Naked Show of Strength

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India turns the heat on topless Ukrainian feminists

KIEV ~ In the Bollywood blockbuster Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the lead character confides to his friend, “Except for that Ukrainian, I’ve been faithful to my fiancée.” While India’s image of Russian girls during the Cold War was of meaty shot-putters and tractor drivers, they’re now associated with prostitution and slutty antics. While some of it is based on fact, as evinced from police raids on prostitution rings with Russian girls, much is also rumour-mongering and cocktail party chatter. Living in Ukraine for the past three years, I’m keenly aware that 99 per cent of the girls are just tourists looking to escape winter and experience Incredible India up close.

However, when the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered its embassies in the region last week to closely screen visa applications for women between 15 and 40 to weed out prostitutes, there was a swift reaction from Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. Topless, and dressed in Indian garb, activists from Femen, a provocative feminist group in Ukraine, climbed the balcony of the Indian ambassador’s residence and unfurled banners saying ‘Ukrainians are not prostitutes!’, ‘Delhi, close your brothel’, and ‘We demand apologies’. They also knocked down the Indian flag, and banged on the doors and windows of the residence until arrested by the police. The embassy was outraged, and opened criminal proceedings against the demonstrators for desecrating the Indian flag. The activists now face upto five years in prison and the possible closure of their organisation.

When I met their leader and some of the girls who had taken part in the demonstration over tea in Kiev last week, the mood was grim. A portrait of one of their activists had just won an award at the prestigious World Press Photo Contest, and they were set to fly to Italy the next day to protest the exploitation of models at Milan Fashion Week. However, that wasn’t enough to lift their spirits. “This is the most serious threat to our organisation since our founding four years ago,” declared their petite, ginger-haired leader, Anna Gutsol. “Some of our girls are facing upto five years in prison. The government could also use this police case by the Indian embassy as a pretext to shut us down.” She rolled her eyes, and clenched her hands against the table. “As you’re aware, the present administration is doing everything it can to silence free speech and dissent.”

It’s ironic that the act of ‘desecrating’ the Indian flag has landed them in more hot water than any of their brazen antics in the past few years. These have included playing football topless in Ukraine’s main square—in the middle of the frigid winter—to protest ‘Sex Tourism’ during the upcoming Euro 2012 football championships in Ukraine and Poland. They also stripped last month outside the Moscow headquarters of Russia’s gas giant Gazprom to protest the country’s gas policies vis-à-vis Ukraine.

As the topless femmes have gained in notoriety, they’ve also gone global, expanding the scope and reach of their protests. They went topless in Rome last year to protest Berlusconi’s lewd lifestyle, and even stripped outside the Parisian home of former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn. They went half-naked at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year to demand more women in political institutions worldwide. “Though European feminists don’t take to our style, we have a lot of support from the press and some influential people there,” declared Gutsol. Iconic Munich-based DJ Hell, founder of Gigolo Records, is one of their many European fans, flying in for free to spin at their many demonstrations in Kiev and elsewhere.

Despite their bold anti-establishment protests against key figures—including Viktor Yanukovych, the autocratic President of Ukraine—they’re usually let off after a night in jail and a slap on the wrist. Russia’s Gazprom let them free after charging them a nominal fine of 1,000 rubles (about Rs 1,500). The most serious incident prior to this was when they travelled to neighbouring Belarus last December to protest the tyrannical regime of dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko. The local KGB arrested them, took them to a forest where they were shorn of their hair, stripped naked, and left to fend for themselves in the freezing cold. “The government’s response to our protests is a measure of the level of democracy in a nation. It’s understandable that Belarus treated us so harshly. But India is a democracy, isn’t it? Why are they being so tough on us?” asked Gutsol.

It’s a good question. I called the Indian embassy for a response but was told that they don’t have a press person who can comment on this matter. As an Indian, I’m mortified that Delhi’s reaction might be the final straw that breaks the courageous movement. It’s no secret that Ukraine’s authoritarian regime has its sights set on muffling the group. They’ve staged various cheeky acts against the regime, including asking international leaders to bury the President in Chernobyl’s ‘zone’ during the disaster’s 25th anniversary last year. Recently, they dressed as half-naked fairytale characters outside the President’s headquarters to pan his policies as anachronistic and fantastical. The local security service has threatened them on more than one occasion, and during arrests, members of the group have been beaten so badly that they have had to be hospitalised.

However, having become a pariah in Europe after sentencing his archrival, the flamboyant former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, to jail for seven years this past December, the President is in no mood for another bout of bad international PR. The country is also hosting the high-profile Euro 2012 football championships this June, and the last thing the government needs is more outcries in Europe. “The Indian embassy’s charges could be their excuse, however,” points out Gutsol. “They could shrug and say, ‘The Indians made this charge, and we’re just following the law.’ That takes the blame away from them.”

While court cases usually drag on for years in Ukraine, as they do in India, things can also get speeded up when it’s in the government’s interest. Tymoshenko’s show trial was carried out in just three months. “We could be in jail next week or the week after, who knows?” shrugs Gutsol, who had just come from court, where she reviewed the case against them. “It was as thick as a telephone book. They’ve been preparing this case for a while.”

I hope that in the coming days, the Indian embassy realises that it might be used as a pawn in a big game against the opposition in Ukraine, and drops the charges. Having played bad cop, it’s time to play good cop. It’s true that Femen is highly inflammatory at times, and the themes of its topless protests sometimes verge on the absurd. Sex sells and the sight of gorgeous Ukrainian women protesting half-naked has certainly gained them more notoriety than other opposition groups, working away in relative obscurity. Many, even in Ukraine, resent their cheap, striptease-like antics to grab media attention, and consider them more theatre than substance. Still, they are a beacon of girl-power and freewheeling protest in a nation dominated by men, with a once-free press that is under increasing attack. They are zany, tick, brazenly using their bodies to get attention, tick, but at least they manage to get a dialogue started.

Their protest against India’s new visa policies are a case in point. Are there Ukrainian girls working as prostitutes in India? Almost certainly. As long as Indian men crave white-skinned Slavic women, that sex trade is not going to stop in the near future. India’s new rich now have as much spending power as their counterparts in London or New York, and so, working girls, who went to Israel or Dubai earlier, are now gravitating towards India. But is that a bad thing? Shouldn’t the Government open a dialogue on prostitution instead of restricting visas? That’ll only push the trade underground, and make it more dangerous for everyone involved. Also, all those lovely Slavic girls who might have spent their winters in India might now go to Thailand or Bali instead, where they can get a visa on arrival. Is it smart of India to lose out on a booming tourism business from Russia?

Interview done, the mood was now less sombre.

“What do Indians really think of Ukrainians?” asked one of the girls. Her curiosity was genuine.

 “They think you’re all sluts,” I answered with a smile.

“And we think you all sing and dance like in Bollywood movies,” she shot back.

Hopefully, like during our interview, Femen will have the last laugh in this interesting cross-cultural tussle.