A FEMEN Activist Explains Why She Flashed Her Tits at a Muslim Conference

What is the best way of fighting the inherent misogyny of religion? Activists from the pan-European feminist group FEMEN have been getting topless and angry at a range of (mostly Muslim) events for a few years now, with mixed results.

The latest one happened on Saturday night in Pontoise, close to Paris, at a two-day conference called Salon Musulman (Muslim Salon). This year, the annual event was focused on "the Muslim woman." Two activists got up onstage to disrupt a talk made by two imams, late in the evening. We talked to one of them to find out what happened.

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"It was as me and another woman, called Myriam," Tara, one of the activists, told us. " We went to the conference, waited till the last talk, and when the two imams started talking about whether the Quran encouraged men to beat their wives, we got onstage. We were wearing djellabas [traditional robes popular in Algeria and Morocco], then removed them and were topless, with slogans on our chests. I had 'I am my own prophet,' and she had 'I will submit to no one.' We stayed on stage for about ten seconds, then security arrived."

"Myriam was beaten up by men from the audience and by the men in charge of security, then we got taken away." A video from the event appears to show one of the women getting kicked as she is removed from the stage.

Given that FEMEN was initially started in Ukraine as a feminist movement against the sexual exploitation of eastern European women, their actions in Paris have taken a bit of an unexpected turn. While the group's stated aims are to fight the "patriarchy in its three manifestations—sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship, and religion," the French branch has mostly focused on Islam. Why choose this particular event as a target?

"We chose it because it was meant to be centered around women. We found it quite incredible that no women had actually been invited to speak. We also chose these two imams specifically because they've expressed incredibly violent opinions against women in the past, including calling for rape, and justifying it with the Quran."

Tara isn't wrong. The two imams were Nader Abou Anas—who really did once encourage marital rape—and Mehdi Kabir, whose speeches on women and Islam aren't exactly progressive. Choice quotes from Anas' speaking repertoire include: "A woman should only leave the house with her husband's permission... In the evening, if he has needs but she doesn't want to, the man will crack. She needs to know that angels will curse her all night long if she refuses to [have sex] with her husband for no valid reason."

One of the FEMEN activists throwing her djellaba at the imams. Image by Capucine Henry

While not quite as forthright, Kabir has also given various speeches telling off men for letting their wives, sisters, and daughters leaving the house with perfume on, which is a sure sign of them being sluts. (BuzzFeed France did note that the two women interrupted just as Kabir was telling his audience that Muslims should "follow the example of the Prophet, who never slapped his wife.")

Opposing that kind of discourse seems like a non-brainer, but is FEMEN really the way forward? The group has been criticized in the past for its obsession with Islam, when, really, misogyny can and is being fought everywhere, with some even questioning whether the group had Islamophobic tendencies. The FEMEN France Facebook group was quick to point out that the two activists who got topless on Saturday both came from Muslim families, but the claim seems a bit overenthusiastic.

"One of my grandmothers is Muslim, yeah, and the other one's Catholic," Tara told us, "but both my parents are atheists, and religion wasn't a part of my upbringing."

One activist is cornered by security staff and bystanders. Photo by Capucine Henry

In that case, doesn't it seem a bit presumptuous to invade Muslim spaces, rather explicitly judging people—including women—for being religious? "We're not against the faith and beliefs of women, we're about being able to make a choice, and those who do want to [have faith] can...We mostly focus on the fact that religious texts have always oppressed women."

The line doesn't seem as clear as Myriam tries to make it. With modesty being an important part of the Muslim faith—and indeed, most other major faiths—going topless gives the impression of trying to appeal to fellow smug atheists, rather than those FEMEN's message should be trying to reach.

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Does she feel like actions like these may actually alienate Muslim women, rather than attempting to empower them? "Yes." Myriam pauses. "It's possible, but we do have a very specific type of direct action."

The good side of this specific type of direct action is, of course, publicity. The stunt was covered by all the French papers yesterday, with international outlets playing catch-up today. After all, the whole affair was a PR dream: The breasts, the shouting, the imams looking more than uncomfortable... Did anything good come out of it? Most of the articles only had a short mention of the imams' sexist speech and were focussing on FEMEN themselves.

This is not new to the group, or indeed, any other protest group aiming to shock. You could argue that by being so out there, the collective is endlessly raising awareness of issues that harm, shame and kill women every day, but it wouldn't feel that cynical to point out that, well—FEMEN's most successful campaign seems to be for itself.

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About FEMEN

The mission of the "FEMEN" movement is to create the most favourable conditions for the young women to join up into a social group with the general idea of the mutual support and social responsibility, helping to reveal the talents of each member of the movement.

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