Femen declared last Thursday, 4 April 2012, "Topless Jihad Day," a response,
in support of Amina Tyler, a young Tunisian woman who has been targeted by Islamists after she put a bare-breasted picture of herself on her Facebook page in March with the words "Fuck Your Morals" and "My Body Belongs To Me, And Is Not The Source Of Anyone's Honour" painted across her chest.Tyler does need support; she has received death threats and is in fear for her life.
But, oh, Femen, the way you're going about this...
Look, I must admit that I am not a big fan of their topless protests, anyway. I understand something of their sentiment--in a world in which so many women are (a)shamed about our bodies, told what to do with them, how they should look, what is (in)decent, and held to a moral double standard, unflinchingly baring those bodies can be read as a resistive gesture.
But, for women like me, who are a product of that world, yes, but who are also a product of a history in which women who looked like me were commonly put on display as novelties, as scientific oddities, as evidence of the sexual grotesque, as a precursor to being sold into a life of forced sexual and manual labor, topless protests have no appeal.
They also have no appeal for many Muslimahs who "joined forces to protest against the work of Femen" via a Facebook page called "Muslim Women against Femen." And in response to their protest, Femen slipped into the old tried-and-true colonialist, racist, condescending methods of some white feminists.
There is, of course, backstory here. There is a history of white feminists assuming they know what's best for non-white or non-Western women, a history of their exceptionalizing the oppression of non-white, non-Western women in effort to position the Western world as "better"/"more advanced," to construct non-white and/or non-Western men as more-of-all-those-negative-stereotypes that characterize them in the Western world, and to render non-white and/or non-Western women as perpetual victims in need of liberation. Whatever the progressive strengths of white women's feminism, it has not escaped a legacy of ethnocentrism and privilege. There is also, with regards to perceptions of "the Islamic world," a fascination with and disdain for the practice of veiling. There is a narrative that insists that every woman who covers herself is forced to do so and lives a life of misery under an oppressive religion and domineering, murderous men.
And so we come to Femen, members of which looked at the Muslim Women against Femen page, looked at the declarations of Muslimah pride, the statements that some Muslimahs found liberation in covering themselves, did not perceive of themselves as oppressed, were not in need of rescue, and did not see baring of the body as liberating, and responded in the most appalling ways. For example, Femen leader Inna Shevchenko said, "They write on their posters that they don't need liberation but in their eyes it's written 'help me'. "
When I read that, my first thought, quite honestly, was that she sounded like a rapist: "Your mouth tells me one thing, but your eyes/your body/your actions say another." Shevchenko went on to say, "You know, through all history of humanity, all slaves deny that they are slaves."
I wish that were made up, I really do. Shevchenko's remarks are symbolic of the disconnect between many white feminists and other women. There is no actual engagement, no discussion, no validity placed on actual lived experiences, no consideration of cultural differences. Instead, there is a one-size-fits-all, we-know-what's-best-for-you-poor-dears approach that is infuriating, exclusionary, and, sadly, persistent. As Muslim Women Against Femen spokesperson Ayesha Latif mused, "We wonder how many Muslim women they have actually spoken to?"
Latif's comments highlight many of the issues non-white and/or non-Western have with organizations like Femen:
"The assumption they promote is that we are subjugated creatures controlled by men, who need to be liberated by a group of perfectly groomed white women posing nude and using shock tactics. "For them, the more you strip the more of a feminist you are - that's Western feminist ideology. That's not liberation for us, but that doesn’t make us anti-feminist.But in their narrow-mindedness, Femen cannot accept Latif's argument.
Shevchenko generously explains that, "We are proud to share progressive ideas for all over the world." But that "sharing" too often takes on a veneer of coercion--"Trust us; you need liberating and we are going to do it no matter what you say!" Shevchenko blithely asks, "Why do they have to cover their bodies?" but when Muslimahs give answers that indicate that they choose to do so, Femen ignores those answers.
That answer doesn't fit the script white feminists too often write for the "poor, oppressed, victimized WoC" character.