KHMELNYTSKY, Ukraine — Back in her hometown, Alexandra Shevchenko stood by, uncharacteristically calm, as her mother, Lyudmila, laid out her near-total opposition to her daughter’s life choices, bewilderment over why she is still single at age 25, and especially why she persists with Femen, the activist women’s group famous for guerrilla-style, bare-breasted political protests.
Alexandra, a slinky blonde who goes by Sasha, knows how to fight. Her face, with pouty lips and blue eyes, can morph from winsome to fearsome in the seconds it takes to strip off a T-shirt and pump a fist in the air. It is a move she has perfected, most recently in April at a trade fair in Germany where she charged, half-naked, toward Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, cursing him as a dictator.
Video of that protest shows Sasha topless, with profane slogans painted on her chest and back, nearly reaching Mr. Putin and drawing a leer and two thumbs up from him before a guard wrestled her to the ground. Her mother said she can no longer bear to watch.
“You cannot imagine how worried I am for their lives; I cannot sleep,” Lyudmila Shevchenko said in the small fashion shop that she runs in Khmelnytsky, a quiet regional capital. She particularly dislikes it when the Femen women curse and go topless in cold weather. “It’s probably time to form a party, to run for office, to change methods and try to achieve their goals through legislation, because I am sick and tired of these actions.” Besides, she said: “I want grandchildren.”
Nudity as a tool of activism is hardly new. But the women of Femen have elevated it to an Internet-age art form. Based in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, the group now has chapters in nine countries, on four continents. It calls its tactics “sextremism” and its hundreds of mostly volunteer members “shock troops” — frontline soldiers in a global war against patriarchy, and for women’s rights. Its sworn enemies are dictatorship, organized religion and sexual exploitation.
Femen protests often catch the law enforcement authorities off-guard, and can make officers seem silly, as they struggle to contain partially dressed women squiggling in their grasp. In response to their protests, Femen women have been beaten, jailed and threatened with death.
They have been dragged off all over: at the Vatican where they set off red smoke during the papal conclave to condemn “bloody” church history; at the European Parliament in Brussels where they pushed gay rights; on the Berlin Film Festival’s red carpet where they denounced female circumcision in Africa; in Moscow where they tried to steal Mr. Putin’s ballot on Election Day; at the Davos World Economic Forum where they decried income inequality; in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where Femen has its second base.
They have called for “topless jihad” and a “women’s spring” against Islam’s treatment of women, and were deported from Turkey where they acted against domestic violence. In Belarus, where they protested the autocracy of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, they were arrested, taken into the woods, stripped and told they would be killed. “Remember the smell of your mothers,” one participant recalled a security agent saying. “How happy you were,” the agent taunted, “before you had the idea to come to Belarus.”
In the most recent action, on Wednesday, three Femen members took off their tops outside the Justice Ministry in Tunis, in support of a Tunisian Femen member, Amina Sboui, also known as Amina Tyler, who had faced death threats after posting a topless picture of herself on the Web. She was later arrested on charges related to carrying a can of pepper spray while preparing to conduct a protest action. On Thursday, she was convicted and fined. She remains in prison as the authorities consider additional charges.
Like all Femen actions, the Tunisia event was carefully choreographed. The three activists, two French citizens and a German, were chosen because they were likely to get the best diplomatic assistance after they were arrested.
Femen’s shock troops can be of any age but tend to be young and attractive; the group’s leaders insist that members come to actions well groomed. The topless protests have been so effective at generating attention that they have obscured Femen’s modest beginnings in 2006 as a feminist club focused on patriarchal traditions in Ukrainian society.
Anna Hutsol, then a student at the Khmelnytsky University for Economics, was outside the city’s registration office, watching young brides and grooms arrive to get married and, for the women, start a life in which decisions once made by fathers would now fall to husbands.
Ms. Hutsol herself had grown up mostly in a tiny village, Nova Ushytsa, a two-hour drive south of Khmelnytsky, where her parents still live. A hotbed of feminism it is not. When Ms. Hutsol arrived there one evening last week with visitors, her mother was milking a cow.
Ms. Hutsol’s mother, Nina, said she believed her daughter was trying to help people, but neighbors did not see it that way. “The village people don’t understand it,” she said. “They say that their behavior is uncultured. They don’t think this is a political activity, but I don’t know how to explain it.”
Neither Nina Hutsol nor Lyudmila Shevchenko recalled their daughters being particularly interested in politics. When Anna Hutsol started lamenting the future of Khmelnytsky’s young women at a meeting of the local Center of Youth Prospects, and argued for creating a separate women’s group, Sasha Shevchenko, an 18-year-old in the audience, was alarmed.
“I was really stupid,” she said, recalling that first meeting. “I am just a normal Ukrainian girl. I didn’t even know what feminist meant. I thought a feminist was an ugly woman with a mustache. She is lesbian and she hates men. If you ask girls on the street about feminism, they will tell you the same story.”
As conversation unfolded among about 20 women, the need to fight for rights became clear. Some told of abusive fathers or boyfriends, or mothers who supported families while their husbands were home drunk. And then there was the pervasive prostitution and sex trafficking of post-Communist Ukraine.
Oksana Shachko knew some issues firsthand. Her mother, an orphan who longed for a family, had married, at 18, a man who turned out to be an alcoholic. She quickly had two children — locking her into circumstances shared by many Ukrainian women.
Together, Ms. Hutsol, Ms. Shevchenko and Ms. Shachko set up a feminist club, the New Ethics committee. They wore pink, and held marches, fully clothed. After minor success drawing attention to two women who suffered medical malpractice at a local hospital, they realized they were being ignored.
So in 2008 they moved to Kiev, , where after impassioned debate, they eventually made the decision to take off their clothes to draw more attention, and renamed themselves Femen. They were joined by Inna Shevchenko (no relation to Sasha) who has since left Ukraine because of criminal charges pending from an action in which she sawed down a large crucifix with a chain saw. she wore goggles but not top.
In an interview before she left, Inna Shevchenko recalled the attempt to focus on sexual exploitation. “We were trying to say the truth,” she said. “But no one was interested in it, and we understood that this society, this country, is not ready to listen to women. But everyone wants to look at them, especially if they are naked,” she added. “We understood O.K., if we are not able to talk, we will show.”
“With our protests, we created a new understanding of our nakedness,” she continued. “We said to the world, now, it can be my hands, controlling by me. It’s not anymore in man’s hands.”
Not everyone understands, or agrees. Some critics have accused them of contributing to the same objectification of women’s bodies that they claim to protest, and that their feminist ideology is fuzzy. Others say they are imposing their brand of radical feminism on women in the Middle East and Africa — in cultures where a more subtle approach would be more effective and safer.
In Khmelnytsky, Sasha Shevchenko heard her elementary school principal, Nadezhda M. Orlovskaya, explain why a graduate serving in the army deserved a photo in the school lobby but its most famous alumna did not. Ms. Orlovskaya praised her former pupil for trying to help women but criticized Femen’s tactics and disputed the group’s portrayal of women in Ukraine as oppressed. “What I don’t like is that you show up in public naked, barefoot, etc.,” she said. Adopting a mocking tone, she puffed out her bosom. “I still have something to boast of, too.”
Ms. Orlovskaya and even Lyudmila Shevchenko said they believed that Femen was backed by secret big-money interests, a charge for which there is no obvious evidence. The women say the group is financed by selling Femen souvenirs and by private donations.
Sasha Shevchenko did not argue with Ms. Orlovskaya, and seemed intent on focusing on Femen’s declared enemies, not on critics. She said it may take a revolution, perhaps with some bloodshed, to improve the lives of women oppressed by Islam or by dictators, or who are pressured into prostitution. And to train a new generation.
“I decided for myself to be a woman, to be a girl who will open eyes for other women, for other girls,” she said. “Because I know myself — Ukrainian girls are stupid. We don’t have sexual education in schools. In universities, we don’t have feminist education. We don’t know even what feminism is.”
About the writer: David M. Herszenhorn has worked at The New York Times (Reporter), studied at Dartmouth College, lives in Moscow, Russia and is from Flushing, New York.