Over the weekend, a Muslim conference held near Paris was interrupted when two Femen activists stormed the stage during a talk given by two fundamentalist preachers. The focus of the talk was on the role of women in Islam and, according to Inna Shevchenko – Femen’s founder member – they were discussing why husbands should not beat their wives. The topless activists were then forcibly removed from the stage and kicked aggressively by a number of the event organisers. Irony doesn’t even cover it.
— inna shevchenko (@femeninna) September 13, 2015
It’s easy to dismiss this as yet more bare-breasted attention seeking from Femen protesters, and in a way, it is. But you can’t doubt that they often get their targets right. Back in Ukraine in 2008, Femen activists fought against sex tourism. They have also staged protests against female genital mutilation. Now, they are taking the fight to radical Islam.
According to Femen’s own statement on their website, the two activists were from Muslim backgrounds, one of Tunisian and the other of Algerian origin. They jumped onto the stage, screaming ‘no one makes me submit, no one can possess me, I am my own prophet’ and had a similar slogan written across their chests. Femen claim that the activists were protesting against violence against women, which they see as widespread in some Muslim communities.
Following the incident, the conference organisers urged fellow Muslims to ‘stand together’ and attend the final day of the event on Sunday, claiming that they were ‘the victim of an anti-Muslim media frenzy’. What’s interesting is that those involved in the conference have avoided defending their position on a woman’s role in the family and society at large. Yet Nader Abou Anas, one of the preachers, openly promotes marital subjugation. I suppose it’s easier to play the victim than defend your beliefs when confronted by the world’s media. The conference organisers now see themselves as victims, so it probably won’t be long until we hear that Femen and its two activists are racist and ‘Islamophobic’.
Criticising Islamic attitudes to women increasingly comes under the remit of ‘hate speech’, as the Danish Iranian artist Firoozeh Bazrafkan found. In 2013, she was found guilty of violating anti-racism legislation and handed a 5,000 kroner fine for a blog post she wrote that was critical of Islamic misogyny. In an interview with the Copenhagen Post, she argued that Danish anti-racism legislation should not apply to a critique of religion. ‘I wrote it as an artistic manifesto to show that we cannot say what we want [in Denmark] and we cannot criticise Islamic regimes. As a Danish Iranian, I know what a big problem Islamic regimes are in both Iran and the Middle East. These Islamic codes give men the rights to do whatever they want to women and children and I think it’s disgusting. They also prevent people in Iran from discussing and saying what they want. This is what I wanted to criticise.’
Feminism’s fight against certain strands of Islam is not for the faint-hearted. In March, Nick Cohen discussed in The Spectator how Sweden’s feminist foreign minister had dared to tell the truth about Saudi Arabia and its subjugation of women:
‘A small Scandinavian nation faces sanctions, accusations of Islamophobia and maybe worse to come, and everyone stays silent. As so often, the scandal is that there isn’t a scandal. The non-affair shows us that the rights of women always come last.’
Following their protest, the Femen activists have been subjected to calls on Twitter for them to be stoned and collectively raped. They have also been accused of only representing ‘white feminism’ despite the two activists being themselves from Muslim backgrounds. You may dismiss Femen’s tactics, you may call it ‘attention seeking’, but they fight for women’s rights in a way many would never dare. I wish other feminists were as outspoken and unapologetic in calling out genuine misogyny.
Agnieszka Kolek is the curator and co-organiser of Passion for Freedom London Art Festival, which will be held from 21 – 26 September at Mall Galleries.