Iana Zhdanova is part of the Ukrainian activist group Femen, seen here protesting in Kiev in 2010
Photo: FEMEN/Yaroslav Debelyi

The French high court has acquitted a Ukranian, feminist activist charged with “sexual exhibitionism” after carrying out a topless protest performance at a museum in Paris in 2014. The ruling, pronounced on 26 February, closes a case which has been causing consternation and division among French judges for the past six years.

In June 2014, Iana Zhdanova, who belongs to the Ukranian topless feminist group Femen, painted “kill Putin” on her breasts and stabbed a wooden stake into a wax model of the Russian leader at Paris’s Musée Grévin, breaking its head. Any woman who bares her breasts in public, regardless of her motivation—political, artistic or otherwise—can be charged with sexual exhibitionism punishable by one year in prison and a fine of up to €15,000, according to the French high court. In October 2014, Zhdanova was therefore charged for damaging museum property but also for sexual exhibitionism, and fined €1,500.

In January 2017, the court of appeal reduced the fine to €600, claiming that a woman showing her breasts “without any sexual intention” could not be liable to a charge of exhibitionism. The high court then annulled that judgement. But, in an extraordinarily rare move, the court of appeal openly contradicted this opinion, and again acquitted the Femen activist last December.

Now the French high court has found a way out of the impasse, ruling to acquit Zhdanova on the grounds that the ruling might have infringed on her “freedom of expression rights in a disproportionate way”, thus preventing the case being taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

The case, however, reiterates the ruling that any display of a woman’s breasts is liable to exhibitionism law “even without any trace of sexual connotation in the intent”. In a previous opinion in January, confirming the one-month suspended sentence of another Femen activist who revealed her breasts in a church, the court said “there is no doubt the breast is a sexual part of a woman’s body” and thus showing it in public in any circumstances is an offence against decency. 

Zhdanova’s lawyer, Marie Dosé, expressed her “frustration that the high court did not take this opportunity to change an archaic law”, which exposes women to prosecution for things like campaigning on posters for the prevention of breast cancer; artistic and theatrical performances that involve nudity; or simply sunbathing on the beach in St Tropez.





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