A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Unsurprising Anticlimax: "International Topless Jihad Day" Limited to Europe, Yet Still Doesn't Bring Down the Arab Patriarchy

Okay, last week when the radical Ukrainian feminist group Femen declared April 4 "International Topless Jihad Day." I somewhat skeptically noted that "I doubt if we'll see much solidarity in the Middle East itself."  It turns out I was right: Femen turned up at various Tunisian Embassies and mosques around Europe to support the Tunisian teenager Amina Tyler who posed topless online, but there was no reported rash of public nudity in the Middle East, though many women expressed their support of Amina in less exhibitionist ways in the region.  I can't exactly claim Nostradamus-level credit for that prediction since it's pretty obvious, I think, that Femen is a self-promoting, and rather self-indulgent, radical European feminist group who are seeking to promote their own agenda with little understanding of the real issues women face in the Middle East.

As the father of a daughter I like to think I'm a strong supporter of women's rights, and I've said of Amina as I said in 2011 of Aliaa Elmahdy's Egyptian nude protest, that I support their right to protest and don't want to see anybody persecuted or punished, let alone the death threats coming from the Salafis, but that I'm not sure this form of protest advances the real issues Arab women are struggling for: an end to discrimination, harassment, rape, and abuse.

While there have been Middle Eastern press reports (here for a Tunisian one) about the European protests, a major theme in much online and social media commentary has been one of Arab and Tunisian women who support Amina but see Femen as something capitalizing, with little understanding, on the realities of the situation; the talk about "stoning" in a country that hasn't executed anyone in over two decades is particularly bizarre. Femen claims Amina is being "held prisoner" by her family, which is far from evident.

Their cluelessness seems to be indicated as well by the fact that they did a topless demonstration at an Ahmadiyya Mosque in Berlin. Do they not know there are no Ahmadiyya in the Arab world? Do they not know that other Muslims consider the Ahmadis non-Muslim. (Best guess in both cases: no.)

One unexpected (for Femen at least) reaction, I suspect, is a growing two-pronged critique among Arab feminists about Femen and its ideology: on the one hand, seeing their form of protest as a European, not an Arab, response, and thus the whole exercise as a neocolonial, not a feminist, manifestation. Sarah Salem at Al-Akhbar addresses this in her "Femen's Neocolonial Feminism: When Nudism Becomes a Uniform"
This is not the first time that feminism has confronted the issue of diversity. First and second wave feminists in the US, for example, were notorious for excluding women who weren’t like them: white, middle-class, American. Their feminism was distinctly local, but was branded and spread as ‘universal’ and if women didn’t adopt it then they were anti-feminist. The arguments advanced by the Femen member on al-Jazeera was eerily reminiscent of those kinds of discourses, especially when she accused the other participants of not being feminists because they didn’t agree with Femen’s tactics . . .

Feminism has the potential to be greatly emancipatory by adopting an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic and anti-Islamophobic rhetoric, instead of often actively being racist, homophobic, transphobic and Islamophobic. By clearly delineating the boundaries of what is “good” and “bad” feminism, Femen is using colonial feminist rhetoric that defines Arab women as oppressed by culture and religion, while no mention is made of capitalism, racism, or global imperialism. It is actively promoting the idea that Muslim women are suffering from “false consciousness” because they cannot see (while Femen can see) that the veil and religion are intrinsically harmful to all women.
Yet again, the lives of Muslim women are to be judged by European feminists, who yet again have decided that Islam – and the veil – are key components of patriarchy. Where do women who disagree with this fit? Where is the space for a plurality of voices? And the most important question of all: can feminism survive unless it sheds its Eurocentric bias and starts accepting that the experiences of all women should be seen as legitimate?
On Twitter, instead of a wave of support for this curious way of supporting Amina, there was a groundswell of a different sort of feminism under the hashtage @Muslimahpride, in which Muslim women sought their own means of protest, rejecting Femen as Islamophobic, racist, neocolonial, and alien. an example:
 A closer view of the photo:
For more, see here. And the critics of the "topless jihad" movement also showed they had a sense of humor by satirically urging an equal opportunity challenge for a "bottomless jihad" among Arab men (motto, of course: "Mine's bigger.")

The late Edward Said would, I think, have had a field day with this. The Eurocentric, Western, feminist movement is going to "save" their benighted sisters in what they almost certainly do not know is the Arab country with the strongest record for women's rights, and they are going to do it by baring their breasts, thus accomplishing, what was it again? Neocolonial indeed: taking up the white woman's burden. Tunisian women are smart enough and educated enough to fight their own battles, though they may not choose to fight them the way Amina did. I suspect Femen's ideologues have no clue about Tunisia (their statements show little understanding), and I'd wager as well they feel that fine feeling they think is a European liberal concern for the oppressed but is really a neocolonial instinct to lead the benighted heathen towards the light. Arab women seem to be saying that they either don't need saving or can do it themselves, and meantime, keep your shirt on, there's work to be done.

And, as many have noted, while Femen claims the right of all women to bare their chests,. their demonstrators are always young, slender, frequently blonde, and almost invariably white. No chubby women, flat-chested women,  elderly women or anyone with significant sagging. They could all be topless models or exotic dancers. Isn't that pretty sexist and Eurocentric in itself?

Femen has posted pictures of many of the demonstrations around Europe, and many of them are almost self-parodic. (Link is obviously Not Safe For Work, as is the photo below.) I normally don't post any nudity here and only rarely strong language, but this photo, which is really more of a cartoon though it's of real people, can't really be censored. It encapsulates so much of the superior., condescending, European white folks to the rescue ideology so many have critiqued today, that I think it underscores those points.

The demonstrator is almost certainly European, not Arab or Muslim. Yet she is wearing a face veil, and what looks more like a turban than any Arab female headcovering. She has a defiant fist raised.

In the photo a man appears to be kicking her. He isn't making contact, and she is neither flinching nor lowering her raised fist to defend herself. I can't prove the shot is staged, but does anybody have an alternative explanation? (The fact she almost looks like she just punched the guy may be equally intentional. Again, any attempt to censor the photo  would cut the nudity and the slogan and gut the meaning, but this photo is, I think, far more offensive to Muslim women, evoking stereotypes of Orientalist paintings of harem girls and male fantasies, than it is a defense of their rights. I suspect they will be offended less by her bare breasts or the "Fuck Your Morals" written on her torso, than by the phony headdress and presence at a mosque. Amina wrote "Fuck your morals" on her torso as well, but what does it really mean? (Most people, I suspect, will think it means "Fuck You and all you stand for," not usually the best way to proselytize. Or even worse, "Fuck your religion.")

I think Femen has made more enemies among Muslim women today than it did friends. The photo is more a parody, a cartoon of Western condescension towards Muslim women, than it is an emblem of protest or liberation. I ask you: is this photo one that evokes serious liberation of Muslim women, or sexual liberation generally, or political revolution? Or is it just a sophomoric, staged and artificially posed shot, and in their own deliberately provocative vernacular, just really fucking stupid?


David Mack said...

The culturally radical extreme of European secularism is trying to make Tunisia a battleground against traditional Islam. Glad to see the push back.

David Mack said...

Europeans are doing precious little to help Tunisia with its huge problems. They don't really have standing for gratuitous forays into issues of female clothing styles.

Anonymous said...

Forget the labels. Stop slathering everything with PC terms in an attempt to define people, and instead strip the message down to its basic; women today STILL do not have a right to their own body. It's not a certain religious group that needs liberating, it's not a culture, its not a country, its everyone. It doesn't matter what you wear or don't wear, all that matters is supporting each other. When one woman is smacked down because of patriarchy, we all feel the sting.