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Thursday, 19 December 2013

Topless Jihadis: Inside the World's Most Radical Feminist Movement


Ukrainian activist Inna Shevchenko, from the topless women's rights group Femen, poses before the inauguration of a 'training camp' for the organization in Paris. (Reuters/Jacky Naegelen)

The Atlantic
Jeffrey Taylor
Dec. 19, 2013

Two years ago today, Femen—the Ukrainian-born protest movement that has since become one of the world’s most provocative activist groups through its topless demonstrations and campaign for a militant feminism —orchestrated one of its most daring early protests, sneaking into Belarus in an attempt to embarrass the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s final dictator.

In an excerpt from his new Atlantic ebook, Topless Jihadis, an exclusive account of life inside Femen, the magazine’s longtime Russia correspondent Jeffrey Tayler shares the dramatic story of that formative first mission and the ensuing escape.

In the winter of 2011, Inna Shevchenko, the 22-year-old Ukrainian activist who would soon catapult the protest movement Femen—the self-described “shock-troops of feminism” and “the watch-bitches of democracy”—to international notoriety, began hatching a plan.

She and her Femen colleagues in their burgeoning battle against sexism and female oppression, decided to hit a truly hard target: the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator. “We spent two evenings talking over things in CafĂ© Kupidon, which was our office back then. We were pretty inexperienced, but we did know it would be dangerous.”

Getting into Belarus would be the first problem. Inna Shevchenko, Oksana Shachko, and Sasha Nemchinova took an all-night train to Bryansk, in Russia, to avoid the border post between Ukraine and Belarus. (The border between Russia and Belarus is open, with no checkpoints.) Femen had already won a measure of notoriety, and the women didn’t want to be turned back at the frontier, Shevchenko told me.

“We got to Bryansk in the middle of the night and caught a bus to Minsk. We arrived at 4 in the morning, and rented a room in the bus station. We were nervous, and I couldn’t sleep. We woke up and called our contact, but as soon as she heard our voices, she said, ‘Say no more!’ and told us to meet her by the theater.” Shevchenko’s voice drifted, her glance diverted. I pictured the scene: the three young women, embarking on a mission that could cost them their liberty, if not their lives, riding on a cold, dark, creaking train north from Kiev through the snow-blanketed forests, the sky starless and black. Then catching a rickety, Soviet-era bus trundling down an icy, potholed highway toward Minsk, a city festooned with portraits of Lukashenko presiding over drab gray boulevards, spottily lit by streetlamps. A dingy room in the bus station.

“We took a cab to the theater. It was bizarre: the streets were empty and silent. It’s the capital, but it looks like a ghost town. The KGB headquarters was on a quiet, wide street, with no one around,” Shevchenko said. “We quickly undressed, raised our posters, and started shouting our slogans.”

Only one video survived the KGB raid that soon followed. It shows the three women in fake, bushy Lukashenko mustaches, with Shevchenko and Shachko coiffed in floral crowns. Nemchinova’s head was shaved to confer on her the president’s male-pattern baldness, her shoulders bearing Lukashenko-style epaulettes, her back painted with the dictator’s portrait, and a communist red star emblazoned between her pendulous breasts. They chanted only one slogan, “Zhyve Belarus!” (“Long live Belarus!”), their posters inscribed with that and FREEDOM TO POLITICAL PRISONERS! The video that made it out “was shot,” Shevchenko said, “by a journalist who came up, stopped and taped, and walked on.”

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