Yesterday, Russian punk band Pussy Riot were found guilty of “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years in prison. The case has dominated the Internet and the airwaves for weeks, forcing well-mannered newscasters to cringingly utter one of our most taboo words in nightly news roundups.
The trouble started back in February when the group staged a direct-action protest concert in a Moscow church that offended religious Russians, and perhaps more importantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Big name celebrities like Paul McCartney and Madonna have jumped on the bandwagon calling for their release, alongside the Olympia chapter of Pussy Riot and pioneers of the Northwest riot grrrl scene, which the band drew some of its inspiration from.
But the balaklava wearing punk heroes from Russia are not the only politicos in the former Soviet Union challenging the world to notice a new generation of young feminists.
“Classical feminism has already died, it doesn’t work anymore,” says 22-year-old Inna Shevchenko, “it looks like a meeting of old ladies only talking to each other.”
Shevchenko is an activist with Femen, a Ukrainian nonprofit whose very active Facebook page states: “Our God is woman, our mission is protest, our weapons are bare breasts!”
And their weapons, like most, demand attention.
Two days after I interviewed her, there she was, topless in downtown Kiev, chopping down a giant wooden crucifix with a chainsaw in support of Pussy Riot. A move that got them all over my Ukraine news alerts.
In contrast, during our interview, Shevchenko recalled the organization’s first two years of activism with bemused frustration, recalling how they protested for women’s issues in uniform pink tee-shirts with pink flags. Result: No one cared.
“We realized we had to do something more radical,” says Shevchenko, sitting in the new Femen office in central Kiev, a basement room with gym and boxing equipment (for “action training”) and a wall of flower crowns (A Ukrainian symbol of femininity and ever-present headgear during protests), “And it worked.”
It has worked. I first learned of Femen through the many YouTube videos of their actions protesting everything from private CEO gatherings at Davos meetings to the recent Euro Cup in Kiev, Ukraine (Femen says that large sporting events attract sex trafficking and sex tourism).
Like Pussy Riot, “the Girls,” as my translator first called them when I asked after Femen over Skype, are all over news in their own country and abroad. In fact, before leaving on this reporting project, friends in Seattle acted like I was headed off to interview rock stars instead of feminists.
And that’s why they’re interesting. After years of feminism as a care-because-you-should academic pursuit, Femen, like Pussy Riot, brings a dare-to-ignore-us feminism for the masses that feels refreshing and relevant. Femen represents what Shevchenko calls a “new feminism,” one that’s young, in the streets and understands a media-saturated and globally connected world. She includes Pussy Riot and Slutwalks in the movement.
“We want to spam the world with women’s opinions,” she says, smiling at the scope of her own ambitions—ambitions that include opening Femen chapters around the globe.
In addition to “spamming the world,” Shevchenko says Femen’s three goals are to fight dictatorship, patriarchy and the sex industry. These may seem overly broad, but that last one is very tangible in a country that has an estimated 50,000 sex workers – in what Shevchenko characterizes as an unregulated and often dangerous industry.
“Ukrainian women are uneducated, poor and beautiful,” says Inna Shevchenko when I ask her why her country has become an international symbol for human trafficking, mail-order brides and an abusive sex industry.
This blunt, simplistic response to a controversial and complex issue reflects Femen’s weakness as well as their strength. The group has been accused of being light on politics and heavy on theater.
Those accusations reached a fevered pitch on the group’s facebook page after yesterday’s cross-felling stunt.
But that theater is the very point.
“You want to look at me then look at me,” says Shevchenko, her painted-on leather pants squeaking in her chair as she gestures, “But now I’m not trying to attract you. I’m trying to make you scared of me…Not in your bed, next to you, how you like. I’m naked for my freedom, for my independence. And this is something that shakes minds.”
Whether forcing dirty words into newscasters’ mouths as a way to call international attention to a corrupt regime, or exploiting the internet’s obsession with naked women (I mean, check out the title of this blog) to focus attention on the global sex industry, Pussy Riot and Femen are tapping their most obvious source of power.
And the world is paying attention.
Generation Putin: stories exploring politics and everyday life for Millennials in the former Soviet Union, is produced by the Common Language Project and comes from the Public Radio Exchange, with financial support from the Open Society Foundation.