Femen's Islam-bashing disregards Muslim feminism

By Hajer Naili
(Sergey Kukota on Flickr)
(Sergey Kukota on Flickr)

NEW YORK {WOMENSENEWS}-- "International Topless Jihad Day"--organized in several European capitals on April 4 by the feminist group Femen--was a setback for women in the Muslim world.

All it did was give religious extremists a good reason to denounce feminism as an importation of the West that insults cultures and religions.


But Femen's leader, Inna Schevchenko, seems intent on ignoring that message. In an April 8 retort to her Muslim female critics in the Huffington Post U.K., Schevchenko only intensifies a culturally tone-deaf narrative that says Islam is oppressive, Muslim men are violent and Muslim women are voiceless.

Here's a sample of what Schevchenko writes in the piece: "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 color of skin . . .You say you live the way you want. Being fifth wife in harem the maximum you can be is the favorite wife . . . Right? You say we talk about you because we are irritated only by bearded men who pray five times per day."


She goes on to say: "Sisters, we don't care how many times your men are praying, but we care a lot what they do in between. We care a lot about violence and aggression, we care a lot when your fathers, brothers and husbands are raping and killing, when they call to stone your sisters, we care a lot when they burn embassies etc, and all that for Allah!"

Femen, based in Kiev, Ukraine, and founded in 2008, disserves feminism if it chooses to ignore what many Muslim women say. That in itself is a form of silencing. Many Muslim female social activists don't question Islam. Instead, we say a proper interpretation of Islam respects women's rights.

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Islamophobic Protests

It's also legitimate to denounce the group as Islamophobic based on what happened on April 4, when activists in Paris, Berlin, Kiev and as far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil demonstrated in solidarity with the Tunisian Femen activist Amina Tyler, who has been in hiding since March 8, the day she posted pictures of herself topless on Facebook's Femen Tunisia page.

In an April 3 demonstration in Paris, on the eve of International Topless Jihad Day, three Femen activists--two French and one Tunisian--burned the Islamic flag in front of the Grand Mosque. That flag contains the declaration of the belief in the oneness of God and acceptance of Muhammad as the prophet of God. Burning it is blasphemous for Muslims.


Femen chose April 4 because it's Tyler's birthday, but the embattled young activist did not embrace the gesture. In a TV interview with a crew of French journalists from the station Canal+, Tyler denounced the protests. "They burned the Islamic flag in front of a mosque in Paris. I am against it."

Tyler is not disavowing her connection with Femen though. "I will be one of them until I am 80," she told the TV reporters. But she fears that Femen has only intensified the backlash against her. "Everyone is now going to think that I encouraged them. It's inacceptable," she said in an interview aired by the TV French program "L'Effet Papillon."

Tyler's photos of herself had the words "my body is mine, nobody's honor" written in Arabic across her breasts and stomach. The words express an understandable feeling of defiance against the rise of fundamentalism in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab region. Extremists called for her to be stoned to death, which is condemnable.

But the pictures also shocked more moderate and even progressive parts of the Arab and Muslim world, which didn't seem to bother Femen activists one bit.

Intent on turning up the heat and making sure non-Arabic readers could understand, Femen altered photos of Tyler and uploaded them to the organization's Facebook page, so the words across her body read, in English, "Fuck your morals."


Targeting Islamic Symbols

The group's reckless Islamophobia is impossible to deny after this April 4 broadside attack on symbols of Islamic culture. In addition to favoring mosques as demonstration sites, many Femen activists -- who are known for protesting topless with slogans written across their chest -- wore turbans and beards. Some drew the Islamic crescents on their nipples, shown in a photo that was on the group's website against a background of green, the color of Islam, until yesterday.

Organizers also appropriated the term "jihad," which is used in the Quran to mean two types of "struggle": one that is spiritual and one that is physical (Holy war).

This crude attack on the Muslim world uses women as a shield. But it does nothing to seriously address the problem of religious extremism that restricts women in all societies.

If Schevchenko were a true feminist, she would respect what many Muslims are saying.

Since April 4 our message has been loud and clear: Muslim women don't need to be liberated by Femen.

The hashtag #MuslimahPride went viral on Twitter on April 4 to denounce Femen's campaign. The Facebook page "Muslim women against Femen . . . Muslimah Pride Day" launched on April 6. "We as Muslim women, and those who stand with us, need to show Femen and their supporters that their actions are counterproductive and we as Muslim women oppose it," wrote the page's authors. "So please post pictures of your beautiful selves, whether you wear hijab, niqab or not. This is an opportunity for Muslim women to get a say and show people that we have a voice too, that we come in many different shapes and sizes, that we object to the way we are depicted in the West, we object to the way we are lumped into one homogenous group without a voice of agency of our own."


Femen's international bureau is located in Paris, where Schevchenko resides. The organization, which became internationally known for organizing topless protests, claimed in October 2012 it had about 40 activists in Ukraine and another 100 who had joined their protests abroad, according to Wikipedia. Femen's website, however, doesn't provide information on the group's structure or the number of members.

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