Like most countries in eastern Europe, Ukraine has its fair share of interesting architecture and vast untouched landscapes. But it’s not all pretty; not for the beautiful, young, poor and uneducated Ukrainian women who wind up working as prostitutes. The trade is technically illegal in Ukraine, but that doesn’t seem to bother the (notoriously corrupt) police force or the government, which is failing to deter the increasing number of sex tourists who travel to the country each year. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Odessa, a seaport on the northwest shore of the Black Sea and the third largest city in Ukraine, has become known as an international centre for human trafficking: prostitutes have become a commodity for export. While researching the city, a website for a hotel pops up offering advice on how to pick up women: “If unsure whether a particular lady is a prostitute, go ahead and offer her money,” it says. “Even in the worst case, she’s not going to break a bottle of beer on your head. Odessa’s police are unconcerned with sexual harassment, and in fact such a concept is unknown in Odessa.” I wasn’t sure whether this hotel was for real. A quick search on TripAdvisor assured me it was.
In the last few years, some journalists have reported that Ukrainian women are almost lining up to sell themselves, but Inna Shevchenko, a prominent member of Femen, the Ukrainian women’s rights group currently kicking up a global fuss, insists “choice” for women in her homeland is simply an illusion. “It’s not allowed for women to have their own position,” she explains over the phone. “That’s why you have to understand that the sex industry and prostitution doesn’t have any connections to women’s opinion, to women’s choice. Because it is not business of women, it is business of men, of sex bosses, and women in this business are only an instrument to earn money, and nothing more.”
The idea of Femen was born in 2008, when Anna Hutsol, an economist, stumbled across the book Woman and Socialism (1879) by August Bebel. Having grown up in rural Ukraine, where she witnessed the “hard and unappreciated labour of women, alcoholism of men and use of child labour,” she was inspired by its vivid description of women’s role in society throughout history, which compared it to slavery. She tells Dazed that it made her “think about the current role of women in society, and about the ways to change it.”
Hutsol and her early recruits – university students similarly frustrated with the lack of opportunities afforded them – spent the first two years staging conventional protests. Femen didn’t even make a dent. Then they began taking their clothes off to protest topless; and, predictably, things changed. “It’s not allowed for women to talk in this country – no one is ready to listen to women,” explains Shevchenko. “But we understood one thing: everyone wants to look at them.” It was with this in mind that Femen started to take on the rest of Europe. In 2012 alone, Femen stormed the Moscow polling station where Putin cast his vote and braved subzero conditions to rally outside the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to protest the lack of female representatives. That’s besides all their activity surrounding this year’s European Football Championship, which Femen demonstrated against – adopting the slogan “Fuck Euro 2012” – convinced that it would increase the demand for prostitutes. And, if all goes to plan, the activists will have also made an appearance at the Olympics in the UK. “We created something in Ukraine; something that is not Ukrainian,” states Shevchenko, citing Egyptian blogger Aliaa Mahdy – who caused Twitter hysteria by posting a naked photo of herself – as an example of a growing legion of women under patriarchal governments who are ready to revolt.
In a recent interview featuring ten members, you can count nine tattoos and three belly-button piercings. On their heads they wear crowns made out of colourful flowers and long billowing ribbons – a symbol of Ukrainian national youth – “to show that a new feminism was born in Ukraine, in a country where women were always slaves and victims”. And the majority are blessed with slender bodies and the chiselled cheekbones typical of eastern Europeans. To look at them, Femen are practically treading on girl-band territory.
Except Femen have created a different kind of poster girl; one who’s reactive and gutsy, who confronts anyone that gets in her way. “We’re not trying to attract you with our nudity,” says Shevchenko. “We’re trying to make you scared of us.” When one activist, Oksana Shachko, attempted to climb a screen in Kiev’s fan zone to switch off the semi-final between Germany and Italy, fans, no doubt, held their collective breath. Shevchenko tells me Shachko received a five-day prison sentence for it. I tentatively ask what the prison ordeal in Ukraine is like. “You know, it’s not the first time for us being in jail,” she says dismissively. “It’s like a common thing for us.” During our conversation, Shevchenko explains that she has just spent 24 hours in a cell after protesting at the Italy vs Spain final. They had already staged a string of protests against the tournament but it was Ukraine’s decision to invite Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, the “last dictator in Europe”, to the final that truly showed “the real (moral) level of the European Championship,” Shevchenko says. Their gripe was also personal. Femen allege that in December 2011, after campaigning next to the KGB office in Minsk, three of their activists – including Shevchenko – were abducted by the Belarusian special services and taken to a forest, where they were handcuffed, doused in oil and stripped of their passports and phones. They also claim Femen activists were kidnapped shortly after touching down in Donetsk for the football tournament by a group of men who, according to Femen’s website, resembled members of “Ukraine’s security forces or its spy agency”. But the kidnappings just add fuel to the fire, and Shevchenko calls their protests a “test” of democracy. “We always show the picture, the real political picture, the real political situation of the country after our protests.”
By removing their clothes, Femen activists are clearly making a personal sacrifice. But some feminists describe them as walking promotions for prostitution. “Yeah, I agree,” says Shevchenko. “Because before Femen, no one was ready to talk about this: no one was talking about sex exploitation of women. And of course, with our protests, we do advertisements of problems: prostitution, sex exploitation, problems like, I don’t know, the difference between salaries of men and women. Of course we do provocation – we do these bright provocative pictures as an advertisement of problems we want to scream about.” They aren’t exactly revelling in positive press from the Ukrainian media either, which Hutsol blames on the “immaturity” and “patriarchal orientation” of post- Soviet society, which has a “suspicion of anything social and especially towards anything independently started by women.”
Later, the European Women’s Lobby forwards us to the Ukrainian gender expert Maria Dmitrieva, who is critical. “They are one of few organisations raising public awareness of the issue but it is of little use, mostly due to incoherence of their public message,” she writes. ”They tend to respond to a range of issues with a kneejerk reaction of baring their breasts. At first it was definitely attracting attention but now it is seen mostly as a nuisance.” Better to be a nuisance than to be silent? Their protests, highly documented on YouTube, all meet the same conclusion; several police officers carting off reluctant and distressed half-naked women. It’s highly uncomfortable to watch. And yet Shevchenko informs me that it’s not illegal to protest topless in Ukraine. So what are the grounds for arrest? “Hooliganism.” In the beginning, Shevchenko admits they were a little clueless as to how to do things. “We didn’t have any ideas,” she says. “(But we were) brave enough to look around and to understand what happens here, and to say we just don’t want to be the same.” It seems telling that only 20 years after the break up of the Soviet Union, a group of young women carving out their own rules are not yet more widely celebrated. After all, is this not the kind of fighting spirit their parents and grandparents would have wanted for them? I wonder why Shevchenko has devoted her life to women’s rights. Was there a trigger? “I can’t give you an example from my life, like that I was raped by someone, or worked as a prostitute, because nothing like that has happened. I don’t have answers, I just know one thing. I feel inside myself that I should do it, that it’s really important for me, and I just know that who else, if not us, can change it?”
Photos by Synchrodogs