Femen members, either.
Aleksandra Shevchenko, a 22 year-old blond Femen activists who has gone topless for the majority of Femen’s protests, left her native Khmelnytsky city to study economics in Kyiv. Now her parents regret letting her go – because of Femen.
“I work in the city center and when walking to work each morning I have to listen to many people reprimanding me what they think of my daughter’s behavior,” said Lyudmyla Shevchenko, Aleksandra’s mother. “I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I can’t live worrying about her all the time. I and her dad tried to persuade her not to do [take off her clothes] anymore. But when she’s in Kyiv she does not listen to us. Femen leaders brainwashed girls like her.”
Activists of the Women's Movement “FEMEN” shout slogans in front of the Cabinet in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 17. Dozens of activists of the human rights group FEMEN protested against Ukraine's new all male government demanding posts for women.
But Aleksandra Shevchenko defends what she is doing.
“If we succeed we will be the very first Ukraine’s independent political party made up of ordinary girls who dragged themselves out of the gutter to become democratic politicians.”
“It’s not some sugar daddy who decided to push his own ideas to legislation with the help of beautiful young Ukrainian women,” she said.
Femen has a five-member board of directors. In 2008, when topless protests were a novelty in Ukraine, Hutsol got a call from publisher Jed Sunden, the owner of KP Media.
“Jed was the very first influential person who noticed us, helped us with all the resources he had, gave use some useful advice, generously donated and said we were special. Jed was the very first person who helped us in organization’s promotion and creation of our website
. We used to call him a ‘Femen Post’ [a play off of the Kyiv Post newspaper, which Sunden sold last year],” Hutsol said.
Sunden acknowledged he is more than a fan of Femen.
“I confirm that I do give money to Femen,” Sunden said. “I will not state the amount. After meeting with Anna Hutsol, I was impressed with her ideas and have been a supporter. I believe Anna is a young, independent voice in Ukraine. While I do not agree with all of her positions, I believe it is important to give her, and groups like hers, support.”
Activists from the Ukrainian women's movement FEMEN kiss and wear underwear made from protective masks during a protest on Independence Square in Kyiv on Nov. 9. FEMEN activists protested that the swine flu or A/H1N1 epidemic, is being used by politicians to create fear among the population ahead of the Jan. 17 presidential election.
It is true that to be quickly noticed by Ukrainian media, you have only to take off your clothes. But as a potential voter, I can see only their boobs instead of a strictly aimed program of organization. ”Anna Sharygina says.
Other Ukrainian feminist organizations, as well as political analysts, remain skeptical about Femen’s prospects in politics.
“To become a deputy, one should have something more than just primary sexual characters,” said Anna Sharygina, vice president of Sphere, a Kharkiv female association.
"It would be rather interesting to see if Ukrainian voters give Femen’s boobs more votes than some other political parties", she says.
Kyiv Post staff writer Iryna Prymachyk can be reached at email@example.com