A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Last Word (I Hope) on Femen's "Topless Jihad"

A few weeks ago I  commented on the backlash among Muslim women to the Ukrainian feminist protest group Femen's so-called "International Topless Jihad Day." What was billed as a protest in support of Tunisian Amina Tyler, with Femen protesters showing up topless at mosques around Europe with anti-religious slogans, produced a lot of online criticism by Muslim women who saw the protest (quite rightly, I think) as a Western, Eurocentric, and neocolonial case of "enlightened" Western women "saving" oppressed Muslim women, taking up the white woman's burden, as it were. The backlash was louder than the Femen protest.

I belatedly encountered this essay, in, of all places, the Harvard Crimson, the venerable university newspaper, by an undergraduate Muslim woman, Marian H. Jalloul. It's called "Mind over Boobs," though as an Editor I always keep in mind that may not have been the author's preferred title. I think it nails it pretty well and is the most eloquent statement I've seen. (Some quoted strong language.)
Amina’s message is beautiful, and I wholeheartedly agree with it: Her body is hers, and she has the right to use it as she pleases, including as a canvas of expression. It is not the source of anyone else’s honor. I even respect the bold execution—it definitely caught my attention. What I do not appreciate is FEMEN’s inability to accept Muslim women’s definition of freedom. I do not respect their projection of their ideals onto me, or their implication that I am too weak and oppressed to speak for myself.
It is ridiculous how widely accepted it is that Muslim women are oppressed in choosing to cover their bodies. This “clash of civilizations”—more accurately explained as the clash of ignorance by Edward Said—is preserving the idea that Islamic views and Western views cannot coincide. I know how much Western society loves its feminism: I was born and raised into it with a strong, highly educated and respected mother who kicks butt in her field—all while wearing a headdress. That being said, it is almost imperialist to apply Western concepts of feminism to other cultures. There are varying definitions of feminism, and not all urge a woman to flaunt her body because it is her right. On the contrary, feminism from the Muslim perspective encourages women to be modest in their dress and to be seen as equal intellectuals, not merely as bodies.
Just as some women feel strong and confident showing a little skin, veiled Muslim women feel strong and confident covering their skin—and there is nothing wrong with either. The West may see oppression in Muslim women covering their bodies at the will of a male-dominated society in the same way Muslim women may see oppression in the objectification of Western women’s bodies at the hands of a male-dominated society. I am a veiled, Muslim-American woman, and I am also a feminist. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive.
The message that has been spawned by this “noble movement” is disgraceful. FEMEN seems to imply that Islam is to be blamed for global sexism. Imperialist rhetoric that Islam is a woman-hating religion and stands on five pillars of sexism does nothing but aid the global surge of Islamophobia. No other nations, religions, or cultures are targeted to quite the same extent. In turn, this opens the door of opportunity for other countries that have a perpetual track record of discriminating against their women, the U.S. included, to point the finger at Muslim societies.
The vast majority of veiled Muslim women are not oppressed in their hijabs, and even if we were we (and even to those veiled Muslim women who are being oppressed) sure as heck are not seeking liberation from a group of women who will insult our religious beliefs in order to affirm their own self-importance. As another Muslim woman put it, “We won’t be needing any of that ‘White-non-Muslim-women-saving-Muslim-women-from-Muslim-men’ crap!” FEMEN holding up signs that read “Fuck your Morals” is not liberating us—it is simply making us angry. I am all for supporting Amina and her rights, but when it is done through plain offense, Islamophobia, and at the expense of the reputation of over a billion Muslims, I will stand my ground. We do not need saving. We do not need you to defend us. We can speak for ourselves. And moreover, we do not need to flaunt our breasts to feel liberated.
I understand that FEMEN is trying to defend Amina, but supporting her rights by attacking a religion is counterproductive to their movement. If they find freedom through being nude, then that is great. All the power to them. As for me, my mind is my means of liberation. Not my boobs.
Amen. I hope that is the last word on this. (Not on feminism, but on Femen and Islam.)


Anonymous said...

A great essay. I truly see that those radical feminist movements in the Arab world do oppress a vast majority of Muslim women by looking down at the Islamic veil. They do nothing more than falling on the steps of Western anti-veil feminists that are criticised by other feminist movements and in the West itself. What FEMEN does is circulating a age-old, pathetic and overused stereotype of Islam as an oppressor to the woman. In opposing hijab by her nudity, Amina is returning to the odalequess time and is objectifying her body, and once again, to satisfy the male gaze. Oh, am sorry. Odalisquing my body doesn't liberate me. Please, respect me. Dima Aljaber

Anonymous said...

I think it's worth mentioning that modern feminism has its origins in the West, and that the notion of a homespun feminism somehow detached from the "imperialist overreach" of the Western notion of feminism is, to put it lightly, a stretch. Abolitionism was also a Western idea that was imposed, at the point of the gun, I might add, on the rest of the world. It was certainly a cultural imposition, but I think not many today would defend the practice as being something inherent to a culture that was worth defending because it was alien to Western notions. Similiarly, FEMEN feels that the attitudes of Islamic traditionalists towards women are oppressive, full stop. It doesn't matter to them that there is a long cultural tradition that supports it, there is a long tradition of patriarchal-ism in the West that they reject just as wholeheartedly. It is a question of right or wrong to them, not a question of regional cultural differences. That Muslim women defend their cultural distaste for disrobed women merely means to FEMEN members that they are complicit in their own oppression, something that feminists, and other radicals, have noted and decried in many discrete instances.

I'm hardly a feminist, but it seems to me that you're providing an excuse for the oppression of women because to express support for FEMEN or even just Western feminist norms would be "neocolonialist". I think you have to ask yourself whether the Western notion of reasonable freedom, autonomy and empowerment for women is absolutely correct morally. Certainly FEMEN thinks so ... you can call it imperialist if you like, but that doesn't necessarily demonstrate that their moral position is incorrect. Or would you be comfortable with your daughters being subject to the cultural norms of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Of course not, nor am I a Muslim: but keep in mind this post is an extended quote from a Muslim college student who does define herself as a feminist. I'm merely quoting what I thought was one of the better articulations of a widespread critique.