Of FEMEN and Muslimah Pride: Racism vs. Reform?

Posted on April 15, 2013 in GlobeScope, Society

By Fawaz Shaheen:

Last week FEMEN, the self-proclaimed “naked shock troops of feminism” carried out the International Topless Jihad Day. The immediate cause was supposed persecution of their Tunisian member known as “Amina” after she posted topless pictures decrying morals on the net. The larger, greater reason for their selfless act of compassion was, as you might have guessed, rescuing Muslim women from the oppression of Islam. In many cities of the world, FEMEN activists protested topless, with their angry messages and notes of solidarity with Amina written across their chests.


FEMEN’S leader Iva Shevchenko calls their method of protesting without upper-wear to raise issues close to their hearts (no pun intended) a display of “… the new aesthetics of a rejuvenated woman’s revolution…” It is not as if these protests are the first use of nudity as a form of dissent. It is definitely not common, but the gravity of the act is such that it is bound to demand attention. Take for instance the famous 2004 incident in Assam, where around 40 women took off their clothes and shouted “Indian army rape us!” in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters to protest against repeated rapes of women by paramilitary forces in the North-East. Few would have endorsed the tactic in India’s conservative setup, and yet the protesters evoked sympathy and a great measure of solidarity for their cause. The reason was simple: sheer sincerity of their cause and reality of their oppression.

FEMEN’S protests, however, have had the opposite effect. Women across the Muslim world have felt offended and expressed, clearly and harshly. Many took part in a counter-campaign, called “Muslimah Pride Day”, in which Muslim women posted pictures of themselves in their everyday forms to assert that they did not need topless protests to ‘liberate’ them. The reason here too is simple enough, FEMEN’S language is arrogant to the point of being racist, and betrays a feeling of superiority that has echoes of Kipling’s “White Man’s burden”. Consider this sentence from their response to Muslims girls offended by their protests:

You say you live the way you want. Being fifth wife in harem the maximum you can be is the favorite wife… Right?
The truth is that FEMEN’S campaign to ‘save’ Muslim women ultimately advocates nothing more than a blind acceptance of modern Western values, and a complete inability to comprehend the existence of diversity. It shows no understanding of complex issues facing a diverse religion of more than a billion people scattered all over the world.

Most demeaning has been their response to the letter which a group of Muslims sent them under the title ‘Muslims against FEMEN’. Ina Shevchenko complained that “The letter is obviously not written in feminist rhetoric at all…” and accused them all of being blackmailed by “bearded men with knives” behind them.

The absolute refusals to accept the legitimacy of their opponents shows that they would much rather believe in the ‘helpless slave’ version than the assertive and questioning Muslim women they were confronted with. If anything, their peevish generalisations betray both ignorance and arrogance, and at some level a loathing for Islam in general. This is what Sofia Ahmed, founder of the ‘Muslimah Pride Day’ had to say of FEMEN’S statements: “What she is implying is that Muslim women are incapable of speaking for themselves. It is a blatant attempt at denying that we have agency in our own lives. This kind of inferiorising is symbolic of why so many Muslim women are so angry with Femen.

FEMEN’S attitude was actually not a surprise for anyone familiar with the context of growing Islamophobia in Europe and North America. In fact, many neutral observers have alleged that FEMEN has played to the gallery and made itself more acceptable to popular opinion in the West by launching a whole-scale attack on the current ‘other’, Islam. By playing up general prejudices and reinforcing the picture of the fanatical, cunning and malevolent Muslim male on the one hand and the oppressed, powerless and slavish Muslim woman on the other, they have made sure that people in their Nations can identify with their cause and develop some kind of sympathy for the “sextremist” organisation.

What has been most surprising, however, has been the reaction in the Muslim world. Usually, such campaigns or programs are followed by reactionary responses that further increase the tensions. Within hours, you would have half-baked Mullas issuing meaningless fatwas calling for death to the organisers and the drawing up of fantastical armies and battle lines. It becomes an opportunity for many to gain instant notoriety and another excuse for an entrenched clerical class to further their monopoly over Islam.

However, this time the popular response was different. FEMEN had attacked the sensibilities of Muslim women, and so the response also came from them, and it used the same medium as FEMEN; the internet.

It is not as if the fatwa industry would have been silent on the issue, but the point is that no one paid it any attention. What Muslims did pay attention to was campaigns like the ‘Muslimah Pride Day’, in which Muslim women of all hues and colors participated and laughed off constant Western efforts to ‘liberate’ them.

For a long time now, Islam has been increasingly monopolised by a sectarian clerical class that does not encourage people to know the religion for themselves. The opposition to them has traditionally been led b those considered ‘secular’ or ‘un-Islamic’, and has therefore furthered polarization.  Over the past century, however, there have been considerable efforts at reform and there is a push to make Islam a religion for all humanity, and not just a prisoner of mosque held hostage by sectarian drama.

These efforts have created a category of Muslims who are broadly open-minded, deeply religious and firmly aware of the changing times. They constantly look to Islam for guidance, and are also perceptive of the world around them. It is this class which has been most active in giving an answer to FEMEN, and they include a growing number of restless young Muslims, both male and female, who have been thrown into prominence by the Arab Spring.

For a very long time, the world has ignored this class of Muslims, but the FEMEN episode has shown that they will have an increasing space in defining Islam and creating discourse in the Muslim world.

Or at least let us hope that they do, because as far as saving Islam and Muslims is concerned, I am pretty sure these Muslims have a much better shot at doing so than a group of skinny white females with bad taste in clothing.