Muslim Women Get Naked! Femen’s Topless Tactics and Muslim Women in France

Recently, Femen, the controversial Ukrainian feminist organization, has been established in France. Femen was founded in 2008 to protest sexism, patriarchy and violence while advocating for feminism. Its members became well-known for protesting naked against sexism, trafficking, religious institutions and sex tourism, among others.  The group, which has become internationally known, has also been able to gather members in some other countries in Europe.

The movement’s founder, Anna Hutsol, is an educated 28-year-old who created the organization to enable women to gain access to the public sphere in an environment where men are still favoured. For the members, Femen sets itself apart from traditional Western feminism in that they aim to advocate for a “real women’s revolution” where women do not have “to be like men” to be recognized in society.

Femen pursues many of its political goals by holding topless protests (although most of their members remain dressed). Femen has protested in a number of places, an important one included the Iranian embassy in Ukraine; there, Femen protested the possible execution of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. Likewise, its members have opposed the legalization of prostitution and sex tourism in Ukraine and they have demonstrated against Putin’s government.

Femen has now settled in France by invitation of some French feminists. What has been labeled as a “feminist boot-camp,” due to its goal of “training” women in a variety of areas including feminist ideologies (or what Femen considers to be “feminist”), now has its main office French in an area with a large immigrant Muslim community.

Femen’s slogans include things like “better naked than the burqa” or “Muslim let’s get naked,” so it’s not hard to imagine the reaction among some Muslim communities.  Rt.com suggests that Femen has the intention to encourage Muslim women to “strip” in order to be free. Femen has been associated with taking stands against Shariah and some Muslim governments, and seems to be inviting Muslim women to join the movement.

A Femen member at a protest. Via International Policy Digest.

While Femen’s approaches are not necessarily anything new or surprising at least in the Western world, everything is contextual. Topless protests may work wonders in some parts of Eastern Europe and France, but may not be welcomed in other environments. In addition to the issue of “getting naked” and encouraging Muslim women to take off their veils further shows lack of understanding among different feminist groups internationally.

As sad as it is, some feminists continue to preach that feminism can mean one thing and only one thing. They are reluctant to recognize the possibility that “being like men” or protesting topless are not every feminist’s dream.  Movements such as Islamic feminism (which is itself varied, and also has its problems and challenges) have demonstrated that Western feminism is not necessarily the answer for Muslim women because sometimes feminisms can even be Islamophobic as explored by Sharrae in an earlier post.

Furthermore, feminisms can be, and have been, exclusive in many contexts. Not recognizing the other’s need to find gender equality in different ways, or assuming that a certain level of covering or uncovering will be synonymous with equality, just serves to deny other women’s experiences and needs. Some feminists also takes for granted the idea that all Muslim women are the same and dress the same when in reality there is a wide variety; some wear hijabs and niqabs while others enjoy going topless, not because Western feminists have rescued them, but because is their own choice.

In an environment like France where many feminists, including Muslim ones, insist that taking a woman’s clothes off (i.e. niqabs and hijabs) means freedom, Femen just comes along to perpetuate the lack of understanding.

Besides, sometimes some feminists’ comments on the “Muslim question” of gender just make me roll my eyes… who told them that all Muslim women need another Western advocate to take their clothes off? Why do we continue to put emphasis on the clothing? Does it necessarily make us freer or more oppressed?

Whereas I respect Femen’s attempt to lead some kind of feminist advocacy, I am skeptical of the possibilities that this brings to Muslim women in France and world-wide. Reading things like “Better naked than the burqa” just sparks the sarcasm in me and make me think “Really????”

  • Oksana

    Oh, ladies – please, please, don’t equate FEMEN to anything Ukrainian or feminist! They are a marginal group of ignorant women, who are mainly despised in Ukraine itself.

    They don’t even deserve a review in such an esteemed publication as yours, honestly. Whatever they are protesting against Muslim women is done just for the sake of controversy. Same thing was for sex trafficking in Ukraine. Their protests actually increased the prostitute image of Ukrainian women, rather than contribute to solving the issue.

    They are pathetic, long story short :)

  • Eren Cervantes

    Thanks for your comment Oksana! I think it is still important to acknowledge the challenges that Femen will pose for Muslim women for two reasons. First, Femen is very well-known in the media. Whether it is only for the sake of morbid interest in nudity or for the sake of showing them as “feminist” they are everywhere! Second of all, now they are in France. The issues arising from French pro-secular public policies are further supported by the kind of “feminists” that invited Femen to establish in France in the first place. Furthermore, I think that the choice of location in itself is quite provocative. I never intended to show Femen as the representation of Ukrainian feminist because I am completely aware of the flaw in such a thing!

  • Marzipan

    It’s so much easier to criticize “Western” feminists. So much harder to look within. Especially when your identity is tied up first not as women but as adherents of one of the most patriarchal ideologies ever invented by man.

  • Chris

    “Their protests actually increased the prostitute image of Ukrainian women, rather than contribute to solving the issue.”

    Oksana, while I have my own inner feminist battle (many, thereof, actually) with Femen, I disagree with this strongly. In the German hosted Football championship (2006, I believe), women were sexually exploited in manifold and disgusting ways. Firstly, several “etablissement” advertisements, normally not so public, were subject to criticism (they clearly advertised women as another commodity to buy for the football fan). Secondly, the “safe boxes” became notorious.Tight plastic installations that resembled construction-site plastic toilet where prostitutes would be waiting for clients and their business. Thirdly, women were provenly trafficked for prostitution from several Central, Eastern and Southeastern states in the thousands, where it is hard to estimate how many were coerced, how many offered sexual services voluntarily (and how easy is it to speak of voluntarism when dire economic need for many is another form of coercion). Femen – unlike German feminists and women’s issues advocates – at least did something very loud and very public to shame these practices. Germany had dry criticism in the media. Polite commentary. Educated interviews of women in suits (or other forms of covering dress). These issues just slipped off public conscience like a soap in the wet shower. Femen’s protest *stuck*. “Ukraine is not a brothel” shouted by angry women (topless, yes, but trully angered and loud and uncomfortable) sticks to public conscience to this day. This made me think – I may be uncomfortable with parts of their ideology, I may be uncomfortable with their means in part. It does work in a certain way, though, and for that more power to them. Generally, I find it unfortunate feminists and women’s issues advocates are so bitterly divided as you demonstrate with your comment about how Femen are despised in Ukraine and amongst Ukrainian women. Firstly, I am not sure how true that is as a saying. They do have a following and new recruits many other feminist circles dream of, don’t they? Secondly, why the harshness when one does not agree. Blowing into the same horn, somewhat, like the author: Feminism isn’t streamlined. It has so much diversity. So many of us will disagree. On feminisms that believe men and women are trully equal. On feminisms that believe men will be men, and women will be women. On feminisms that reject all patriarchal traditions. On feminisms that find traditions gave them rights. It is necessary to say one disagrees and finds viewpoints contradictory. I will always disagree it is feminist to adopt biologist dress codes. I will always disagree it is liberating to show one’s breasts when there is a male-dominated industry the furthest away from women’s liberation that brought pornography into the mainstream. It is important to acknowledge, though, that while I do not consider these routes feminist, others do. And while disagreement and criticism of mutual viewpoints should be welcomed by all sides, and can be a friendly thing, I think it is all the more important to keep despise and hostility out of the way. It is just too sad feminists get caught in the grind of hostile interaction and mutual distancing with relatively like-minded fellow feminists rather than tackling the real issues.
    (And not to forget this does not even take into account the nationalist reflex- where the reputation of the country or the community takes precedence over women’s issues.)

  • Oksana

    Yes, perhaps, I am harsh in critisizing them and perhaps in Germany they made a difference, but I merely judge by their results – point 1. I live abroad and it deeply offends me that many people still see us as prostitutes. Not everyone of course, but way too many. Nowadays, its not just the “aah” sound they make when they hear that I am from Ukraine. They also always bring up Femen with a laugh and winky smile. That’s not what the intention was. I agree that at first FEMEN was quite respected by our women. I am strongly anti sowing your boobs but even I was glad that they voiced strong opinions. But nowadays, they just stage protests, clearly government supported, while other protests are often repressed. Perhaps, the inner politics are also adding up to my judgement. But when they bring more harm, than good – at least in Ukraine, I have no reasons to like them or respect them

  • http://paknews.pk Azhar

    Title of this post is very interesting and looks biased

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Interesting post, thank you Eren for writing about this. I wasn’t aware about Femen’s activities in France. And thank you Oksana and Chris for offering diverse perspectives on Femen and its impact. I believe that what any organization needs to understand that what may work in certain circumstances and what they may be able to successfully bring attention to in some cases (like the German football prostitution business) may not always work in other cases.

  • Melinda

    “Topless protests may work wonders in some parts of Eastern Europe and France, but may not be welcomed in other environments.”

    Is this for real? lol, I reeeeally doubt that topless protests “work wonders” in Eastern Europe, and though I don’t know anything about France, I’m ~pretty sure~ sure it’s the same story there.


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