One of the founders of the international feminist group Femen, Oksana Shachko, was found dead in her Paris apartment on Monday of an apparent suicide. According to a statement from one of her friends, she left a note, and this was her third attempt to commit suicide in the past two years.
“May you know her, may you respect her, may you never forget her,” Femen leader Inna Shevchenko said in an email to Yahoo Lifestyle. “Oksana Shachko: one of the most remarkable women of our time. One of the greatest fighters against the unjust world. Who fought hard against injustices of society, who fought hard for not only herself but for all women around the world.”
In her short life, Shachko, 31, made a name for herself as an activist and an artist. Along with Alexandra Shevchenko and Anna Gutsol, she first started Femen with a demonstration in their native Ukraine to protest the sexual exploitation of Ukrainian women by foreign men. From then on, their protests often involved the women going topless, with provocative statements emblazoned on their chests.
“We also used sexuality to prove our points and explained you didn’t have to be ashamed of your body as a woman,” Shachko explained in an interview with the French magazine Crash last year. “Our bodies were our weapons.”
Because they went topless and were willing to get arrested at protests, Femen’s members attracted headlines through the years. They protested against everything from sex tourism to limitations on a free press. They rallied against the prosecution of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot in Russia in 2012, just one of the occasions that they opposed Vladimir Putin’s regime. They also demonstrated against other leaders, for example former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (as shown in this video), and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. After speaking out against Lukashenko in 2011, Shachko was one of three women who said they were kidnapped by the KGB in Belarus and taken to the woods. There, agents allegedly cut their hair, forced them to strip off their clothes, and doused them with oil, threatening to set them on fire but instead leaving them there. They subsequently managed to make their way to a nearby village to seek help.
According to the Guardian, Shachko was also abducted and beaten in Ukraine during a visit to the country by Putin.
“We compare her to Joan of Arc,” Shachko’s mother said in the 2014 documentary I Am Femen. “She’s a real revolutionary, an incredibly strong girl.”
But by 2013, Shachko decided to emigrate, seeking refugee status in France. She continued her protests as part of Femen for another year, but in her interview with Crash, she explained why she didn’t believe she was a part of the group anymore.
“As an ideology it exists but as a structure it doesn’t exist anymore, because nobody really works on it,” she said. “From 2008 to 2013, me, Sasha, Anna, and later Inna, met every day. It took up all our life. We started speaking about women’s rights, and step by step we engaged in more political matters. We became more and more radical, and that led to being attacked by the government and the police. What we’ve been seeing for the last two or three years are activists who do three or four actions in the year and don’t work that well.”
In Paris, Shachko focused on her first passion, art. Since the age of 8, she had been trained in the art of religious iconography, and throughout her time in Femen, she used her artistic expression in her protests. Her later work combined those interests, with provocative feminist twists on traditional icons. She had her first solo show in Paris in 2016. In 2017, she told Crash that she was beginning to study at the École des Beaux-Arts.
“I really want to continue doing some activism, but I need to think about it and adapt it to today’s world,” she said.
In Femen’s statement, Shevchenko said that Shachko’s fight would continue.
“Oksana Shachko may have left us, [but] she is here and everywhere,” she said in her email to Yahoo. “Her courage, her dedication and her passion will be here. She is within each of us whom she stood beside. She is in FEMEN, which she, herself co-founded. She is in her paintings, through which she manifested her unprecedented artistic talent. Oksana is in the history of feminism.”
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