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FEMEN And The Suppression Of Native Voices

By Roqayah Chamseddine | Letters From The Underground | April 6, 2013

I loathe the premise that people of colour should be ‘grateful’ that others are taking notice of their subjugation, or that they should bite their tongues and clench their fists and instead show gratitude because their varied plights are being in some way ‘acknowledged‘ by others.

“Shouldn’t you be glad that people are recognizing these issues?” is the arrogant lamentation which customarily follows even the most cautious criticism of these perverse pseudo-solidarity actions – FEMEN’s nude predominantly white, predominantly thin photo-ops “for Amina,” a 19 year-old Tunisian woman who posed for them with the words “my body belongs to me, it is not the source of anyone’s honour” scrawled across her torso, being the latest example, and KONY2012 being an earlier one. This aforementioned response contends that we should withhold criticism, alleging that even being ‘noticed’ should be good enough.

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Despite having our religious attire, skin colour and even facial hair, being routinely mocked and worn as makeshift costumes as a part of ‘solidarity actions’ it is said time and time again that we should be ‘grateful’ that anyone simply has reason enough to ‘care.’

Despite the watered down slogans of liberation and freedom being copy-pasted by the parade of online followers of groups such as FEMEN many of these same activists are so inebriated with colonial feminist doctrine that they gleefully take part in patronizing, Islamophobic and misogynistic rhetoric in response to women of colour telling them that they take great offence, that their voices will not be usurped, that they are the sole guardians of their plights and no one has the authority to speak on their behalf, no matter how allegedly ‘well-intentioned’.

In response to FEMEN’s topless “jihad day” event Muslim women created #MuslimahPride on Twitter; Sofia Ahmed, one of the women behind “Muslimah Pride Day” described the campaign as follows:

“Muslimah [term for a female Muslim] pride is about connecting with your Muslim identity and reclaiming our collective voice. Let’s show the world that we oppose FEMEN and their use of Muslim women to reinforce Western imperialism.”

Using #MuslimahPride many Muslim women began voicing their disapproval of FEMEN, one such woman was Zarah Sultana who posted the following photograph on her public Twitter page, which I have received permission to post here, and which in turned catalyzed many other Muslim women to do the same in an array of languages, by women from multifarious backgrounds:

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The responses Sultana received were drenched in perverse Islamophobia, sexism and pure, unashamed hatred: “Fuck off back to your own country”, “burn in hell”, “grab your ankles and remain silent”, “Mohammad was a pedophile”, “put on your burka”, “she’s happy with her chains” etc.- all coming from those who, just moments earlier, were tweeting gleefully in support of Muslim women.

When it comes to non-natives speaking in regards to native issues – it is a path that must be tread upon lightly in order to avoid (a) tokenization and (b) the usurpation of native voices. Solidarity is great, but it is when campaigns turned publicity stunts like the ones FEMEN indulges in begin using brown bodies as props while at the same time perpetuating orientalism and engaging in blatant prejudicial acts to promote their idea of ‘liberation’ does this become more a theft of native voices than a rallying cry for ‘freedom’. FEMEN, and other such groups, offer no solution to the undeniable subjugated of women present in the Middle East-North Africa, it is all a show of thin, white grandeur.

Simply stating that you are in solidarity, that you support a woman’s right to don the headscarf, remove it, cover/uncover etc. is in no way dubious. It is when aforementioned solidarity crosses the red line and veers into the seizure of native voices and the tokenization of these voices does this become intensely problematic, ineffective and perverse.

Also it has long been chronicled that women of colour are often left out of mainstream feminist discourse, unless it is by means of humanitarian imperialism channels where they are simply tokenised. Bell Hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), a feminist, social activist, does a magnificent job describing this in much of her work.

In terms of the mounting questions in regards to how one is to raise awareness in light of such groups as FEMEN: you raise awareness by highlighting native voices, not co-opting them. It is your duty to amplify, not commandeer.

As Sara Salem, PhD researcher at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands, notes:

“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?”

Post-Colonial feminists worth mentioning, a few of many:

Arundhati Roy
Gloria Anzaldúa
Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Audre Lorde
June Jordan

Responses to FEMEN by women of colour, others:

The Inconsistency of Femen’s Imperialist “one size fits all” AttitudeBim Adewunmi
Femen’s Neocolonial Feminism: When Nudity Becomes A Uniform – Sara Salem
The Fast-Food Feminism of the Topless FEMEN – Mona Chollet
That’s Not What A Feminist Looks Like – Elly Badcock
The African History of Nude Protest – Maryam Kazeem

My piece on rediscovering Feminism

Suggested reading:
“Is Western Patriarchal Feminism Good For Third World/Minority Women?” By Azizah Al-Hibri

“Women and Gender in Islam” by Leila Ahmed

And two relevant books by Edward Saïd:
Culture and Imperialism
Orientalism

June 29, 2014 Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Islamophobia, Timeless or most popular | , , , , | 2 Comments

Off the Mark With Femen

“Muslim Women Let’s Get Topless!”

By BINOY KAMPMARK | CounterPunch | September 21, 2012

If you are interested [in registering], it’s not complicated.  You just have to take off your t-shirt. – Eloise, Femen co-ordinator in France, September 19, 2012

The founding of the militant anti-prostitution outfit Femen had, and still does have, a genuine basis of protest.  Exploitative sex-tourism in the Ukraine is something women and men would understandably take a strong stand against, and local resistance has been scanty (no pun intended). Ditto numerous countries where sexual slavery has found itself growing on the coat tails of globalisation and corrupt governments.  But as has been noted by commentators in, for want of a better term “industrialised” countries, rarely does the conversation move beyond the shock photo stunts the group wishes to disseminate.  In other words, the conversation becomes less a matter of revolution than a sense of whether one’s sets of breasts are better than another’s.  When the message of protest gets mired in tactics rather than aims, it’s bound to get lost in the hubbub.

The attempt by Femen to project a more European-broad protest – bare-breasted, of course – has been announced, with the ladies of the group taking their tops off in various European capitals.  So far the group have lacked a “base” to launch their indignation.  Paris has been greeted with the Femen flavour, and the website of Femen France features “Nudité, Lutte and Liberté” in the tricolour scheme, all against a backdrop of taut, curvy flesh.  Products can be purchased as well – the Femen Handbag, the Femen Hoody, and an assortment of shirts such as “F’Kamikaze.”  The latter is surely ironic – a topless women’s outfit that makes money selling tops.  Themes of protest do move in mysterious ways.

Paris is now the base for the first ‘training centre’ which will school feminist recruits on the art of dodging security forces.  In the words of one of the outfit’s more notorious figures, Inna Shevchenko, “We’re opening the first international training centre for feminists… who want to transform themselves into soldiers” (Spiegel Online, Sep 19).  To celebrate the occasion, the protestors marched through a largely Muslim neighbourhood in the 18th arrondissement. “Muslim women, let’s get naked.”

Mindful of her audience, Shevchenko makes sure that the press know her intellectual interests.  She is re-reading August Bebel’s Women Under Socialism (1883).  “Women, in the new society will enjoy total independence; […] she will be placed, in relation to man, in a position of total freedom and equality.”  She has no desire to return to unequal Kiev yet, not after she was filmed chain sawing an Orthodox Cross in the city in support of her sisters in Pussy Riot.

London has been witness to the topless protests taking a stance against Sharia law and the participation of various “bloody” Islamic states in the Olympics.  A hotchpotch medley of rationales were thrown in by Reza Moradi, who did not name any of those offending states in a protest in August.  “The Olympic Committee must not have allowed those governments to be represented in the Olympics.  They are fascists of our time, they treat women like third-class citizens” (Telegraph, Aug 2).

While much of what Moradi is lamenting is relevant, the institutional framework of the Olympics has been historically favourable to “bloody” states, not all of them necessarily Islamic. Oppression, not just of gender, is a spreadable commodity, and there is much of it about.

Femen also made a splash of sorts at the Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and the Ukraine, where they targeted prostitution in host cities.  A notable effort was made by Yana Zhdanova in Lviv to snatch the Euro 2012 championship cup, left tantalizingly on display.  Femen activist Oleksandra Shevchenko offered an explanation for the foiled action.  “We needed to tear down this trophy to show that this phallic symbol does not need to stand on a pedestal, when our country is being turned into a brothel.  UEFA have arranged this with our politicians in order to win back the money that has been put into Euro 2012” (Telegraph, May 24).

Parisian booby marches certainly garner attention, but of a different sort. It doesn’t necessarily consider issues specific to various groups of women in different countries.  Femen risk looking like a noisy university protest group, a tried and tired form of student radicalism that does, at some point, have to find a political agenda.  As Joseph Bamat notes, writing for France 24 (Sep 19), “Most feminists in France do not feel politically persecuted or oppressed, and tend to focus on more specific problems, such as domestic abuse and equal pay for equal work.”  Bamat further speculates that French feminists will retort that “we didn’t have to show our bums to win the right to vote or to abort”.

Sex is a tricky and volatile business, and Femen has taken the slippery line.  The coin of oppression and liberation is often one and the same thing.  Femen might see their Islamic sisters as enslaved, while many of them most certainly will not.  The view is bound to not only be contrary in some circles but dismissed as smutty claptrap, the fantastic yearnings of a pop feminism.

Then, there will be opposition of a different sort.  The counter to the bare breast heroines of Femen come from the French prostitutes’ union STRASS, who have been demanding a legalisation of prostitution for some time.  When a law was being considered in April 2011 to fine and jail sex clients, members of the organisation went apoplectic.  The order of battle has been made, and its bound to be vicious.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

September 21, 2012 Posted by | Deception, Islamophobia, Timeless or most popular | , , | 1 Comment