What do you get when you mix white women, flower crowns, racism and colonial imperialism?
Unfortunately, FEMEN and their actions are no laughing matter. Self-described as a “radically feminist” organization, FEMEN’s roots are in protesting against sex trafficking of Ukrainian women and demonstrating for pro-choice legislation in Ukraine. The group was founded in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2008, and now boasts having members and branches all over Europe, with a large branch located in Paris. In October of 2012, FEMEN claimed to be composed of 40 topless protesters, with another 100 who had joined their protests outside of Kiev. Most recently, FEMEN has become increasingly offensive and racist and has sparked an international debate.
The women of FEMEN, who have recently acquired mainstream media fame for what they declared to be a Topless Jihad Day, have become known for staging topless protests in front of religious institutions. The group claims that staging protests while topless is the “only way to be heard” in their native country of Ukraine. FEMEN’s ‘Topless Jihad Day’ is said to be in response to death threats that were made to Amina Tyler – a Tunisian woman who posted nude photos of herself on Facebook with the words “I own my body; it’s not the source of anyone’s honor” written on her bare chest. Overall, Topless Jihad Day appeared to be a protest against Islam and Islamist “oppression of women”. At least, that’s how FEMEN sees it. White women wore flower crowns, black skinny jeans and scrawled ‘FUCK YOUR MORALS’ and ‘FREE AMINA’ on their bare chests. In Paris, topless protesters burned a Salafist flag in front of a mosque. All of this, in the name of ‘liberating’ Muslim women.
And then there’s this photo:
It is counter-productive to attempt to ‘save’ women by upholding racist, Islamophobic stereotypes. Can the rights of one structurally oppressed group, i.e. Muslim women, be saved while the rights of another structurally oppressed group, i.e. Arabs, Muslims and people of Middle Eastern decent, be mocked and oppressed? The level of racism in the photo above is overwhelming–the ‘towel head’, the beard, the unibrow, the mocking of Islamic prayer. How can this hope to further FEMEN’s agenda? How can FEMEN hope to be taken seriously on the international stage?
It is not hard to believe that Muslim women around the world are angry with FEMEN. A group called Muslim Women Against FEMEN, or MWAF, have formed to make it clear that FEMEN does not speak for all Muslim women. MWAF states:
“This group is primarily for Muslim women who want to expose FEMEN for the Islamophobes/Imperialists that they are. We have had enough of western feminists imposing their values on us. We are taking a stand to make our voices heard and reclaim our agency. Muslim women have had enough of this paternalistic and parasitic relationship with SOME western feminists.”
Even Amina Tyler, the activist who inspired the Topless Jihad, has expressed disapproval. “They have insulted all Muslims,” Amina explained during a brief interview on a French television station, “and that is unacceptable.”
MWAF began to spread their message with posts that included Muslim women with or without hijab (religious head gear), holding signs with messages like ‘I am a proud Muslimah and I don’t need to be liberated!”, and “Do I look oppressed to you?” Inna Shevchen, a white Ukrainian member of FEMEN, wasted no time responded to MWAF and their posts (like this one):
In a Huffington Post UK blog post, Shevchen wrote:
“Being born in post USSR country (Ukraine) I know exactly that it’s a common trait of dictatorial countries to promote the official position of the government pretending that it’s backed by the people. I don’t deny the fact that there Muslim women who will say they are free and the hijab is their choice and right. … 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. … They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me.'”
Chin smacks floor. True feminism should respect a woman’s freedom in everything she chooses – that includes the freedom to choose her religion and religious headgear. Inna Shevchen and FEMEN are upholding racist and Islamophobic stereotypes and generalizations, and frankly, many of their methods look to be more attention-seeking than possessing good intentions. Instead of fighting oppression and joining together in upholding women’s rights, FEMEN alienates themselves as white, paternalistic radicals who may be adding to modern negative stereotypes of Westernized feminism instead of furthering the progress that feminism is supposed to strive for.
Can white feminists help women of color who may be oppressed? Of course. Are all white feminists bad? Of course not. What FEMEN is missing in their approach is an intersectional sensitivity. FEMEN claims to fight for the rights of Amina Tyler, who had been threatened and persecuted for simply showing her breasts on the Internet. FEMEN’s efforts to bring attention to Tyler’s plight are well-intentioned but their methods are ignorant. When writing about how FEMEN could continue to help Amina Tyler without resorting to racism, imperialism and oppression, Roqayah Chamseddine reasoned: “[Y]ou raise awareness by highlighting native voices, not co-opting them. It is your duty to amplify, not commandeer.”
As of now, it seems that FEMEN are unwilling to change their misinformed attitudes. One thing is certain: FEMEN will serve as a humbling reminder that even the most committed feminists can be wrong if they do not continue to check their privilege.