Ukraine's topless feminists go international

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Ukrainian feminist group Femen are taking their topless protests around the world, having already stripped off in Western Europe to highlight a range of issues from democratic violations to sexual exploitation, in what some call a new brand of feminist activism.

While enjoying little support at home, Femen's protesters have become a symbol of Ukraine abroad having taken their tops off in Moscow, Paris, Zurich, Brussels, and even in St Peter's Square in Vatican City.

And now they plan to go even further afield.

"This year we hope to cover North Africa and South America," one of Femen's leaders, Anna Gutsol, told AFP.

The group, which was founded in 2008, came up with the idea of its topless protests almost by accident.

During a demonstration in 2009, Femen activists decorated their backs with slogans and bared them at photographers. The pictures were a hit, leading the women to come up with an even more outrageous way to get their views across.

Since they turned to face the cameras, the international media - always keen on eye-catching stunts - has given them lavish coverage.

Femen's first moment of glory came in 2010 on the day of Ukraine's tense presidential elections. Four young women boldly undressed in a polling station just before the arrival of presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych.

Recently the group has shifted its activism to Western European countries.

Last September it launched its "first training centre" in Paris to propagate its brand of "new feminism". Another activist has moved to Berlin to run a German branch of Femen.

The Paris office is run by Inna Shevchenko, who claimed asylum in France in 2012, fearing persecution after she sawed down a large wooden cross that stood in the centre of Kiev.

The stunt was intended to support Russia's Pussy Riot, whose members were jailed last year for their "punk prayer" protest against President Vladimir Putin's close relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Some academics see the group as successors to 19th-century suffragettes and the women's rights movement of the 1970s.

Rejane Senac of the Paris-based National Centre for Scientific Research, said that Femen represents a "third wave of feminism."

This new front "is focused on sharing power" between men and women and "manifests itself through forms of activism that sometimes resemble performances," she told AFP.

French historian Christine Bard said that Femen highlighted the connections "between the politicisation of sexual matters and the defence of democracy."

But in Ukraine people have became increasingly irritated by Femen's protests, which at one point were staged on an almost weekly basis, seemingly without a clear agenda.

Some Ukrainian critics slam the movement as overly commercial, although Femen members strongly reject this, saying they live modestly on income that comes only from donations and an online store where they sell Femen t-shirts and mugs.

"In France, we feel moral and material support.(The French) do not say 'Aah, those whores again' as (some do) in Ukraine," said Gutsol.

Femen members blame a lack of political culture and the weakness of feminist traditions for their failure to win over Ukrainians, but some accuse them of seeking publicity at all costs.

"This is a simulation of feminism... (with) no serious political or social meaning," said political strategist Sergiy Gaiday.

"They use their bodies just to attract attention."

Mariana Yevsyukova, a senior staff member at Ukraine's branch of La Strada international women rights group, said that she believed Femen's members "damage both Ukraine's image and the true feminist movement".

"They protest against everything, but not a single problem has been resolved thanks to them," she said.

Femen is defying such criticisms by blazing a new trail as the first Ukrainian group to break out of national politics into international activism.

"We still do not know well what their objectives are," said Bard.

"But what is quite new is that the group is acting at an international level."

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