On Nov. 14, the topless militants of Femen took Italy by storm and did what they do best: blaspheme. Interrupting a live television broadcast in Rome, Inna Shevchenko, leader of the radical feminist movement’s French division, marched four of her slender, 20-something activists onto the set of "Announo," a popular Italian talk show. Coiffed in floral wreaths redolent of Femen’s Ukrainian origins, they kneeled and clasped hands, as if preparing to beseech the Lord.
However, no prayers or professions of piety ensued. Rather, they enacted what to many in the audience surely sounded like a solemn yet mocking atheistic rendition of the Lord’s Prayer.
“Glory be to equality and secularism,” they intoned in English, with an off-camera interpreter translating their words into Italian. “As it was not in the beginning, it should be now and ever should be: a parliament without pope, a world without religion. Because God is not a magician, and the pope is not a politician! Amen!”
(“Magician” referred to Pope Francis’ October pronouncement, praised in liberal circles, that God was not “a magician with a magic wand” and had merely set off the Big Bang to get the world going.)
Applause was grudging. On an increasingly secular continent, Italy, with the Vatican in its midst, remains one of Europe’s most churchgoing countries; and bare-breasted women performing a sham prayer implicating the pontiff (especially one as beloved as this one) cannot fail to rile the faithful and strike them as profane. In fact, even some nonbelievers may have taken offense, given that the pope has issued a plethora of seemingly progressive declarations of late.
But Femen was not striving to please anyone, as would shortly become even more apparent. Shevchenko took the mic and warned of, as she saw it, the “danger” posed to secularism by the pope’s plans to address the European Parliament on Nov. 25. The papal visit to the EU's key political institution constitutes “a direct attack on secularism, on equality, on human rights, on the separation between church and state.” These things must “be a priority today for activists like us, and for religious people who are in favor of equality and freedom of speech.” She asked that people stand up for their principles and speak out. “The pope is not a magician, and this is why the pope will never be a politician!” Left unstated was her, and Femen’s, premise: The Catholic faith, and all organized religions, in fact, oppress women and foil social progress, and should be stripped of their influence over public institutions.
Amid the brouhaha that followed, one of "Announo’s" guests declared his outrage at the “offense” given to the Catholic Church and the pope and stormed off the set, ignoring the host’s request to stay and Shevchenko’s plea for a frank dialogue about religion. Shevchenko then handed the mic to another of her activists, who announced that “Femen fucks Putin! Femen fucks Berlusconi! Femen fucks the pope, but with a condom!” After that, the women showered the stage with condoms and walked out.
Femen’s manner of protesting has not proved to everyone’s liking, to put it mildly, but one thing is certain: In an era of rising political disaffection and apathy, people pay attention. Bare breasts are not incidental to Femen’s struggle. The movement has aimed to wrest conceptions about women’s bodies from the clutches of the three (doctrinally prudish and phallocratic) Abrahamic religions that would shroud them, partly or in full, in cloth as well as in shame. Toplessness is, in Femen’s view, a means of boldly violating gender- and faith-based societal norms; and atheism has formed a part of the Femen canon since the movement’s inception in 2008.
Atheism has been dear to Shevchenko in particular: Her own life has been shaped and even upended by her fight for secularist ideals. In protest against the harsh, Orthodox Church-supported prison sentence Pussy Riot received from the Russian authorities, in August 2012 she chainsawed a towering wooden cross in central Kiev in her native Ukraine. Publicly threatened as a result by Ukraine’s conservative President Viktor Yanukovych (deposed last year) and facing charges of “criminal hooliganism” for her deed, she fled to France and established Femen’s first outpost abroad. There, she soon rocketed to fame (better said, infamy), leading her militants in a multitude of fiercely faithless demonstrations in favor of women’s rights and same-sex marriage that pushed Gallic tolerance of free speech to the limit. Perhaps most controversially, she inspired the depiction of the revered (and bare-breasted) heroine of the French Revolution Marianne now gracing the country’s postage stamps, becoming the only foreign woman to do so. This still infuriates France’s nationalistic (and ascendant) far right, which has called (unsuccessfully) for the stamp to be withdrawn.
Just after her return to Paris from Italy, I spoke with Shevchenko by Skype and asked her why Femen has taken such an uncompromising stand against mild-mannered Pope Francis.
“The pope said he recognized the Big Bang,” she answered. “He sees how his doctrine doesn’t accord with progress, so he says things like this. He also said, ‘Who am I to criticize gay people?’ Just for this, we’re ready to hand over Parliament to him? This is just his strategy so he can come and speak at the Parliament. He says God isn’t a magician and wins great popularity even with some atheists. But if we believe him, we’re twice foolish; we become slaves of the most powerful religious institution, the Vatican, and then we invite him to Parliament. This just shows how stupid we [atheists] are and how clever they are.” She paused. “Not many Americans know that the Vatican received its statehood from Mussolini ... It’s highly symbolic that Vatican statehood was created by a fascist.”
“Why does Femen hate religion so much?” I asked.
“Why? I don’t think I have to answer questions about why male domination of women is bad, why it’s bad if a woman can’t choose whether she wants to have children or not, why it’s bad that a woman’s function on earth is supposed to be to serve men and have children, or why it’s bad that as a woman you know you’re dirty and guilty, just for being a woman. Religion is the root of all these views.”
Could, then, women of faith legitimately consider themselves feminists?
“No. That’s like saying black and white are the same, or we’re terrorists but we believe in peace, or we think you’re free to do as you like on earth, but here are the Ten Commandments. This sort of hypocrisy is to be found in all religions, and in fact religion is built on it.” In another conversation with me last year, she had dismissed the idea of a Muslim feminist as an “oxymoron.”
Maximalist and unrelenting, heedless of physical risk, Femen has launched an array of raucous (topless) attacks against religion, always in protest over its still powerful, if mostly less obvious than in previous times, influence on politics and women’s rights. In Kiev, the group targeted Russian Patriarch Kirill for calling for harsh sentences for Pussy Riot. (A 2011 Femen protest, led by Shevchenko, at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral gave Pussy Riot the locus and refrain of their infamous “punk prayer”). Angry over Catholicism’s stance against gay marriage, Femen disrupted a conservative rally in Paris and the pope’s Sunday sermon at the Vatican. Rejecting the church’s pro-life dogma, a Femen activist simulated an abortion inside Paris’ landmark Madeleine Cathedral. And directly challenging Christianity’s idea of an omnipotent male deity, in Cologne’s historic Kölner Dom church a German Femen activist burst upon a Christmas Mass and leapt atop the altar, proclaiming herself God.
Such protests have earned Femen, and Shevchenko in particular, vituperation, arrests, beatings and innumerable death threats, plus widespread outrage and criminal prosecutions, in addition to a core of adulators, four feature-length documentaries, and even their own action figures. But the movement’s haters have been the most prominent, and people of faith have been especially incensed. In France, a conservative deputy of the National Assembly labeled Femen a “satanic sect” and led a (doomed) campaign to have it banned.
And by no means has Femen left Islam alone. In 2013, to win the liberation of their Arab activist Amina Sboui (then in prison in Tunisia for painting "FEMEN" on a Kairouan mosque’s wall), Femen burned the Salafist flag in front of the Great Mosque of Paris; launched a “Topless Jihad” across Europe; besieged Tunisian interim President Moncef Marzouki at a Paris conference and in Brussels; and demonstrated topless outside the Ministry of Justice in Tunis. The three European perpetrators of the latter démarche ended up spending a grueling month in a Tunisian prison.
Always, Femen’s fight with religion has involved deliberately mocking organized religion by providing living examples of women who refuse to abide by its misogynistic strictures – in other words, by outlandish acts of blasphemy. During a talk she gave to the recent Secularist Conference 2014 (an event endorsed by Richard Dawkins), Shevchenko explained why women have a special duty to blaspheme.
“Women’s rights will always be attacked at first by religious institutions. It’s women who will be the first victims of religious oppression ... [Religion] tells women that we are brought to earth by a male god, to serve men.”
(She was not exaggerating. How can we ignore the biblical injunctions of, for example, Ephesians 5: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior,” and “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” The Quran and the Hadith also ordain female submission, and counsel men to beat wives who refuse.)
But, I asked Shevchenko, are acts that deliberately upset believers the best way for Femen to pursue its objectives? Surely the tactic interferes with getting the message across.
“When we as Femen carry out protests against religious institutions,” Shevchenko replied, “we don’t even think of people and their feelings. We’re thinking about [religious] ideas and theories. Religion isn’t people, it’s ideology. So we’re protesting the root of the problem, the ideology, not its followers. For too long we’ve let religion insert itself into our ideas of democracy and freedom of speech. It’s as if free speech has become freedom to propagandize for religion.”
Shevchenko willingly owned the term "blasphemy," saying it described what Femen did – and more. And, she added, at least according to orthodox interpretations of the three revealed religions, “A free woman is blasphemy, a woman demanding her rights is blasphemy, a woman questioning the traditions she’s forced to live with is blasphemy. We reject all that. Femen is nothing less than blasphemy incarnate.”
On her last point few believers would disagree. Shevchenko’s use of the word “blasphemy” speaks to Femen’s determination to confront religion on its own turf, rejecting the opprobrium the term should inspire. Femen’s blasphemy aims to awaken believers from their slumber; in other words, to make them think, when religion, she went on to say, “wants you only to follow.” Whether it works is another story. In any case, she believes blasphemy will lose its value as a consciousness-raiser when people cease to find it shocking and begin to view religion as just another facet of life open to criticism.
Though Femen now has a presence in 11 countries (including Canada, Turkey and Israel), it has remained largely focused on Europe. Nevertheless, Shevchenko visited the United States last year and took the chance to blaspheme on the road, shredding a Bible in front of the Texas House of Representatives. She minced no words in expressing how she felt about American right-wing politics.
“America is a very dangerous land for women, because it has such a party as the Republican Party. In France, political parties don’t have so many points in their platforms based on the Bible. They’ve already had this discussion and resolved it [in favor of secularism]. You’d lose a lot of voters in Europe bringing up religion.” (Case in point, she noted, and one involving a Femen protest: Spain’s conservative Partido Popular proposed a law to limit abortion, but dropped the bill after it drew the ire of so many voters.) “And then there was George Bush [senior], who said there’s no place in America for atheists. I wouldn’t call this just a radical statement, it’s terrorist. So, if Femen comes to the U.S., we’d first of all wage war on the Republican Party, since they’re waging their war on women."
Shevchenko understood, though, that religion imbued the policies of more than just Republicans.
“Even President Obama, who talks about equality and women’s rights and criticizes American society for the differences between what men and women earn, finishes his speeches with ‘God bless us!’ He speaks about equal rights and means it, but then he says God Bless, because it’s protocol. It’s really cowardice, fear of losing voters.”
What of Obama’s refusal to identify ISIS with Islam?
“This just shows how afraid we are, how fearful we are of causing offense, how ready to capitulate we are. Why not just say, ‘OK, we’re already afraid of you! Please don’t send us any more suicide bombers.’ His behaving this way shows us how much religion really is a political matter, not a spiritual matter. Religion is political doctrine. And Islam is politics, pure politics ... The Quran is just a listing of articles you’re supposed to obey without question.”
There was one other target Femen would like to strike: Fox News.
“Anyone in particular there?” I asked.
“Femen doesn’t reject people, it rejects ideas.”
I pressed her to name names. She ventured one: that of talk-show host Sean Hannity.
Sean Hannity! An attack on him would earn Femen evergreen laurels in a yet-to-be-erected pantheon of progressivism. A more deserving target of the movement’s bare-breasted ire would be tough to imagine.