I discovered FEMEN a couple of years ago while watching feminism-related YouTube videos. This was before the “topless Jihad” anti-Islamist explosion. At the time they were just a local Ukrainian group fighting local issues. They were topless early on and “sextremism” has been with FEMEN since conception. But they weren’t battling sexually restrictive morality. Quite the opposite. They were campaigning against “sex tourism.” They wanted tighter control imposed on presently illegal prostitution. Their tactic was to dress and stage scenes playing prostitutes, except on their bodies they displayed messages such as, “Ukraine is not a vagina.” And “Not for sale.” When asked in interviews about the incongruence of this, they insisted that they were empowered because they chose to present this way as protest instead of doing it to feed into patriarchy. Most were left unimpressed. I was left ambivalent. While the seemingly sex-positive, bold form of protest appealed to me, I was puzzled by the contradiction of the sex-negative, anti-choice message it actually conveyed – condemning all sex work. I wrote it off as something that stemmed from local conditions. In some interviews it was explained that the economic conditions for young women in Ukraine can be dire and so this line of work is never really a choice but rather an economic necessity. Still, I failed to see how keeping it illegal, without any protections for the sex workers, would help anything. It seems a more wholistic approach is called for – addressing the economic conditions, creating MORE choices, not less. Not to mention, the very thing that perpetuates sex trafficking is keeping prostitution illegal.
And yet, the idea of topless protest – reclaiming your own body in such an unapologetic way – resonated with me. I thought, maybe they’ll evolve.
Now we find ourselves in the aftermath of the Arab Spring – full on into the disillusionment phase – as any revolution goes, and I’m hearing Middle Eastern feminists talk of having been ignored in this spring, while being called traitors to the movement. It seems in the loud mess that was the revolution the Islamists have gained momentum.
So here comes FEMEN, with their less-than-culturally sensitive calls to Muslim women to “get naked.” Is it offensive? It depends on who the audience is. If the audience is a Muslim woman in the “free world” as we like to say – it is, no doubt, offensive. Every individual has a right to claim his/her agency. Who are FEMEN to deny it? But if the audience is an individualistically minded modern young woman like Amina Tyler, stuck in a repressive culture which waves the liberal flag post-Arab-Spring, given Tunisia’s relatively secular status compared to other Arab nations – the message is spot on. Indeed Amina was inspired by FEMEN to start a Tunisian branch. She went completely against the grain of her upbringing, while essentially being declared insane, and did exactly what FEMEN proposed – got naked to assert her autonomy. The response of Sharia proponents calling for a stoning but even more so the response of her own family demonstrated exactly why this protest was needed. Amina was held against her will by the family, her actions tightly controlled. She was drugged, forced to read the Quran, beaten and checked for virginity. She was extorted to make false statements denouncing FEMEN which she later recanted after having escaped. All this was of course to “protect her” as her mother claimed in an interview. Her family did not abduct Amina, she said. They were just protecting her! Get it? Protecting her from herself – herself thinking that her body belonged to her. So when we talk about these “liberal” Islamist nations like Tunisia, which happens to be the birthplace of the Arab Spring – the laws may be liberal enough. But there is a discipline method stronger than law that all conservative ideology relies on – that’s familial pressure – its extreme forms being perceived as normal in the eyes of society. The fear of being ostracized by family may be stronger than even the fear of law enforcement. This is why it is naive to assume that all Hijabi Muslim women choose to wear a Hijab. In many cases they only choose it in as much as they choose to conform and not be shunned by their family. It is therefore misguided to see Islamist countries with relatively lax laws as liberated and not needing a movement of women reclaiming their body.
In her communication with FEMEN after her escape, Amina was adamant about one thing – doing another topless protest before seeking asylum outside of Tunisia. I think we can safely say Amina was not broken and did not renounce FEMEN. It also seems fair to say she was acting of her own volition and not being a puppet to FEMEN used for their own agenda, as some critics have callously assumed, being how proactive she has been. (Who is denying Arab women’s agency now?!) So As much as FEMEN’s lack of sensitivity might have pissed off women who feel they are freely choosing to be Muslim to whatever degree they want, they also inspired some radical action in places that needed it.
Amina was of course not the first Arab woman to do a nude protest. In 2011, Egyptian Alia Elmahdi posted nude pictures of herself on her blog as a statement of body positivity and self-expression in no seeming connection with FEMEN. She also simultaneously led a campaign encouraging men to don a hijab as a recognition of women’s issues in the Middle East. Can I say Feminist Spring? Alia’s naked protest was met with major criticism from both right and left and she was disowned by the youth movement that worked to overthrow Mubarak – a clear-cut example of the Arab Spring’s betrayal of women and feminism. The movement had distanced itself from Alia in a diplomatic attempt to essentially pander to the conservative right. The political-expediency-over-ideology mentality displayed so early on in a movement that calls itself a revolution is disappointing to say the least. Alia wrote in her blog:
“Try the nude models who worked in art faculties in the 1970s, hide art books and destroy nude artifacts, then strip and look at yourselves in the mirror and burn your bodies which you hate so you can rid yourselves of your complexes before directing your racist insults at me.”
In December 2012 Alia joined forces with FEMEN to protest naked outside of the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm, with snow on the ground. The words on her body read, “Sharia is not a constitution.” Alia was promptly threatened to be stripped of her citizenship for “violating religious sensibilities of the Egyptian people.”
Such reactions to nude protest in themselves demonstrate the need for them. But Alia and Amina are not only criticized by their own. They are an easy target for western feminists as well. Mona Chollet completely misses the point in The Fast-food Feminism of the Topless Femen, advising Amina and Alia to take a better look at their “mentors.” She seems unaware of the fact that Alia started her nude activism prior to any connection with FEMEN and was not imitating them. Both women are revolutionaries in their own right acting on their own behalf. This criticism is focused around the idea that taking one’s top off is an easy way to shock the audience into listening but ultimately a cheap trick. The criticism is of course coming from a western perspective where shock value indeed has a place. However in its cultural context, what these women did was courageous and symbolically potent and by no means a cheap trick. In fact they paid dearly for it. Many people have questioned the validity of “using the body as a billboard” – allegedly using the lure of their bodies to draw attention to their message, thus invalidating the message of women who are not exposing themselves. I object to this phrasing. These women are not using their bodies as a billboard for an extraneous message. Their exposed bodies, exposed by choice, ARE the message.
Despite these sex-positive efforts, FEMEN remains adamant about its anti-sex-industry position, making itself an ideological contradiction – “My body belongs to me” applies to all women, except those who partake in the sex industry. In this recent video FEMEN assaults a stripper at a porn convention, pushing her off to the side to make room for a protest with slogans like “Go rape yourself!” and “Suck dick of patriarchy!” All this was done while topless on stage with lots of cameras snapping. The obvious irony and arrogance in this is disappointing. But let’s remember that Alia and Amina have nothing to do with this.
And yet western criticism of FEMEN largely misses their anti-sex-industry stance. They are mainly criticized for two things: 1. their lack of cultural sensitivity (understandably so) and 2. their chosen form of protest. The latter stems from a largely anti-sex-industry standpoint. Radical Feminist Meghan Murphy of Feminist Current writes in her There is a Wrong Way to Do Feminism and FEMEN is Doing it Wrong:
“Shevchenko … uses the same old tired “we’re playing with objectification” crap that the third wave/burlesque/stripping-is-empowering-if-I-choose-to-do-it has been trying to push on us through a veil of postmodernist jargon as of late.”
Of course it is clear from this excerpt that the author ironically has no idea about FEMEN’s anti-sex-industry stance, which she would agree with. Clearly this stance is so incongruous with FEMEN’s form of protest that many are confused. As a result FEMEN is ripe for criticism from both directions.
Incidentally, in another post seething about FEMEN’s boobs, Meghan seals her radfem allegiance with this nauseating quote from the Radfem Hub:
“You can measure the degree of feminism of an action by how men react to it, and if men collectively cheer and celebrate it, then you can be pretty sure there’s something wrong about it, or that it doesn’t somehow support our liberation from men.”
But let’s get past this contradiction and talk about the other criticism – the cultural insensitivity, sometimes referred to as imperialism or even racism. As I mentioned earlier, this is a valid point. Calling Muslim women to “get naked” is most definitely arrogant and insulting from the perspective of women who CHOOSE to be Muslim. And yet we must be careful not to dismiss the efforts of Middle Eastern women like Amina and Alia who chose to jump on board, and in the case of Alia, preceded FEMEN’s involvement in the region with her own nude protest. They are preaching to no one and are speaking for themselves only, responding to the constraints of THEIR culture. Dismissing them as manipulated by FEMEN, too radical for their context, etc. is indeed arrogant, paternalistic, insensitive and reeks of the comfort of a first world bubble. Whether this form of protest is effective or too radical for its time and place is an arguable question the answer to which is relative to many things. Its effectiveness depends on its ability to galvanize a generation. If one person does it – it’s shocking to most, heroic to a few – it starts a discussion. If more people do it – it gains momentum and becomes contagious. If enough people do it, it shifts the status quo.
Oppressive power only exists on the foundation of a common consensus to uphold and respect that power. When this consensus is shaken in many people’s minds simultaneously the oppressive force, be it a regime or even just an unquestioned mentality, has no feet to stand on. The problem most of the time is that each individual by him/herself can’t do much and assumes that everyone else is still toeing the line. It would take a coordinated decision for everyone at the same time to stop toeing the line in order to undermine the oppression. But who is brave enough to be the first to act despite the agreed upon silence? Alia Elmahdi and Amina Tyler, that’s who! This blogger disagrees and points out how impractical and even harmful to women’s rights these actions are due to their not being “culturally appropriate.” She writes:
“As a woman who was raised Muslim within a Western country, I can relate somewhat to Amina’s predicament. It is unbearably suffocating to be intellectually free whilst physically bound by social and religious mores that you just don’t agree with.
But it is unfortunate that Amina chose Femen as the outlet for her outrage at her oppression. The tactics of that particular group, dubious even in the West, do not translate to societies that have progressed along the lines as those in the Middle East.”
Then she proceeds to dismiss Amina’s actions as not her own, as she wasn’t really thinking for herself – FEMEN was doing it for her. As for Alia Elmahdi’s 2011 nude pictures, she writes:
“In such a sexually repressed society, what benefit could her actions serve other than to be used as a warning by opportunistic clerics over where Western-style freedoms will lead? Nude protest is so far off the grid in Islam it is just too easy to dismiss.”
Let’s backtrack here. Ruby, admits to being a “Muslim woman raised in a Western country.” She has enough decency and compassion to empathize with Amina’s and Alia’s oppression. And yet, from her removed, privileged position, she judges their actions unwise and inappropriate. Of course Amina and Alia are speaking for themselves as representatives of their own culture. Someone who grew up in a Western country, Muslim or not, is in no position to judge what is appropriate for the Middle East, at least not more so than someone who grew up in the Middle East. Weren’t the suffragists “far off the grid”? Wasn’t Alice Paul declared insane? If Amina is a product of her environment, which she is fed up with, who is to say many other women who are also products of the same environment don’t feel the same and aren’t waiting for someone to help them rise?