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.