This article is a preview from the Winter 2013 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.

In the last few years, Femen, a collective of “sextremists” from Ukraine, have courted, and gained, huge amounts of media attention. Their protests in support of women’s rights and against religion – always provocative, often topless – have disrupted public events such as the meeting between the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Hanover trade fair in April. Yet as their profile has risen they have come under increasing attack from both Left and Right. In their home country, the group’s activities have led to allegations of hooliganism and abuse from the Ukrainian secret services. After some members were beaten up earlier this year, the group switched their base to Paris, where they soon found themselves at the centre of a storm of controversy for their dismissive comments about Muslim culture and for staging protests outside mosques. Fêted by some Western feminists, they were accused by others of being Islamophobic, or of being “privileged white Europeans” trying to impose their own cultural values on others.

Then, in September, the documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel made a startling claim: Femen had been founded and directed by a man, political scientist Viktor Svyatski. Their critics were quick to leap on this claim. Of course Femen were a “patriarchal” con-trick – wasn’t that obvious from the start?

The truth is somewhat more complicated. In 2008 Anna Hutsol and Oxana Shachko, two young women from Kiev, founded the group to protest against the scale of sex work in Ukraine, and the abuse of Ukrainian women abroad. (It’s a major issue: after the economic collapse of the 1990s that followed the fall of Communism, the sex industry in Eastern Europe exploded, with many Ukrainian women also forced to migrate abroad and work at menial jobs, regardless of what qualifications they might have had at home.) By 2011, the group were gaining international recognition, as Western newspapers suddenly became interested in the prospect of partially clad young women staging spectacular protests.

The group don’t just define themselves as feminists – they’re atheists too. “We’re against all religions,” declares Femen’s manifesto, published online; their stridency on the matter stems from the huge and debilitating influence of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which plays a key role in setting the limits of political debate. Yet despite their forthright views, their politics have always seemed enigmatic. It’s almost impossible to describe what they want, and their actions often backfire. When, for instance, they chopped down the large cross that overlooks Kiev central square – ostensibly a gesture of support to the jailed members of Pussy Riot in Russia – it drew condemnation from many who pointed out that the cross was there to commemorate the victims of Stalinism. Why, to protest rape, did they show their breasts next to the Venus of Milo in the Louvre? What did one of their founders mean when she criticised the “Arab mentality” of Ukrainian society? And what did it mean to conduct an “anti-burqa” protest by the Eiffel Tower in Paris, in a country where racist attacks on Muslim women in the street have been on the rise?

In July this year, the French government unveiled a new design for their postage stamps, which traditionally feature an image of Marianne, symbol of the country’s republican values. This time, however, the lino-cut image – a woman’s head and shoulders, framed by flowing hair – bore a striking resemblance to Inna Shevchenko, a 23-year-old business studies graduate from Kiev, who has become Femen’s de facto figurehead. After the similarity was noticed, one of the stamp’s designers, Olivier Ciappa, confirmed that Shevchenko had been an inspiration.

It was the latest example of how Femen have been enthusiastically welcomed by much of the French liberal-left since moving their base of operations to the Lavoir Moderne Parisien a year ago. They’ve been featured in newspapers and magazines ranging from the left-wing daily Libération to the cover of the Eurostar magazine. They’ve also published a book of interviews, with the help of the feminist writer Galia Ackerman. France seems to have welcomed Femen far more than their native Ukraine. President François Hollande personally approved the choice of Shevchenko’s face for a stamp, describing it as “the face of youth”, and she is now the official face of France’s proud secularist values. But in a country where the openly racist Front National is reaping the benefits of widespread anti-Muslim sentiment, their stance on Islam means something different from their stance on the Orthodox church in their home country.

Wanting to find out more, I contacted Shevchenko, who has made harsh comments on the “violence of Islam” and ridiculed Ramadan. Shevchenko is a rational interviewee, taking questions seriously, especially when I ask her about her experience of growing up in post-Communist Ukraine. Yet when I ask her about the Islam controversy, I just get the usual: “I’ll always use a chance to express my opinion on any religion, especially such violence as Islam. I’ll always use a chance to point out the evil nature of religion and nonsense of its existence in our society.”

For a while, Femen had a Tunisian member, Amina Sboui, who was imprisoned for three months in her own country after posting photos of herself naked on Facebook. Yet she quit the organisation, denouncing it as “Islamophobic” after other members burned a traditional Tawhid flag in front of a Paris mosque. Shevchenko is sanguine about this falling-out. “I met her [Sboui] recently in Paris. We had a conversation. Very professional. She tried to explain that her comment on Femen being Islamophobes was not well translated. Anyway, I don’t care to be named by such nonsense terms. So at the end we just said goodbye and good luck to each other.”

To me, this is where Femen’s anti-clericalism comes unstuck. Something gets lost in translation: they want to stick up for the rights of Muslim women like Amina, but, unaware of the new context in which they operate – in France, where secularism is used to discriminate against particular ethnic minorities, as well as to ensure equality for all – they become partners in oppression. Yet while many have taken their stance to mean disrespect, it’s better to see it as a regrettable confusion: while their “it’s all bullshit” critique of religion might alienate some potential supporters, Femen were defending women and gay rights against attacks from the right during France’s equal marriage debate.

It’s unfortunate that so much attention has focused on Femen in France, because some of their most powerful actions have concerned the sexual exploitation of Eastern Europe, which in the last 20 years has become the capital of cheap sleaze. Visiting many post-Communist countries – and the further east you are, the worse it gets – one is showered with leaflets for gentlemen’s clubs, strip tease and peep shows. Their actions around the Poland-Ukraine Euro 2012 football tournament were especially important in drawing attention to the scale of the sex industry there. Provocative, painted in scary colours, on the streets of Warsaw they looked more like zombies than protesters. Virtually nobody else in Poland and Ukraine – least of all the authorities, too busy celebrating their “success” in the eyes of the West – seeemed bothered about the issue.

Shevchenko is, like many women her age, a child of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Ukraine was the industrial heartland of the USSR and so the collapse there was especially strongly felt. As Shevchenko herself told me, “People lost everything, their status, job, social assistance. My childhood is associated with cold water in winter time and no electricity in the town.” (Femen have regularly protested against cuts to hot water in Ukrainian towns and cities.)

“I remember that our parents tried to sell everything to have money to feed us. And of course this was a time when the system changed. Patriarchy appeared. The country was ruled by mafia men, women started to work as prostitutes, nearly the only job they could get.” Because of that, as Shevchenko explained to the Guardian after the revelation that Femen had been founded by a Viktor Svyatski, in Ukraine even anti-patriarchy actions were led by men.

“Life before the collapse was easier for all economically – men and women,” Shevchenko tells me. “It was the same for both genders. As Communism wasn’t [officially] sexist, our mothers could often earn more than our fathers, as they could have more knowledge in their field. This is what I was told by my parents. My mother always remembers how she was working and my father was taking care of me and my sister. This is hilarious to hear from a Ukrainian woman. The [current] reality doesn’t give you any reason to believe such a story.”

Suddenly, from the 1990s onwards, everything was for sale – precisely what Femen were set up to oppose. Yet not everyone agrees they have had splendid results in fighting patriarchy, and the group raise hackles among other Ukrainian feminists, not least when Shevchenko says things like “we brought feminism to Ukraine and in general to Eastern Europe.” The activist and art critic Liza Babenko appreciates their contribution, because it reveals “the real face of the Ukrainian government’s undemocratic regime”. But, she tells me, “I don’t think Femen can be considered a serious feminist group, with political feminist tasks and practical feminist achievements.”

According to Babenko, their protests have more impact outside Ukraine, because they are “censored” by the country’s media. “What’s more, women here are sexually objectivised and raped as it is exactly shown by Femen’s naked model girls.” Instead, says Babenko, women “need feminist help, education and information, but not a pop-show.”

Shevchenko is a talented media performer, yet when we speak I’m surprised at how often she repeats the same rhetoric: terms like “warriors”, “army”, “revolutionary” crop up again and again, as if she’s reeling off a script. But that’s what works – and she tells me about the group’s plans to expand. “After I ran away to France we set up ten [international] branches. I’m permanently in contact with them. Each of the actions is planned together from the French office with one of the national branches of Femen.” But she is quick to dismiss my suggestion that she’d be interested in a professional political career, “We are in professional politics, I’m a professional revolutionary. If you mean would I go for election – yes, one day.”

Along with Russian artist-activists like Pussy Riot or Voina, Femen are the most visible of the many protest groups that have emerged in Eastern Europe. They’re certainly one of the most photographed: apparently the group began by writing their slogans on their backs, but soon discovered journalists were more interested in their breasts, so they moved them there. Like many protest groups who choose shock tactics, they aim to manipulate the media, but they risk being the ones who are manipulated.

They clearly have problems with imagining the real effects of their work. When they have been beaten up by police – in Ukraine, or in Belarus, where three of their members were kidnapped and dumped in a forest by security services in 2011, after protesting at the re-election of Aleksandr Lukashenko – their suffering has been real, but to what purpose? In Ukraine, their actions have little effect on political decision-making, but they have at least forced topics ranging from the sex industry to corruption in the Orthodox Church into public debate where they were previously ignored.

Despite this, when I contact Tamara Zlobina, a Kiev-based feminist campaigner not connected with the group, she refuses to speak to me about them, as they have become “the only question interesting to Western journalists”. She continues: “I see a lot of unrecognised colonialism in such an approach – you know, the sexualised body of the savage, all that stuff.” That last point captures the way many Eastern European women feel about how they are viewed; not only at home, but also in the West, where the stereotype of the “mail-order bride” still prevails.

It would be unwise to dismiss Femen on the basis of their whiteness or “privilege” – a privilege that is hardly felt by most Ukrainian women. Shevchenko claims they still have “warriors” in Ukraine, but it’s hard not to think they have become a pseudo-organisation, a group whose media presence is far greater than their actual numbers or political effects. The Ukrainian or Russian politburos may still consider them a menace, but in France they are welcomed by the establishment.