Boobies and Other Issues: What Is at Stake with FEMEN?

Last October, I wrote a post discussing FEMEN’s tactics to “liberate” Muslim women in France. Since then, FEMEN has hit the media again with their International Topless Jihad Day campaign, which was said to be in support of Amina Tyler, who despite her association with FEMEN has condemned  the burning of Islamic symbols and the insults against Islam that went on during the demonstrations. (In addition, it is worth asking if Tyler got anything out of these protests or if her image was just used by FEMEN to advance a different agenda.)

FEMEN’s International Topless Jihad Day. [Source].

FEMEN’s tactics do not bring anything new to the arena. The group has protested in a variety of settings using the now famous “booby tactic” where they display their breasts or dress up in provocative outfits. While it seems that FEMEN is more show than action or real change, the International Topless Jihad Day got a lot of media attention, but also some great responses that outlined everything that is wrong about FEMEN’s attitude towards Islam and Muslim women.The reactions within Muslim groups have varied. While there are a few articles out there that make it into a debate of nakedness vs. modesty, equating one with freedom or lack thereof (here, here and here), I feel that it is very important to look at the issue from different angles.

I personally believe that the issue with FEMEN has nothing to do with hijabs or naked breasts. FEMEN is not the first or the last group using nudity to provoke the public, and I think that there are bigger things to get upset about, rather than them protesting naked or calling for Muslim women to do so.There are several things that bother me about FEMEN, including the media attention that they have received in the past days. And even though some may argue that addressing FEMEN’s actions gives them more attention, I think it is important to highlight the issues raised by this group. In my opinion, their presence in the media should be questioned, critiqued and ultimately contested. So, in this post I will try to make my very long list of things that bother me about FEMEN short and sweet.

Muslim Women Against FEMEN. Via Facebook.

The first thing that troubles me is the assumption that they represent women. FEMEN protesting in the name of “oppressed Muslim women” resembles imperialist ideas which were invoked post-9/11 (who can forget that Bush was out to liberate women in Afghanistan?). This is something that, to some degree, has been articulated by Muslim Women against FEMEN. This group has encouraged Muslim women around the globe to take pictures of themselves with messages that show a variety of experiences within Islam. While I think it is important to acknowledge that any religious system (Islamic or not) can be oppressive, I think this group makes a good start by highlighting the ways in which some Muslim women experience their own liberation.

Another thing that is problematic for me about FEMEN is their idea of “freedom.” Not many articles discussing FEMEN challenge their views on freedom. Some seem to be more interested in the nudity while others just seem to assume that freedom is a universal concept. Luckily, the The Feminist Wire has a great article that problematizes FEMEN’s definition of “freedom” and the ways in which FEMEN has attempted to impose its particular views on freedom on other women.

FEMEN’s tactics also present familiar questions about race and agency. In other words, FEMEN is the old tale of the Western women rescuing the non-Western because they are free and we are not. Whereas FEMEN has included women from non-white backgrounds and from different countries, their discourses on nudity and freedom and the way they are trying to impose them are very hegemonic and still Western-led. Maryam Kazeem further explores FEMEN as the reflection of imperial feminism that has found its way into the Middle East and North Africa. While  boobies do not bother me as much, this really does… what gives a group of mainly Western women the right to tell the rest of world what WOMEN (as a general category) need? Are we all the same? Don’t we have agency to decide our particular needs? On this matter, an article by Roqayah Chemseddine resonates with me, as she explains:

“In terms of the mounting questions in regards to how one is to raise awareness in light of such groups as FEMEN: you raise awareness by highlighting native voices, not co-opting them. It is your duty to amplify, not commandeer.”

The other thing that has happened since FEMEN entered the picture is that the already contested term of “feminism” has become more embattled. Whereas FEMEN identifies itself as “the new feminism,” many of us might cringe at such a statement.  I really hope that people out there recognize that feminism is not monolithic and FEMEN’s idea of feminism is by no means widely accepted or practiced.  In that regard, an older article titled “There is a wrong way to do feminism and FEMEN is doing wrong” helps by drawing the line between feminism and the tactics and discourses that FEMEN has disseminated, which have angered not only Muslim women but also feminists across the board. Another piece that really tackles the issue of feminism and FEMEN is Sara M. Salem’s piece, which points at the neocolonial undertones present in FEMEN’s rhetoric.

Muslim women against FEMEN. [Source].

Finally, what makes me sad about the whole thing is that FEMEN seems to know little about Islam or Muslim women and their battles within.  Not only have they burnt Islamic flags during their protests and posed topless wearing long beards and turbans, but they also use the stereotypical idea of helpless veiled Muslim women in the harem in their rhetoric. For instance, FEMEN’s leader Inna Shevchenko made the following statements in a letter toMuslim Women against Femen:

“Write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me.’”

“You say you live the way you want. Being the fifth wife in a harem, the maximum you can be is the favourite wife right?”

“And you can put as many scarves as you want if you are free tomorrow to take it off and to put it back the next day but don’t deny millions of your sisters who have fear behind their scarves, don’t deny that there are million of your sisters who have been raped and killed because they are not following the wish of Allah! We are here to scream about that.”

Well… really? Islam is not monolithic. There are Muslims in nearly every country in the world and we are very different. Yes, patriarchy and misogyny exist among Muslims, just as they exist elsewhere. However, Muslim women have contested them in diverse ways, from Islamic feminism and scholarship to reclaiming sacred spaces and fighting for women’s constitutional rights in many countries. These are things that FEMEN does not acknowledge and likely does not understand.

Challenges remain everywhere in the world. Patriarchal systems exist and many women live within and even participate in them. However, all women are different and many of us would agree that we do not need a united front composed by women that favour hegemonic and imperialist understandings of freedom and feminism protesting naked in our name. We can advocate for our causes and we can decide, by our selves, how our freedom will look like. Freedom, feminism and agency are not a choice between boobies and hijabs.

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  • damon

    The hegemony here is Islamic fundamentalism. Sure, FEMEN is engaged in a stunt, but if you accept the notion that women (a universal cultural category – every culture has ‘em) are subjugated, you cannot decouple some women because they are living in a place where you are not and live in a system of beliefs that ascribes the holiest words to a different man from the people around you. To avoid the issue by calling it imperialism leads to the reductio ad absurdum of you only being able to talk about yourself because, after all, everyone is different. And I challenge you to show anyone where the line is between one culture and another.

  • Tec15

    Calling out imperialism is apparently “reductio ad absurdum” but claiming that “The hegemony here is Islamic fundamentalism”, without any elaboration is what? Brave, principled truth telling or the laughably cliched, self serving, conventional wisdom that is reliably spouted by every Western concern troll with access to a keyboard.

    Apart from that, I cannot understand what point Damon is trying make with his portentous, incomprehensible warbling, or if he even has any deeper point than “LOL ISLAM IS TOTES THE PROBLEM, LOL.” As is the case with almost every other Western online commentators on this subject, I strongly doubt it.

  • Tec15

    BTW, I see that nothing is said about the fact that FEMEN were not merely burning “Islamic symbols” but were actually protesting in front of mosques in Western countries while dressed as racist caricatures. What does a mosque in Paris or San Francisco have with FEMEN’s ostensible reason for protesting? If people were protesting in front of synagogues against oh, say usury or circumcision while wearing fake hook noses and beards, the Western press would be a lot less sanguine than it is now calling it open, plain bigotry. As it is this should expose them for good as the self serving publicity hungry Islamophobes they are, but some people will still give them the benefit of the doubt and act like they even have any arguments worth pondering or grappling with.

    (And seriously MMW, are you again linking to Pamela Geller and equating her views to that of anti-FEMEN Muslims? Seriously WTF?)

  • bonfire

    I don’t think there is any “avoidance” of the issue here. The “prescription” which the musguided “feminists” of Femen have come up with and which they are so intent on forcefully administering is not acceptable. And it is “imperialism” because it would seem that if you are born in a certain geographical area of the world, you somehow become an authority on everyone else’s rights, you somehow come to represent the “universal” and anyone who might dare to disagree with your definition is deemed an ignorant “fundamentalist”.

  • macavitykitsune

    “Write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me.’”

    Well, that’s…impressively creepy. I wonder how FEMEN protesters would feel if someone said “Write on their posters that they don’t want to be raped but in their eyes it’s written ‘fuck me’” ? Because this is exactly the same thing, assuming that women say “no” when they mean “yes”.

    And…holy fuck that’s just creepy.

  • Chris

    Thank you for presenting such a well-rounded view of Femen criticism. The idea that Femen are actually being criticized by Western feminists has unfortunately been lost in translation in much of the media hype.
    This is an excellent piece, in French, titled “Femen everywhere, feminism nowhere”:

    @Damon The hegemony I personally see in Femen’s actions is patriarchy. And women deluding themselves to be “free” whilst complying with what this patriarchy loves them to do. In that article above, the most revealing mention for me is when a refugee protester in Berlin asks a reporter furiously “Do you want me to get naked??”, and the reporter immediately ensures he’d then be back with a photographer.

  • Mareli

    This reminds me of the bra-burning and silliness over words like history (herstory) and freshman (freshperson) when the real issues were pay equity, health care and upward mobility. Feminism in the west was hindered by such foolishness also, which only helped those who were trying to hold us back. The concern should not be whether or not women wear hijab but whether or not doing so is their own personal choice.