Femen’s ‘Topless Jihad’ does not liberate all women

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Author: Haley Gray

Amina Tyler is biding her time, waiting in a family home. She has remained out of the public eye since members of her family found and kidnapped her in a cafe in Tunis. She’s hiding in fear for her personal safety – she suspects police will rape her if found. She wants to move away from her home country, Tunisia.

In mid-March, Tyler posted two topless photos of herself on Facebook with the messages “Fuck Your Morals” and “My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honor,” painted on her bare upper body.

The move emulated protests by Femen, a Ukranian-based feminist movement, self-described as “scandal-famous” for its topless protests aimed at “[undermining] the foundations of the patriarchal world,” according to the group’s mission statement. Femen was established in 2008 when it primarily protested sex tourism and the marriage industry in Ukraine. Femen’s signature tactic is topless public protest: slogans hand-painted in black and white ink on the women’s bare upper bodies, crowns of flowers and ribbons.

Why bare-breasted protests? By taking their tops off, they explain, they reclaim control of their bodies in a patriarchal world in which men still have authority over the female form.

Inspired by Femen’s movement, Tyler founded a Tunisian branch of Femen just a month before posting the pictures. In one she looks at the camera head-on, appearing only slightly amused, middle fingers in the air. In the other she is reclining in a black leather chair, bright red lips pursed, a book in one hand and a smoking cigarette in the other.

The move provoked huge controversy in her home country. Tyler has been threatened by religious clerics with death by stoning and more. Foreign Femen activists expressed their solidarity with Tyler by flying to Tunisia and staging topless protests in front of mosques and diplomatic missions. One image from the protests shows a topless woman with the star and crescent symbol of Islam painted on her bare breasts, a fake beard taped to her face and a green towel wrapped around her head.

What began as a brave movement for women’s liberation has devolved into an Islamophobic mess, something Tyler has sought to dissociate herself from.

Femen has crossed the line.

“They didn’t insult a certain kind of Muslim, the extremists, but all Muslims,” Tyler told French TV channel Canal+.

Femen has launched a new campaign: Topless Jihad. Activists are now (toplessly) attacking patriarchy in Islam. They want to liberate Muslim women from cultural and religious standards of modesty, from the hijab and from their oppressive male counterparts.

The blogosphere is a abuzz with criticisms of Femen’s ignorant, misinformed campaign against Islam. Twitter is ringing with criticism of Femen. Muslim women, hijabii and non-hijabiii, are expressing their #MuslimPride, speaking out against Femen and Femen’s tactics. Some take issue with Femen’s use of nudity on the grounds that is not culturally appropriate for Tunisia; some feel their tactics only reinforce objectification of women. Many point out that Femen’s tactics also reek of imperialism: white, Western women intervening in the Muslim world to save the poor, non-white muslimahs.

Femen’s campaign is a crude attack on a whole religion it does not belong to and, frankly, it does not understand. It does reek of imperialism. And it is a huge blemish on the history of feminism.

The most common #MuslimPride slogan from Muslim women on Twitter is “Nudity does NOT liberate me, and I DO NOT need saving.”

Empowered women can choose to take their body into their own control in different ways. Femen needs to realize that there are as many reasons to cover or not to cover as there are women, including Muslim women. Femen’s “jihad” against the patriarchy of Islam, their gaudy protests and crass political cartoons, are born of ignorance and arguably Islamophobic.

Femen isn’t wrong in asserting that societies across the globe have dictated uneven terms when it comes to one’s sovereignty over one’s own naked form. We don’t care nearly as much about naked men as we do about naked women. Particularly in the West, we don’t mind when men take their shirts off in public, but if a woman does we think that by doing so she is degrading herself. It’s a double standard that speaks to deeper sexual inequality between men and women.

But public modesty and Islam are not the problems. Women’s rights are the problem. This includes the right to dress in whatever manner one feels is empowering.

While studying abroad in Amman last semester, my Jordanian friend, a very sweet Muslim girl, explained to me why she chooses to wear the hijab and dress modestly. “I feel more confident,” she told me. “When I talk to people, I want them to see my mind, not my body.”

All women today live in a world where our bodies do, in some sense, belong to a greater cultural order. Sexual objectification of women rears its ugly head in different ways, in every culture, under all forms of government and in every religious context.

I applaud Femen’s initial protests. The group has bravely sparked an important conversation about where the female body fits into society and culture. They have taken their bodies into their own hands for their own liberation to challenge patriarchy, as all women must.

But their campaign against Islam is a serious misstep. It is born from ignorance of Islam and Islamic culture, and it is not serving women in the muslim world. Femen must acknowledge that the fight against oppressive patriarchy must be carried out differently in different contexts.

Haley Gray is a junior DWA major. She can be reached at grayh@oxy.edu.

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