On September 13, in a town just north of Paris, two women jumped on stage at an Islamic convention about women and Islam. Once on stage, they exposed their bare chests — across which were written “Nobody makes me submit” and “I am my own prophet” — to an audience full of devout Muslims. The women were both of Tunisian origin and came from Muslim families. As intended, the two imams on stage appeared both panicked and dumbfounded, much like the rest of the audience.
The two women were affiliated with FEMEN, a militant feminist organization famous for its radical activism, which often involves exposed breasts as a protest tactic. Shortly after the incident, FEMEN leader Inna Shevchenko declared in a press interview, “It was our duty to interrupt this enslavement event and to let a scream of freedom be heard in the middle of their submission lessons.” At the time of the protest, however, the imams had reportedly been denouncing marital violence. This isn’t the only incident of its type that’s occurred between FEMEN protesters and Muslim audiences, and it has become the norm for each side to either vilify the other or acutely play the victim.
Representatives of FEMEN insist on “liberating women” from the oppression of religion, mainly Islam, and fighting sexism by whatever means possible. On the other hand, the common sentiment within Muslim circles is that FEMEN protests are carried out in a disrespectful and sacrilegious manner. Despite all the noise, the real focus of these protests, Muslim women, have been excluded from the discussion. The Paris FEMEN protest shows that the group often dismisses cultural sensitivity as inhibiting or unimportant. In reality, cultural awareness is key to the success of controversial causes. FEMEN, therefore, must reconsider its methods in order to include, rather than offend, the demographic they are attempting to help and support.
FEMEN originated in Ukraine in 2008 when a group of women wearing skimpy clothing, running makeup, and bright pink high heels protested the sex trade of Ukrainian women. In 2009, during a similar protest, one of the founding members went topless, generating an outpour of media attention. Going topless has since become FEMEN’s trademark protest method. The organization has grown to include international branches with over 300 “topless jihadists” — a title adopted by FEMEN activists — and around 150,000 supporters across the globe.
According to their stated mission, FEMEN activists use their bodies and sexuality to fight the patriarchy, calling themselves modern feminists and freedom fighters. Their motto is: “Sexism is a form of racism. Modern slavery is a crime.” FEMEN protests are known to turn ugly, and security forces and opposition groups often use excessive force against protesters. Then again, the protests aren’t intended to be pretty. In an interview with VICE, the group’s leader, Shevchenko, explained how the organization utilizes nudity and the female body as tools for political intimidation. She explained that “no one wants to listen to women, they only want to watch us. That’s why we tell them, ‘Look at me. But now, I am not smiling; I am not trying to please you. I am trying to make you scared.’” FEMEN has organized protests against sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious oppression, political corruption, and a variety of other causes related to the goal of advancing women’s rights. Yet FEMEN’s recent protests surrounding Islam’s treatment of women have exposed some of the more troubling aspects of its tactics.
Prior to the Paris event, a number of incidents had already soured the organization’s relationship with the Muslim community. Muslim women who felt personally offended by FEMEN’s aggressive, insensitive protests formed a Facebook group called Muslim Women Against FEMEN. Members of this group made it clear that FEMEN cannot speak in their name and does not represent their values and interests. After FEMEN’s 2013 International Topless Jihad Day, Muslim women from around the world denounced FEMEN’s message using #MuslimahPride on Twitter. In a photo on the Muslim Women Against FEMEN Facebook page, one of the organizers posed with a sign that read, “Nudity DOES NOT liberate me and I DO NOT need saving.”
By forcing their naked presence onto audiences in conservative Muslim circles, topless FEMEN protesters offend women who choose to live by the rules of their religion and cover their bodies in public. Perhaps more concerning, however, is the conflation of FEMEN protesters with Muslim women and the appropriation of the Muslim female voice. In its coverage of FEMEN protests, the media often portrays the protesters as representative of Muslim women and their beliefs. But FEMEN activists give a voice to Muslim women that doesn’t represent them, imposing Western values of feminism in a patronizing and culturally insensitive manner.
In some respects, FEMEN’s cultural insensitivity is just another form of Islamophobia. Muslim-American activist Ilana Alazzeh points to the organization’s use of stereotypical images like turbans and beards during protests as evidence of the group’s prejudice, adding that the concept of “International Topless Jihad Day” is racist and offensive. Pakistani-American feminist Farah Rishi remarks that although topless protests may seem effective in the West, the acts are perceived differently in the Muslim world, making it much less appropriate and less powerful as a tool for communication.
The recent FEMEN protest in France proves that, despite the pushback against FEMEN’s methods, the organization hasn’t done much self-reflection. This is not surprising given the group’s persistent savior complex. Shevchenko told the Muslim Women Against FEMEN group that “through all history of humanity, all slaves deny that they are slaves.” Furthermore, in response to the many Muslim women who reprimanded the patronizing manner in which FEMEN defended topless protesting, Shevchenko said, “They say they are against FEMEN, but we still say we are here for them. They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written: ‘Help me.’”
Shevchenko’s assumption is not only frustrating in its self-righteousness, but also dangerous. It is deaf to the voices of denunciation, which are coming from the most important participants in the discussion — Muslim women themselves. As Uzma Kolsy, a writer for The Atlantic, said, “When FEMEN’s free speech thwarts a woman’s freedom of religion, then they have become no better than the abusers they are protesting.”
As with many social justice causes, feminism is primarily defined through a Western lens. Despite the desire to do good, these movements can become insensitive to cultural, religious, ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, or geopolitical realities in other parts of the world. FEMEN’s interpretation of feminism is widely recognized, if not accepted, by the international community, in part thanks to the extensive media attention it receives. And while FEMEN’s members have the right to protest the injustices they perceive, their exclusionary tactics are both patronizing and counterproductive to realizing their goals.
FEMEN is not wrong when it insists that the method of topless protesting is an effective way to draw attention to issues of sexism and gender violence; it is true that FEMEN protests have brought such issues into the media spotlight. However, visibility should not come at the expense of Muslim women’s agency. “If FEMEN aimed to shed light on injustices against Muslim women like honor killings or gender-related violence,” Kolsy says, “They would have been better served putting their shirts back on, rolling up their sleeves, and supporting Muslim charities and social service organizations all over the world that are striving to remedy these social ills.”
As journalist Richard Sudan insightfully said, “FEMEN does not have a monopoly on feminism.” No single perspective can encapsulate an issue of social justice, especially when that issue is as universal and diverse as advancing women’s rights. Therefore, next time FEMEN wants to stand up for Muslim women, they should not presume to speak for them.
Art by Laura Weimer