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Topless protesters seek social revolution in Ukraine

Women in the Ukraine are far from having equal rights with men. Now, a group of young feminists want to change all that. Their weapons: traditional Ukrainian floral wreaths - and their bare breasts.

A woman applying lipstick before the protest

The women get ready, with lipstick and floral wreaths

When you think of Ukraine, you might conjure up the image of the artfully braided blond hair of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Despite being one of the most successful businesswomen in Ukraine, and the country's first female prime minister, she struggled to establish more rights for women during her time in government.

Ukraine is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Europe. If women work at all, they earn 30 percent less than men in the same position, and they seldom rise to the top.

Until recently, feminism was more or less unheard of in Ukraine. But now, a group of young women are trying to change that - with eye-catching methods.

Going topless

Women hold banners above her head at the protest

The protesters are trying to shake up Ukrainian society

The Café Kupidon in central Kyiv is buzzing with several dozen scantily-clad young women. They hand around lipstick, make-up and hairbrushes. They're getting ready to head out to the street for a protest - topless.

One of the protesters, Inna Chevchenko, explains that it's the only way to get attention for their cause:

"It is not easy to strip naked," Chevchenko told Deutsche Welle. "But we have to tear the clothes off our bodies to get attention. It shocks people and they understand that this means that the situation is very serious."

Chevchenko is sporting the yellow and blue logo of the women's group Femen: two breasts in the Ukrainian national colors. Femen began staging naked protests on the streets of Ukraine in 2008. Chevchenko, 20, is one of the three organizers.

Fighting for rights

Femen started off with protests against sex tourism and prostitution, which is a huge problem in Ukraine, where the average monthly wage is just a couple of hundred euros. According to Femen, 60 percent of female Ukrainian students have had sex for money at least once.

Women wearing military-style clothing before the protest

The women are also against fascism and rascism

"We are pretty, we are smart and sexy, but in our country we don't have many chances to develop our full potential," Chevchenko explains. "That's why we address all political, cultural and social topics with our protests. Women should be present in all aspects our country's life."

Now the protesters have moved on to other pertinent topics, including fascism and racism. They hand out military-style hot pants and leaflets with definitions of words like anti-Semitism and fascism. One of the demonstrators, Diana, reads the material with interest. She's a student of religion and philosophy.

"Of course I know what these words mean," Diana said. "But we have to make sure that everyone understands. We don't want any silly mistakes, when someone gives an interview after the protest."

Grabbing attention

Journalists and photographers follow the preparations closely. Most of them are male and are obviously enjoying what they see. But none of the protesters want to admit it.

A female protester wearing a floral wreath

Femen was founded in 2008 to protest against prostitution

"Of course I am always quite embarrassed to be naked in front of all these cameramen and photographers," says Sasha. "But they are our assistants in a way - without them the world wouldn't know about us, our ideas and the problems we address."

The women head off toward Maidan, the main square in Kyiv. They take up their positions, tear off their tops, raise one arm and shout: "Ukrainian women against fascism!" In front of them around 50 video and photo journalists compete for the best position.

Some critics say that, by showing off their naked bodies, Femen are part of the cliché they are fighting against. But others applaud them for shaking up an otherwise largely passive society, which has grown tired of protests since the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the disappointments that followed.

Femen certainly have succeeded in attracting the attention of the international media. And that can only increase at the European Football Championship in 2012, when the demonstrators can prove that they are more than just a PR stunt.

Author: Mareike Aden, Kyiv / ji
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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