Femen gets a kick in the pants (but not on Facebook)

A man kicks a topless activist of the Ukrainian feminist movement Femen as she raises her fist to protest against Islamists in front of the Great Mosque of Paris on April 3, 2013 in Paris.
AFP Photo/Fred Dufour

Rarely a week goes by without a Femen protest somewhere in world. Originating in Ukraine five years ago, the expanding network of feminist activists bare their breasts – often inscribed with slogans – to champion women’s rights or decry corruption and what they see as repressive religious institutions and dogma. Femen's flash events generally last only a few minutes, unfolding in front of journalists (alerted ahead of time) and the startled targets of their ire. Sometimes the reaction is amused indifference, but in most cases someone gets red in the face and the women wind up in the clutches of security forces or police. 

“Our weapons are bare breasts,” declares Femen’s motto. “Go out. Undress. And Win.”

Femen activists often hone in on symbolic and sacred spots, the better to attract attention and make their point. Last year, a band of naked-from-the-waist-up protesters barricaded themselves, for example, inside the bell tower of Saint Sophie Cathedral in Kiev to protest a proposed anti-abortion law in Ukraine. More recently, they were seen pulling off their sweaters and tank tops inside Notre Dame in Paris and Saint Peter’s in Rome before being forcibly ejected from both places. 

This week, the Grand Mosque of Paris was on their hit list. The AFP photo above circulated widely on the Internet, generating a lot of 'shares' and comments on AFP's French-language Facebook page. Until, that is, Facebook yanked it. 

“Per usual, Femen let us know what was going to happen,” explained AFP photographer Fred Dufour, who took the shot in Paris. “A small car pulled up and three women – breasts exposed, faces covered with veils – jumped out and ran toward the mosque. Two security guards posted at the entrance moved to intercept them, yelling at them to go away.”

The Femen protesters, seeking to “denounce religious extremism,” unfurled a made-up ‘Salafist’ flag, which they doused with alcohol and set ablaze. One of the agents tried to stop them, while another hurled a plastic water bottle and a cardboard crate. 

“Then, looking through the viewfinder, I could see that the second security guard was preparing to kick one of women in the rear end,” he recalled. “During the entire episode – which didn’t last more than three minutes – the women didn’t say a word. At the end, they ripped off their face veils, jumped back in the car and sped away as quickly as they had come.”

Several onlookers, apparently Muslim faithful, were visibly upset, especially a group of women who had come to pray. “They didn’t really have time to react to the Femen protesters, so one of the women turned on us, criticizing us for photographing the scene,” Fred added.

Fred’s photo moved quickly through social networks, especially among Francophone users, with some people defending the women and other criticizing their stunt as Islamophobic. A few questioned the activists judgment, pointing out that the Grand Mosque brandishes a moderate vision of Islam, a far cry from Islamic radicalism.

In Berlin, meanwhile, another group of Femen activists enacted a similar bit of political theater in front of the city's oldest mosque, the Ahmadiyya-Moschee (below).

Activists of the women's movement Femen demonstrate in front of the Ahmadiyya-Moschee (Berlin's oldest Mosque) in Berlin on April 4, 2013 in Berlin.
AFP Photo/Johannes Eisele