Photographs courtesy of the Alif Laam Meem fraternity
Muslim men also support women’s rights, don’t allow the media to shape your views.
By Zeinab Khalil
April 11, 2013
Femen, a Ukraine-based self-identified “sextremist” women’s movement, labeled April 4 as “International Topless Jihad Day.” It was meant to be a day of global demonstrations in support of a young Tunisian woman who sparked many reactions when she circulated photos online of her naked body marked up with politically-charged messages that challenged social norms. Years ago, when the veil-ban was a hot topic in France, Femen staged protests where they dressed in burqas before collectively stripping. More recently, the group demonstrated in Stockholm in front of the Egyptian embassy with their bare bodies displaying phrases like “Sharia is not a constitution,” “Freedom for women!” and “No Islamism, yes secularism!”
Before hearing anything about this event, April 4 was a big day for me, too. After months of rehearsing, it was the night I would perform in the campus production of The Hijabi Monologues. I was excited for this rare platform to share the stories of Muslim women’s diverse, complex experiences; honest and humanizing narratives that discuss our celebrations and challenges.
To Femen, however, this sort of initiative would be cast as irrelevant, even pitiful, because as it turns out, I, along with millions of Muslim women around the globe, am suffering from a case of “false-consciousness.” To Femen, the very idea behind hijab, and, more generally, religion (read: Islam) is intrinsically, solely and perpetually harmful to women. This is where Femen comes in to save us and help us realize a self-affirmation that we otherwise would never experience. Thanks to the efforts of those who staged topless actions in front of mosques and embassies across Europe with makeshift beards, towels on their heads, painted crescents on their breasts and signs that read, “Muslim women, let’s get naked!” I should now feel supported, affirmed and liberated.
Shockingly, I don’t.
My aversion to Femen has little to do with their sensationalist tactics and everything to do with their exclusivist approach to feminism, imperialist rhetoric of salvation and simplistic assumptions on liberation, all of which are far from what the group’s message sets out to be: radical and progressive.
The group’s exclusivist approach reminds me of the first and second waves of feminism in the United States, where the mainstream women’s movement marginalized women who didn’t agree with its approach and instead sought to define its own concerns and struggles as the most pressing and as “universal.” As a result, Third World feminists during this era were pressured to choose between adopting the struggle for women’s liberation or ethnic liberation. They defied this restricting binary framework and instead called for a more interconnected approach that simultaneously addresses multiple structures of oppression. There are valuable lessons to be learned from this phase of the women’s movement, but Femen isn’t paying attention. The group insists on a selective approach that highlights oppression, prioritizing gender and leaving all other markers of identity — race, religion, sexuality and class — unnoticed on the backburner.
Even more unsettling, Femen’s calls for “Muslim women, unveil!” summon images of colonized Algeria, where French women regularly staged public “unveiling ceremonies” for Algerian women under the cry of “Vive L’Algérie Francaise!” Local norms, especially around women’s sartorial choices, were used by colonists to justify subjugation. In order to progress and “civilize” the indigenous, Algerian women were made to unveil so that they could become “free” under French occupation. Femen adopts a similar tone where Muslim women can only realize liberation through the imposed aid of their white European counterparts.
I’m tired of the trite Eurocentric assumption that one’s feminist credentials are reflected and validated through choices of dress. Time and again, mainstream Western feminism has sought to dictate and prescribe the concerns and needs of other women without including them in the conversation. By deciding that the biggest challenges to liberation are rooted in “culture,” Femen dismisses the multiple elephants in the room that stand in the way of liberation.
Guess what, Femen? Challenging society’s patriarchal norms is on my daily agenda, but I’m just as equally enraged with the racist, corporatist, global imperialist structures that perpetuate patriarchy and wreck women’s lives over and over again — especially women who look like me whom you claim to be liberating. In fact, your efforts don’t support my sisters, but distract from the fearless organizing they do every single day, even if you actively choose to overlook it.
The feminism that I know isn’t one that denies the agency of women or feeds off of explicitly racist tropes that infantilize women. While I find Femen’s approach off-putting and regressive, I won’t allow this to have me second-guess my commitment to various feminist causes. Feminism, like most other movements and ideologies, has been used overtime to justify militarism, war, neoliberalism and colonization. Despite this, I’ll continue to advocate my own understanding of feminism — one rooted in equality, humility and self-determination.
To my well-meaning saviors, please understand that the misogynistic, racist ordeals I experience regularly aren’t oppressions that I can disentangle from one another. In this sense, your bigoted, exclusivist movement becomes an additional battle and a burden to Muslim women activists instead of a source of empowerment. Understand that you can’t save or support women whom you see as lacking the ability to make critical decisions of their own. So either take a moment to listen to the voices of the Muslim women you drown out and accept that their experiences are legitimate, or get out of our way.
Zeinab Khalil is an LSA junior.
Copyright © 2013 The Michigan Daily.
International solidarity should take its cue from the women affected, not try to impose values on communities
April 11, 2013
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.
Femen’s actions also come at a time of intensifying international backlash against women’s rights that is increasingly being framed, perpetuated and accepted by male elites as rooted in “the west” and imposed on other countries in a form of cultural imperialism. Unfortunately, statements from white French women saying things like “better naked than the burqa” feed this narrative and are more likely to damage rather than support the struggles of the women they call their sisters.
Its defenders may say that Femen means well but having good intentions is far from enough. There is a long and problematic history of colonial feminism and the “good intentions” of outsiders using racialised notions to “save women over there”. This actively causes harm, including when communities react to this by holding on to static notions of “culture” and “tradition” in the face of outside challenge as a way to resist colonialism and racism. Women’s rights becomes the battleground with feminists from these communities and countries often left in a double bind, stuck between trying to reject racist ideas of black men and communities and challenging their attitudes.
We need a politics of international feminist solidarity that integrates a gender, race and post-colonial power analysis and takes its cue from the women affected and those who are already challenging gender inequality. As I have argued elsewhere, a more holistic and nuanced approach would consider how patriarchy combines with racism, neo-colonialism and global capitalism to create a fundamentally unjust world. We need to think about how our decisions, from where we shop to the issues about which we remain silent, affect the lives of women and girls in other countries.
Femen has continued to be unapologetic about its tactics and language and refused to address its blatant racism. When you are criticised by those “for” whom you are meant to be working, the response should be to think critically on your actions. Its latest piece offers no self-reflection or attempt to acknowledge criticism from women’s rights activists from the region, only self-aggrandisement. To paraphrase Gayatri Spivak, white women will not save black women from black men. The role of feminists from outside should be to support the work of the women in the communities concerned, not add to the problem. International feminist solidarity is crucial but this is not the way to do it. A true ally does not use racism to attempt to defeat patriarchy.
Copyright © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited.
By Laila Alawa
Muslim-American activist, blogger and outspoken feminist
April 10, 2013
I am a proud Muslim-American woman, and I am tired. I am tired of being told that I am oppressed. That I have no voice. That I need to be liberated.
I am tired, and I am speaking out for the rights of my and other fellow Muslim sisters to be able to dress and be how they wish to be.
When I first heard about the ‘titslamism’ campaign that the radical feminist organization FEMEN was undertaking, I regarded it with apathy. Their original mission seemed to be intended to raise awareness around the Tunisian activist Amina Tyler, a woman who posted a photo of her bare breasts to the FEMEN Tunisia Facebook page and received backlash from the Tunisian government for doing so. As a result, FEMEN opted to begin protesting in front of Islamic centers around the world, baring their breasts in an effort to deal with Islamism.
Or so they purported.
In actuality, however, their campaign is not aligned with what they supposedly intended. FEMEN and its supporters have banked on what they feel is ‘politically correct’ these days to tap into: a healthy dose of Islamophobia with a heavy dash of sex appeal. Inna Shevchenko, the leader of FEMEN, backs up these allegations in a response she wrote addressing the very Muslim women who protested the efforts of her campaign to ‘free’ them:
So, sisters, (I prefer to talk to women anyway, even knowing that behind them are bearded men with knives). You say to us that you are against Femen, but we are here for you and for all of us, as women are the modern slaves and it’s never a question of colour of skin. … And you can put as many scarves as you want if you are free tomorrow to take it off and to put it back the next day but don’t deny millions of your sisters who have fear behind their scarves, don’t deny that there are million of your sisters who have been raped and killed because they are not following the wish of Allah!”
As the very woman who is supposedly being ‘freed’ by these protests, I am offended and disgusted. As a covered Muslim woman, I am greeted on a daily basis with passersby who tell me that I no longer need to wear the headscarf because I am in America. In this exact statement supposedly freeing Muslim women from the clothes they seem ‘forced’ to don, there is a level of oppression being expressed, as though there is only one way to be ‘free.’ The same beliefs are employed in FEMEN’s offensive and ultimately pointless protests.
I anticipate there being a number of comments posted to this article notifying me that my father will stone me once he hears that I’ve spoken out (he will not, he is a sweet, supportive man, as most men are in the Islamic faith), that if I were ‘back home’ where I ‘came from’, I would be forced into a hut with four other women and raped on a daily basis under the guise of Islam (I come from Syria and Denmark, neither of which engage in those supposed practices, practices that are not condoned in Islam, although unjust instances of domestic violence still occur under the guise of the faith). So, for any readers who quickly scan through this piece and begin complaining about my so-called oppression, recognize that I am fully free and require no sort of help on your part.
FEMEN protests display a blatant expression of orientalism and colonialism in their belief that there is only one way to be free: through the utter disrobing of all garments covering the body. In perpetuating the belief that there is only one way to go about being free, FEMEN provides a narrow-minded solution that is not feasible for anyone else to fit into. Rather than being revolutionary, FEMEN utilizes the same rhetoric used in colonial history to simplify women to just their attire as a representation of their ultimate freedom. Amusingly, topless protests are not even legally permitted in the free nations in which the FEMEN protests take place — effectively contradicting the freedom that FEMEN attempts to express to Muslim women as being the only way to live. I have not heard a single Muslim woman speak out about how she now feels freed due to the FEMEN protests.
Why is that the case? Is it because all of the — as Inna so condescendingly put it — “bearded men with knives” are holding Muslim women back from speaking out? No.
It is because we have no need to be freed by a group of condescending protesters, all skinny, white and fitting squarely into the acceptable media paradigm of ‘true beauty.’ It’s like a random stranger telling you how to eat ‘better,’ even though they have no information on who you are or how you manage your daily nutritional intake.
Just as many past colonialist movements have only served to hurt, rather than help, the very people they pretend to care about, so too does FEMEN with its movement to ‘free’ Muslim women from the imaginary oppressors. n its attempts to bring attention towards the movement, FEMEN blatantly shut off any attempts for a dialogue, telling Muslim women that we have no right to speak out on the very issues that we are supposedly being hurt by.
I speak out not because a bearded man told me to, not because I am nothing but, as Inna stated, a puppet for “dictatorial countries to promote the official position of the government… .” I speak out because the FEMEN protests offend and infuriate me, as a Muslim woman, as a covered woman, as a feminist, and as an equal human being in this world. I am tired, and I am speaking out for my own and fellow Muslim sisters’ right to be able to dress as we like and be who we wish to be in this world.
My choice to cover is my own, and FEMEN’s very protest to uncover is oppression in itself.
Follow Laila Alawa on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lulainlife
Copyright © 2013 TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc.
By The Frustrated Arab
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 caustious 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.
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:
The sign reads: “I am a proud Muslimah. I don’t need “liberating”. I don’t appreciate being used to reinforce Western imperialism. You do not represent me!”
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’. 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:
Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Responses to FEMEN by women of colour, others:
The Inconsistency of Femen’s Imperialist “one size fits all” Attitude by Bim Adewunmi
Femen’s Neocolonial Feminism: When Nudity Becomes A Uniform by Sara Salem
The Fast-Food Feminism of the Topless FEMEN by Mona Chollet
That’s Not What A Feminist Looks Like by Elly Badcock
The African History of Nude Protest by Maryam Kazeem
My piece on rediscovering Feminism
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
— Callie Beusman, Muslim Women Shockingly Not Grateful for Topless European Ladies Trying To ‘Save’ Them, April 5, 2013
April 5, 2013
We understand that it’s really hard for a lot of you white colonial “feminists” to believe, but- SHOCKER! – Muslim women and women of colour can come with their own autonomy, and fight back as well! And speak out for themselves! Who knew?
We are proud Muslimahs, and we’re sick of your colonial, racist rubbish disguised as “women’s liberation”!
BECAUSE we are fed-up and tired of hearing from women of privilege perpetuating the stereotype that Muslim women, women of colour and women from the Global South are submissive, helpless and in need of western “progress”.
BECAUSE it is these kinds of colonial attitudes that commit more harm than good, so stop trying to kid us.
BECAUSE we are sick of the appropriation of our terms and our customs, done without our permission for whatever reason people see fit.
BECAUSE we don’t have to conform to your customs of protest to emancipate ourselves. Our religion does that for us already, thank you very much.
BECAUSE rubbing shoulders with far-right, racist and Islamophobic groups is just ANTI-FEMINIST beyond bounds, not to mention EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.
BECAUSE you don’t really care about violence and harm being inflicted upon women, you only care about that when it is perpetrated by brown men with long beards who pray five times a day.
BECAUSE not all of us are white, skinny, physically non-disabled and willing to whip off our tops merely for press attention. Check yourselves before you go into the streets again.
BECAUSE we live in a messed up world, what with heteronormativity, white supremacy, empire, the class system and capitalism, but FEMEN are concerned most about contributing more to a climate of rampant Islamophobia instead. Take aim at male supremacy, not Islam. Your priorities are messed up.
So, next time you decide to take the crusade for global women’s liberation into your own hands, JUST REMEMBER that before FEMEN came along, there have been and will continue to be women all over the world dreaming and fighting for their own emancipation, and WE DON’T NEED YOU!
SMASH THE WHITE SUPREMACIST CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY! POWER TO THE MUSLIMAHS!
Sofia Ahmed, Student
April Reilly, Student
Ayesha Latif, Student
Zarah Sultana, Student
Sabeeha Mahmood, Photojournalist
Malia Bouattia, Student
Rabi’a Khatoon, Student
Sajidah Ali, Student
Zaira Ejaz, Student
Sumreen Rashid, Student
Shakira Akther, Black Students Officer at the University of East London
Sumaya Abdullahi , member of the Muslim Student’s Association at the university of Alberta
Fatma Musilma, Fellow of the Institute of Swimming Teachers and Coaches
When a Muslim fraternity from the University of Texas at Dallas took to the streets to protest against domestic violence, these striking pictures made waves around the world. Muslim America rocks — we just don’t hear about it often.