If your way of getting your message out is to paint it across your bare breasts, as young FEMEN activists do, then clearly you're not afraid of a little controversy. The international movement, which began in Ukraine and uses the semi-naked body as a political weapon, is in hot water again after a new documentary revealed it had been run by a man. And not a very nice one at that.
According to media reports from the Venice film festival last week, where the film "Ukraine is not a Brothel" was shown, Victor Svyatski would scream at the girls and call them "bitches". He said they were weak and needed to be taught how to be effective political activists.
Svyatski, who has been beaten up by police for his involvement with FEMEN, admitted to 28-year-old Australian film maker Kitty Green that he may have got involved because, subconsciously, he wanted to "get girls". And Green said he "handpicked the prettiest girls" because they would be the most photogenic and grab the media's attention.
More than a little embarrassing, you might think. But FEMEN activists, being the feisty, publicity-seeking women they are, headed to Venice in black cocktail dresses and their trademark floral headbands to fight back against their critics. And on Friday, their leader Inna Shevchenko was at the Visa pour l'Image photojournalism festival in Perpignan, doing the same.
"Yes, (this) man was part of the FEMEN movement. No, he was not a founder of FEMEN. No, he didn't invent our topless strategy," she said of Svyatski during a debate on the group's tactics organised by women's magazine ELLE. The FEMEN movement was established in 2008 by female students in Ukraine, she added.
Svyatski – whose background is unclear but is said to be in political science – did take control of their activities for a while in a country "where men talk and women listen", because he was older and therefore "more intelligent", Shevchenko said. But then FEMEN members saw the light, she explained.
"It was a moment when we had a fight inside the movement against men," she said. This "patriarchal point" was dismantled after FEMEN broke with Svyatski in June 2012, she added.
Shevchenko then went to live in Paris, opening a new headquarters there in August last year, followed by 10 branches, including in Canada, Brazil and Egypt.
"We have spread FEMEN activity all over the world, we are keeping (on) spreading it, and now we know exactly what we do, and how we do it, and we don't ask for advice from any men," she stressed.
FEMEN is growing from its European base, where Spanish activists are planning to fight against a squeeze on abortion rights in the coming months, and has just launched in Mexico. While coy about the organisation’s future plans, Shevchenko said FEMEN is poised to open another branch in the United States, and "wants to appear soon" in India, which she described as "an important place" for the movement.
In recent months, India has been shaken by a growing awareness of the extent of violence against women, following the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a Delhi bus in December. The FEMEN leader gave no details about what the movement is hoping to do in India, but anything involving nudity or attacks on religion is sure to cause an outcry.
'OUR GOD IS WOMAN'
FEMEN has been sharply criticised for its hard-hitting messages against religion, including by other feminists. At the Perpignan debate, for example, Lydia Guiros, a young French political activist and founder of a hospital clinic to help women deal with the psychological effects of sexual harassment, said a February demonstration by eight FEMEN members in Paris' Notre Dame cathedral, to celebrate Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, had denigrated France's secularism, under which religion is not part of the state but people have the right to practice their faith.
Guiros accused FEMEN of "taking us back 10 to 20 years", and failing to help France's public policy become more supportive of women's rights.
"With FEMEN, we don't remember their message or even understand it," she said. "I have a hard time knowing what their goals are. What they put across is an image and not a message," she added.
Shevchenko defended the anti-religious stance of the organisation – which proclaims "Our God is woman" – and its members' right to express their atheist beliefs.
"We put ourselves into a violent, hot and dangerous discussion ... because religion is so violent and dangerous for women," she said. "Feminism and religion cannot co-exist together in public and social life."
This aspect of FEMEN's activity has also sparked huge controversy in Tunisia, where a key member was imprisoned for writing "FEMEN" on a cemetery wall, after posting photos of herself on Facebook with the message "My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone's honour" emblazoned across her chest. FEMEN launched an international protest in support of Amina Sboui, leading to suspended sentences for three women who held a topless demonstration in Tunis.
On her release in August, Sboui quit FEMEN after reportedly accusing it of being "Islamophobic" and disagreeing with the burning of the Salafist flag in front of the Paris mosque, among other things.
In Perpignan, Shevchenko said Sboui had been under "extreme pressure", and had since told FEMEN she had not called the movement anti-Islamic.
“Amina became a symbol of modern women's fight ... and she will stay so for us," Shevchenko added, while adding Sboui could have been "a little bit smarter" in the way she left.
Sondes Garbouj, the head of Amnesty International in Tunisia, which campaigned for Sboui's release from jail, said her case had demonstrated to many that Tunisian society enjoys only "surface modernism". With an Islamist party in power following the Arab Spring revolution, there has been a rise in customs that curtail women's freedoms, such as veil-wearing and virginity tests, she noted.
"Amina put all of this on the table and created debate," Garbouj told the Perpignan debate. "She opened the door for us to come face-to-face with hypocrisy."