I recently started reading Jeffrey Tayler on Salon.com; he is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic. In Salon, he writes a weekly column in which he fiercely attacks religion (for example, We must offend religion more: Islam, Christianity and our tolerance for ancient myths, harmful ideas and It’s time to fight religion: Toxic drivel, useful media idiots, and the real story about faith and violence). This lead me to purchase his latest book, Topless Jihadis: Inside Femen, the World’s Most Provocative Activist Group. It is only offered as a Kindle book on Amazon, otherwise it could be described as a “slim volume” of 94 pages.
FEMEN, which is capitalised on their own website, so that’s the way I’ll write it, describe themselves as “an international women’s movement of brave topless female activists painted with the slogans and crowned with flowers”. Tayler writes:
Each FEMEN protest is contrived to shock, generate controversy, and come off well on camera. Wherever FEMEN strikes, it causes an uproar. The group professes to deploy beauty as a weapon.
Jeffrey Tayler spent “summer and fall” in 2013 with FEMEN. His book is a fascinating description of some of the key figures, in particular, their leader, Inna Shevchenko. The group was, however, founded by three other women: Sasha Shevchenko (no relation to Inna), Anna Hutsol and Oksana Shachko—the self-styled Khmelnytskyi Gang—all from Ukraine. For the avoidance of any doubt, we are told that three are all “straight and have active love lives”.
Tayler covers the background and motivations of group members, and describes various protests, for instance, against President Lukashenko in Belarus, and another against the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill. Even the information on the Wikipedia entry for Patriarch Kirill leads one to conclude he’s a pretty dodgy piece of work. Religion is a key target for FEMEN. Yana Zhdanova carried out the attach on Kirill:
Religion and freedom do not go together. Religion is moral persecution that aims to drive women into slavery.
Many more protests are described in the book. Eventually, the group were forced to flee Ukraine. They chose to make their base in Paris, which is where Inna Shevchenko “assumed near-total control over FEMEN’s international agenda”. Inna is a attractive blonde—most of the group seem to be good-looking. No doubt, this helped them become “media darlings” (Tayler’s choice of words). Inna was named one of the Women of 2012 by Le Figaro .
Tayler continues the story with well-written and well-balanced prose. He doesn’t try to hide issues like the criticism of Inna’s autocratic style, and the role of a previous male leader, Victor Svyatski. But he is clearly sympathetic:
Say what you will about FEMEN, but if its activists are targeting you, you probably have something to be ashamed of.
Topless Jihadis is an excellent little book about an interesting group of women who have followed their chosen path with determination and courage. I’ll end this review as Tayler ends his book:
Writing in the first half of the last century, the French critic Georges Bernanos offered perspective that still applies: “It takes a lot of giving people to make a people generous, a lot of undisciplined folk to make a people free, and a lot of crazy youths to make a people heroic … It’s youth’s fever that keeps the temperature of the rest of the world normal. When the young cool off, the rest of the world’s teeth chatter.”
For now, FEMEN is youth, heat, and fresh air. For now.