President Donald Trump's black stretch limousine was approaching the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Sunday when a topless woman ran into the rainy street. With her long brown hair flowing down her back, she held up her arms outstretched in a gesture of victory. Though nearly impossible to make out, the words, "FAKE PEACEMAKERS," were scrawled across her torso with black paint. She writhed and struggled to break loose as three police officers dragged her away.
Few were surprised when the radical feminist group Femen took credit, explaining on its website that it was protesting world leaders it considers war criminals. The Paris-based group, whose members have been described as "feminist terrorists" and "the naked shock troops of feminism" by one of its founders, has a history of pulling similar actions. Though once little-known outside of Europe, the group recently made headlines in U.S. media by protesting outside Bill Cosby's sexual-assault retrial and disrupting a jazz concert featuring Woody Allen.
Femen's methods are fairly straightforward: Topless women in flower crowns, their bodies painted like protest signs, disrupt public events by yelling feminist slogans and throwing their bodies at politicians and church leaders. The protests are generally only a few seconds long, since the activists are quickly escorted out of sight or arrested. But the resulting photographs of half-naked women being dragged away by police makes for compelling imagery. On its website, Femen describes the group's members as a "modern incarnation of fearless and free Amazons," using their bodies to protest the patriarchy.
Femen was founded in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2008 by young women frustrated that they seemed to have few options in life besides becoming a housewife or working as prostitutes, Inna Shevchenko, one of the group's leaders, told The Guardian. In its early years, the group was largely focused on opposing Ukraine's burgeoning sex trade. While protesting topless might seem to contradict the group's anti-exploitation stance, Femen's leaders argued that they were deploying their bodies as weapons.
"We are not making sexy sounds, we are screaming as much as we can with our political demands, we're not showing a passive smiling body, we're showing an aggressive, screaming body," Shevchenko told the Guardian. "My body is always saying something. I use it as a small poster to write my political demand."
Shevchenko fled Ukraine for France in 2012 after she chopped down a crucifix with a chain saw and began receiving death threats. Several other Femen members joined her, applying for political asylum in France and subsequently working to rebuild Femen as an international protest group focused on opposing sexism, oppression, and authoritarianism. All of the group's founding members were living in exile by 2013, according to the Paris Review.
"Each Femen demonstration is contrived to shock, generate publicity, and come off well on camera," the Atlantic noted in 2013. "Though in theory any woman may join, almost all the activists are 20-something, fit, and attractive. In protest-spirited France, they quickly became media darlings."
Calling themselves "sextremists," Femen targeted, among others, Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, Putin and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. They even disrupted Paris Fashion Week, jumping onto the runway at a 2013 Nina Ricci show.
As the group gained fame, their feminist bona fides came under scrutiny. A 2013 documentary, "Ukraine is not a Brothel," argued that a man named Victor Svyatski, who had previously been described as a consultant to the group, had actually been integral to its founding and had masterminded many of the attention-grabbing stunts. "These girls are weak," Svyatski told the documentary producers.
Shevchenko acknowledged that Svyatski had taken control of the movement, though she disputed the claim that he had founded Femen. "Having been born in a country in which feminism was unknown, in the best traditions of patriarchal society we just accepted the fact of a man taking control of us," she wrote in a 2013 Guardian op-ed. "We accepted this because we did not know how to resist and fight it." Realizing that sexism had infiltrated the organization was part of what motivated her to leave Ukraine for France and start over, she added.
Femen's members consider atheism to be a fundamental tenet of the group's ideology. Along with an end to the sex industry, the list of demands on its website includes the "immediate political deposition of all dictatorial regimes creating unbearable living conditions for women," starting with "theocratic Islamic states practicing Shari'ah." Femen has protested the compulsory hijab, angering Muslim feminists who point out that many Islamic women wear the hijab voluntarily as an expression of their religious beliefs.
"The idea of a Muslim feminist is oxymoronic," Shevchenko told the Atlantic in 2013.
Comments like these have led to charges that Femen is anti-Muslim and that its members have a white savior complex. Amina Sboui, a Tunisian activist who faced death threats after she posted a topless photo on Facebook, quit the group in 2013, saying that she didn't want to be associated with an Islamophobic organization. Sboui had been jailed that year for painting the group's name on a cemetery wall, and Femen had held protests outside the Tunisian Embassy in France to demand her release. But after she was freed, Sboui told HuffPost that the group's efforts had been counterproductive.
"I did not appreciate the action taken by the girls shouting 'Amina Akbar, Femen Akbar' in front of the Tunisian embassy in France, or when they burned the black Tawhid flag in front of a mosque in Paris," she said. "These actions offended many Muslims and many of my friends. We must respect everyone's religion."
In recent years, Femen has broadened its choice of targets, aiming its guerrilla tactics at American public figures like Allen, Cosby, and Trump. Sunday's protest, the group said, was intended to call out Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as well as Trump for turning Armistice Day into "a funny performance that is only entertaining for those participating criminals."
"Our activists have once again been arrested," the group said in a statement. "Yesterday, they spent 10 hours in custody, and they have been charged for sexual exhibition. But this is only reinforcing our determination. Our fight is legitimate."
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)