Feminism has been capturing headlines and front page photos around the world recently, but not in the manner you may expect. Pictures of topless protesters with incendiary slogans or images drawn on their chests have garnered much attention as the women marked ‘International Topless Jihad Day’ on April 4th with demonstrations in Britain, Germany, Australia, Sweden, France, Canada, Belgium, and Italy. Topless women in these countries gathered around mosques and Tunisian embassies, some with beards, turbans, the Islamic star and crescent, in protest of the firestorm created by the posting of topless photos to Facebook in which Tunisian student Amina Tyler appeared with the slogans “Fuck Your Morals” and “My Body Belongs To Me, And Is Not The Source Of Anyone’s Honour” written on her body. Organized by FEMEN (a feminist Ukrainian protest group founded in 2008, based in Kiev, and known for demonstrations on social issues including sexism, sex tourism, international marriage agencies, religious institutions, and the human rights violations and authoritarian practices of Putin’s Russia), the events have started an intriguing discussion on Islam and religion in relation to women’s rights as well as the issue of mainly European women protesting against issues in the Middle East. But is this shock tactic feminism effective in furthering issues of gender equity or is it simply making a scene with extremist action?
The group describes its movement as “a new ideology of the women’s sexual protest presented by extreme topless campaigns of direct action, FEMEN is sextremism serving to protect women’s rights, democracy watchdogs attacking patriarchy in all its forms: the dictatorship, the church, and the sex industry.” It is clear from this (information available on FEMEN’s English website) that the organization identifies as a ‘sextremist’ organization that is keen on attracting attention with their shock tactics. They continue to say, “FEMEN – is the new Amazons, capable to undermine the foundations of the patriarchal world by their intellect, sex, agility, make disorder, bring neurosis and panic to the men’s world. FEMEN – is the ability to feel the problems of the world, beat it with the naked truth and bare nerve. FEMEN – is a hot boobs, a cool head and clean hands. Be FEMEN – means to mobilize every cell of your body on a relentless struggle against centuries of slavery of women!”
This sort of rhetorical heavy handedness paired with their recent depictions of Islamic symbols in tandem with their nudity have been lightning rods for criticism. Particularly interesting has been the creation of a Muslim Women Against FEMEN Facebook page which features women holding signs with slogans rejecting the actions of FEMEN. Signs read: Nudity does not liberate me and I do not need saving as well as FEMEN, I am a strong woman, do I look like I need imperialists to free me from oppression? In many ways, the members of this group describe FEMEN with the same vocabulary FEMEN uses against its adversaries. That FEMEN has assumed the responsibility of speaking for these women in a manner in which they may not agree or for values they may not endorse has engendered a sense of resentment. At the crux of this seems to be the very manner in which FEMEN is communicating has become divisive, not necessarily the ideas they advocate. Few of the women in the Muslim Women Against FEMEN Facebook group seem to take issue with the principle issues surrounding women’s rights, but much more so with the commandeering of their voice, particularly in such a culturally different manner. Eline Gordst of the Huffington Post writes, “Pakistani-American feminist Farah Rishi pointed out that while protesting topless may seem an effective tool in a European context, the concept translates differently in the Middle East — making it perhaps not the most appropriate form to get across the message.”
Even with their radical rhetoric, FEMEN may occupy an important role as an agitator of sorts in the struggle for gender equity, but recent events show how problematic this is when applied across cultures. Protesting on behalf of another community while incorrectly and somewhat vulgarly using their identifiers has alienated the women meant to be served. Despite their intentions, FEMEN seems to have made a troublingly common mistake in appropriating Islamic imagery without its context and impressing Western values on an autonomous community. As we move closer to a global normalization of human rights, greater attention needs to be had for culturally contextualized communication.
UPDATE on Amina Tyler. It has been claimed (as of today) that Tyler was kidnapped by her family and heavily drugged while they performed a ‘virginity test’ on her, among other inappropriate personal offenses. She had released comments to the press over the past week which were responded to by FEMEN: “UPDATE: Femen has contacted Huffington Post UK with a response to Amina’s comments. They said: ‘It’s clear to us that she was not speaking freely. We know that she’s been constantly under the supervision of her family, and, as far as we know, they’ve been making her take some sort of anti-depressants, which could account for her halting speech. That Tyler incorrectly described Femen’s mosque protest proves to us that she has no independent access to the media. Her family is telling her things to make her stop her ‘playing around at being free.’ That she’s at home with her family in no way means she’s free or safe.'” Updates on the story have been regularly posted on Huffington Post to keep up with the evolving story.