A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, March 29, 2013

Cultural Fusion We May Not Have Needed: "International Topless Jihad Day"?

As humorist Dave Barry used to say, I am not making this up: "4 April is International Topless Jihad Day!"

That is a real, genuine report (though I'm not sure about "serious") from Huffington Post UK and, as you might have predicted, #ToplessJihad now has its own hashtag on Twitter. 

Everyone who never expected to see "topless' and "jihad" used together please raise your hands. I thought so. Do you suspect someone misunderstands the meaning of one or the other of these words?

(For the sensitive or easily offended, please note that some of the quotes cited below in this post use mild slang referring to female breasts, and at least one other stronger offensive word.)

The call is coming from Femen, the Ukrainian feminist protest group who keep showing up to demonstrate topless, but they are capitalizing on the story of Amina, the 19 year old Tunisian girl who posted topless pictures of herself on the Internet. (Egypt's "nude blogger' Aliaa Elmahdy has also recently joined forces with Femen.)

Now, first of all, Amina's story has been wildly sensationalized in the West.  If you must see the pictures, go to my earlier story and follow the links. After her public protest, the usual extreme Salafi sheikh showed up to make the usual Crazy Sheikh "Fatwa" (not an Islamic fatwa but the Western press term for "anything we can get some lunatic sheikh to say to the press"). A "senior sheikh" named Adel Almi that few have heard of kindly expressed the opinion cited at left and, according to Al-Arabiya, urged that she be stoned to stop the alleged contagion. (And indeed, some other Tunisian women have indeed followed suit.)

Though some of them seem to have been deleted, there was a lot of early Twitter chatter about saving Amina, who variously "faces stoning to death" or "could face stoning" for her toplessness. Now, even if you don't much like traditional Islamic punishments, stoning is for adultery, not for topless photos, and both the Qur'an itself and all the Islamic legal schools citing the Prophet himself require four actual witnesses (absent a confession) to the actual act of copulation. Outside of an orgy this is improbable; those stoned for adultery usually are said to have confessed. And besides:
Besides, according to Wikipedia, Tunisia hasn't executed anybody for anything since 1991 and the new government has pledged to abolish the death penalty.

Also, Tunisia's beach resort towns cater heavily to French, Italian, and German tourists and some of those ladies forget to wear tops at times. This isn't really an option for Tunisians, but I'm not sure who's checking passports of topless bathers. (Interesting job, if it exists, though.)

And, just to drive the point further home,  Tunisia not only tolerates but the government regulates prostitution. I am hesitating to say as some sources do, that prostitution is "legal," but it is regulated, though limited and restricted, and the prostitutes reportedly have government IDs. No other Arab country has this level of government tolerance of prostitution; though otherwise Tunisia ranks highest in the Arab world on women's rights issues, it sometimes gets criticism on this one.

So let's say the fears for Amina's being sentenced to death by stoning are a bit exaggerated, but if the government isn't about to harm her, extremists might. Aliaa Elmahdy left Egypt and is living in Europe as a result of her protest. Amina's lawyer (self-identified, anyway) denied she was in a psychiatric institution, as some were claiming, and insisted she was safe at home.

But a major criticism of the Aliaa Elmahdy case was it got more attention than the "virginity tests" and Samira Ibrahim's resistence to them (as a hijabi conservative Muslim she was in many ways more revolutionary than Aliaa). And the sexual assaults and rapes in Tahrir got less attention than Aliaa Elmahdy, at least in the world media.

Others are saying something similar about Amina:

Before returning to the "topless jihad" day, let me add that while I support the right of protest, including protest that calls attention to sexual discrimination and abuse, I'm not sure Femen's idea of topless protest is the right one in the Arab world. Sure, it gets plenty of attention in the West. Amina has one topless picture with a cigarette and with the Arabic slogan "My body is my property; it's not anyone's 'honor' " written on her abdomen, and another in which she is topless, with two raised middle fingers, and, in English, "Fuck your morals" written on her body. (Subtle, huh?) (And as I've noted before, protesters are often more comfortable using English profanity than Arabic, as the Arabic here, though on a naked torso, is innocent enough.)  It surely does get attention, but does it preach to anyone but the already converted? Or does it just (as some Arab feminists fear) fuel the most misogynistic and atavistic fears of a conservative patriarchy and thus undercut women working on real issues of survival and opportunity? Before you fight for toplessness, protecting women (even in hijab) from groping and assault seems a higher priority. I know I don't exactly have standing to hold an opinion here, of course. Nor do I wish to see her or anyone silenced. But many Muslim women may see "Fuck your morals" as meaning "Fuck your religious beliefs," and how far does that differ from "Fuck you"? It will alienate many.

Now, for the whole "topless jihad" thing. Femen's Inna Shevchenko explains the call to "topless jihad' (Note: This gives a last name to "Amina"; I neither know if it's correct nor do I approve of publicizing it if it is)::
We have appealed to the world for support and the world has answered! The fate of the Femen Tunisia activist Amina Tyler has shaken up and united thousands of women across the globe. Amina's act of civil disobedience has brought down upon her the lethal hatred of inhuman beasts, for whom killing a woman is more natural than recognising her right to do as she pleases with her own body.  
For them, we now see, the love of freedom is the most dangerous kind of psychiatric illness, one demanding radical forced treatment in the spirit of fascist punitive medicine. The 'Arab Spring', for the women of  North Africa, has turned out to be a frigid sharia winter that has deprived them of what few political rights and liberties they enjoyed.
Stoning and flogging, kidnapping and rape, forced psychiatric treatment and other sorts of physical and psychological torture are what the new Sharia Caliphate has in store for women . . .
. . . Religious dictatorship begins by enslaving women but a woman's act of self-liberation is the first step toward destroying the sharia regime.  Topless protests are the battle flags of women's resistance, a symbol of a woman's acquisition of rights over her own body!
Femen declares 4 April the day of relentless topless jihad against Islamism!  
Show solidarity with brave Amina Tyler from Tunisia!  Come to the embassy of the Republic of Tunisia and protest topless, with "My Body Against Islamism!" written on your body, take a photo of yourself, and post it on your social network page, as well as on the Femen Facebook Fan Page at facebook.com/Femen.UA.
This day will mark the beginning of a new, genuine Arab Spring, after which true freedom, freedom without mullahs and caliphs, will come to Tunisia!  Long live the  topless jihad against infidels!  Our tits are deadlier than your stones!
Are you certain about that last part? Of all the words I've seen applied to female breasts, "deadlier" is one I'm not really sure I'd have thought of (or want to).  Also, I thought "freedom without mullahs and caliphs" came to Tunisia some time back, and stones weren't in play, but then I've seen Tunisian resort beaches, and perhaps Inna Shevchenko hasn't.

If a whole lot of people in the West want to take their tops off to support Amina on April 4, hey, I certainly won't complain, it's their right, but I doubt if it will change anything.  And I doubt if we'll see much solidarity in the Middle East itself. Sometime in the next few days (when I finish reading it) I plan to review Shereen El-Feki's new book on sexuality in the Arab world, which directly addresses some of these issues. But I feel it really comes down to the question of audience: Aliaa Elmahdy and Amina are great fodder for the Western media, but the women on the front lines are out there fighting in Tahrir Square and elsewhere against harassment and rape. Luck and safety to Amina, but more power still to the women at the front lines.


Anonymous said...

I thought this was a very thoughtful and nuanced article on an issue that tends (intentionally?) to lead to sensationalism on all sides. I think your focus on the need to fight everyday harrassment as the priority as being particularly interesting.

Kaouther said...

well put, thanks for letting people know what is actually going on! In the case of amina, not only is she safe and sound under the islamist government, but we are yet to find out why she has actually done this? My assumption is, as with many other Tunisian feminist who talk about their diminishing rights in Tunisia (including her lawyer who, petitioned the Ben Ali govt to do something about the increasing visibility of Hijab in the streets), they are usually referring to the hijab being permissible in tunisia after decades of it being banned. Many fear that this some how infringes on their rights, despite there being no mention of anyone being forced to cover. The reality is, after speaking to Tunisian women who oppose the hijab, their reasoning is usually 'the social image of tunisia will change in the eyes of the west'