“Femen positions women of the region as veiled and oppressed by their men as opposed to the enlightened and liberated women of the west who live in a developed and superior society where they have the “freedom” to remove their clothes.
This is another discussion that runs around the feminist blogosphere from time to time (see, for example, when Sarkozy banned the veil and George Bush II started citing women’s rights as the reason for invading Afghanistan). Nobody believed him (Bush), of course, but the problem of imposing Western values on non-Western women (because they’re Western and must, therefore, be the Right Way To Do Things) never seems to go away. And by that I mean that we’re still doing it.
Another week, another heated debate over the tactics and language used by the feminist protest group Femen, which last Thursday launched an International Topless Jihad Day. The group, started in Ukraine, uses topless protest as a way to raise the profile of women’s rights. The day of action was called in response to threats received by a Tunisian Femen activist, Amina Tyler, for posting topless pictures of herself on Facebook.
With slogans such as “nudity is freedom” and statements such as “topless protests are the battle flags of women’s resistance, a symbol of a woman’s acquisition of rights over her own body“, Femen claims the removal of clothes in public as the key indicator of the realisation of women’s rights and the most effective type of activism. Everything else is seen as not radical enough and failing anyway. By these standards, countries in north Africa and the Middle East and communities from those countries living in Europe are seen to be falling far short.
It argues that it is “transforming female sexual subordination into aggression, and thereby starting the real war” by “bare breasts alone”. Using your naked body can be a legitimate form of a protest of last resort – there is a long history of using naked protest and the threat of it outside Europe. However, the way it has been used by Femen feeds into and reinforces a racist and orientalist discourse about the women and men of north Africa and the Middle East. With statements such as “as a society, we haven’t been able to eradicate our Arab mentality towards women“, Femen positions women of the region as veiled and oppressed by their men as opposed to the enlightened and liberated women of the west who live in a developed and superior society where they have the “freedom” to remove their clothes.
We know this is not true. Black women (and I’m using black as a political term to denote shared and continued experiences of racism and colonisation) are not all (and only) oppressed and black men are not all oppressors. Women in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand do not live in a feminist utopia. There continue to be active and vibrant women’s rights movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The feminist story belongs to all women, everywhere.