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Topless protests

Olga Kapustina / cdFebruary 26, 2013

When she moved to Berlin, the Ukrainian founder of Femen brought her own brand of protest with her: topless activism. She plans to stay in the German capital until women in Germany are ready to take the lead.

Four members of Femen in Berlin (c) DW/Olga Kapustina
Image: DW/O. Kapustina

In the photos circulating in German Internet forums, half-naked women scream and ball their hands into fists. "Against racism!" is written across the exposed chest of one of the women, on the other, "Against hate!" In their latest protest, the female activists demonstrated against racism in front of a Berlin building in which the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), a right-wing political party, was holding a meeting.

The Femen movement, which was founded in 2008 in Ukraine, has recently set up shop in France and Brazil. Last fall, it opened its first international headquarters in Paris. At the beginning of this year, an offshoot of the Femen movement was founded in Germany. It is composed of 20 women, most of whom are from Berlin or Hamburg.

Café talks

The German activists meet in a café in Berlin's Mitte neighborhood, usually in the evening. There they discuss the details of their upcoming protests. The group doesn't have its own meeting room yet, and, if they weren't wearing crowns of plastic flowers, would be indistinguishable from other guests at the café.

Activist Alexandra Shevchenko (c) DW/Olga Kapustina
Alexandra Shevchenko is overseeing the Berlin branch of FemenImage: DW/O. Kapustina

One of them is Alexandra Shevchenko, one of the founders of the Ukrainian women's movement. The 24-year-old came to Berlin to oversee the founding of an independent Femen branch in Germany. She speaks English with the German women who have gathered at the café. The members of the group first became aware of Femen through a protest by Ukrainian activists against sex tourism during the European Championship soccer tournament, which took place last summer in Ukraine and Poland.

First protests in Germany

Klara, a 22-year-old student at the Technical University Berlin, was inspired by the courage of the Ukrainian women. A few months later she discovered the group, Femen, on Facebook.

Student and member of Femen, Klara (c) DW/Olga Kapustina
Berlin student Klara first took part in a protest at a Cologne brothelImage: DW/O. Kapustina

Her first topless protest took place in November 2012 in front of a Cologne brothel called Pascha. "We took our clothes off at the same time," she said. "We weren't scared." Her efforts were not in vain. The protest increased media attention on prostitution. "We're not protesting against prostitutes," Klara said. "We're for the criminalization of their clients, like it is in Sweden."

From the start, it was clear to the student that her actions would not be without consequences. "I'm aware that future employers might come across topless photos of me through the media," she said. But nor would she want to work for a company that does not support human rights.

Those she knows personally have reacted to her decision in different ways. Though her boyfriend does not involve himself in the actions of the feminists, her parents worry that women involved in such actions might be beaten up.

A new generation

For the 21-year-old Debby, who's studying to work in the hotel sector, her parents have been a constant source of support. Her father is a journalist and a big fan of the Femen movement. She, herself, finds it "awesome that someone can draw so much attention to a problem so easily." That's why she's a part of the group. Her co-conspirator, Pippa, decided to join Femen because she was disappointed by older generations of feminists. The 25-year-old from Britain has been living in Berlin for two years. Like other women in the group, Pippa had already been fighting for women's rights before she joined Femen.

Femen activist Debby (c) DW/Olga Kapustina
Debby's family supports her involvement in the groupImage: DW/O. Kapustina

The Femen activists receive requests from journalists every day. At the moment, Alexandra Shevchenko answers them all, and coordinates the actions between Femen branches in France, Brazil and Ukraine.

She would like to stay in Berlin for at least six months, or "until we're an experienced team with strong leaders who not only emulate Femen, but act on their own," the Ukrainian said.