FEMEN’s “International Topless Jihad Day” failed to accurately represent the majority of Muslim women. Instead, the flawed campaign generated frustration rather than support from the community the group intended to liberate.
FEMEN is a protest group based in Kyiv, Ukraine, known for staging topless demonstrations. FEMEN uses the female body as a symbol of resistance in order to contrast the objectifications made by the media and fight for women’s equality.
The group dubbed April 4 “International Topless Jihad Day” to show support for 19-year-old Amina Tyler. Tyler became the subject of controversy after she posted topless pictures of herself on the Internet with messages like, “My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honor” written on her chest. A Muslim cleric responded to the pictures by calling for her to be stoned to death.
FEMEN displayed its solidarity with Tyler on “International Topless Jihad Day” by staging topless protests in various countries. Some messages found on protestors’ bodies included, “Freedom for Women” and “No Islamism.”
But the majority Muslim women rightfully continue to lack appreciation for this effort.
Muslim women’s frustration with FEMEN led activist Sofia Ahmed to create “Muslimah Pride Day” to celebrate the voices of many Muslim women who FEMEN conveniently ignores.
On Wednesday, Ahmed expressed her frustration with FEMEN’s practices in a piece for The Huffington Post.
“Despite the popularity of our campaign and the strong message that it sent out, FEMEN have continued to display a flagrant disregard for our agency and have consistently tried to downplay the legitimacy of our collective voices,” Ahmed wrote.
Muslim women have been fighting for gender equality long before FEMEN came along, and the group’s actions are only undermining the work Muslim women have done in the past.
FEMEN’s one-size-fits-all, imperialist feminism fails to acknowledge how one group’s idea of liberation is not universal. This idea of liberation especially contrasts when it comes to clothing.
A year ago, FEMEN members protested against the burqa in France by dressing in the traditional garment, then stripping in front of the Eiffel Tower. They had words such as “Freedom” and “Muslim women, let’s get naked” written on their bodies, and ran half-naked through predominantly Muslim neighborhoods in Paris.
Similar actions were evident in FEMEN’s “International Topless Jihad Day.” In one picture, a member of FEMEN can be seen with a penciled-in unibrow, fake beard and a towel on her head with crescent moons and stars outlining her breasts.
This bigoted behavior is unacceptable and does not demonstrate that FEMEN desires solidarity with Muslim women. Instead, these combined actions reveal how FEMEN does not understand one of the key principles of feminism — the freedom of choice.
Fatema Mernissi, a prominent Islamic feminist author, writes in her book, “Scheherazade Goes West”: “Covering women’s bodies seems to give Muslims a sense of virility, while Westerners derive their own from uncovering them.”
Women from different cultures undoubtedly have different ways of expressing liberation. It becomes problematic when one culture attempts to assert its idea of liberation onto another.
FEMEN’s idea of Muslim women as subjugated and dismissive objects causes the group to misunderstand the agency of Muslim women.
While FEMEN’s premise cannot be dismissed entirely, its tactics and language should be reconsidered.
Rahimon Nasa is a sophomore newspaper and online journalism and international relations major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @rararahima.