When Tunisian feminist Amina Tyler posted topless pictures of herself online with “Fuck Your Morals” and “My body belongs to me and is not a source of anyone’s honour” written across her chest, she received death threats and was put in a psychiatric hospital.
“Topless Jihad Day” was the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN’s response.
In various cities, topless activists’ slogans were “Free Amina”, “Fuck Your Morals”, “Bare Breasts Against Islamism” and “Viva Topless Jihad”. A few FEMEN supporters also wore fake beards to dress as stereotypes of Arab men.
Some Muslim women reacted against this, saying FEMEN are Islamophobes and imperialists, posting pictures online with slogans such as “Nudity does not liberate me and I do not need saving”, “Do I look like I need imperialists to free me from oppression!” and “Islam Gave Me Freedom”.
FEMEN’s response was an incoherent article by their leader Inna Shevchenko accusing Muslim women who are against FEMEN of not standing up for themselves and saying she would like to see a world free of various “troubles”.
The leaders of FEMEN are not good. They do not properly differentiate between Islam and Islamism. They protest against not only the Muslim Brotherhood but also outside regular mosques.
Their politics are incoherent and do not account for cultural, societal and individual interpretations of Islam. Their ignorance and lack of interest in the global women’s movement has led to this outpouring of anger from Muslim women. They show solidarity only when it suits their message.
They demand people to get totally on-board with them, for example saying “Muslim women: Let’s get naked!” rather than looking into different women’s movements and supporting and working with existing secularist and women’s groups or even trying to convince people about their message.
A bit like internet hackers “Anonymous”, to some extent it is a loose network. Women might support them without realising their full range of aims and beliefs. Their leaders are quite vague. Yet it does have offices, leaders and stated beliefs. What are those beliefs?
FEMEN attack sex workers. They support the Ukrainian state’s prohibition of sex work, and advocate the criminalisation of prostitution in other countries. They say they are waging a “war on the sex industry”.
In a protest in Paris at a porn industry event, they physically attacked two performers, and invaded the stage with “Go Rape Yourself” written across their bodies. They protested against Euro 2012 on the grounds that it brought sex tourism with it, in contrast to the self-organised sex workers at the 2012 Olympics which called for no arrests and no deportations.
They are not interested in solidarity with sex workers or sex workers’ rights. They say that sex workers “satisfy the lusty beast of patriarchy” and compare prostitution to fascism. Polish sex workers have protested against FEMEN, saying “FEMEN! Get the fuck out of our business!”
Their version of feminism is also bizarrely nationalistic. One of their core aims on their website is promoting the Ukraine as “the country with great opportunities for women”.
Despite their usual anti-church stance they lobby for independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
They have a strange attitude to womanhood as well. They have said “we build up a national image of femininity, maternity and beauty based on the Euro-Atlantic women’s movements’ experience”.
They train their activists at a camp in Paris, promoting “hot boobs, a cool head and clean hands”.
There are positive aspects to FEMEN. They are generally secularists. They are pro-choice. They are anti-dictatorships, and have accosted Putin shouting “Go to hell Dictator”. They have protested against the Pope for the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception and abortion. They worked with Egyptian feminists to oppose Morsi. They objected to Ikea’s erasing of women from its catalogues in Saudi Arabia, with one Muslim activist holding a sign saying “Allah created me visible”. And, of course, Amina Tyler’s actions were courageous and inspiring.
But it appears that to be FEMEN one just has to be topless and daubed with slogans. That’s limiting.
White women dressing up as caricatures of Arab men is much worse. It is absolutely racist and demonstrates an attitude to non-white women that is at best patronising.
Our problem with FEMEN is not that they are “skinny white feminists” who get their tits out, but that they talk a load of garbage, attack sex workers, patronise other women and have no real analysis of feminism outside of Europe. They say, “We have worked out our own unique form of self-expression based upon courage, creativity, efficiency and shock”. Right.
Public nudity is a fair tactic. But what little substance there is behind the slogans and bare breasts is troubling.