De-centering Dialogue- What’s at Risk with Femen
By Hana Riaz
It’s Wednesday evening and I’m doing what I love doing: talking over dinner with beautiful women. The nature of what we do means our conversation shifts landscapes, speaking about everything from love, activism, to race, gender and art. After dinner I realise that it’s not often I’m able to sit down with a white woman and speak so candidly about certain subjects without a series of apologetics or silencing. What we carefully navigated in that space was dialogue, a mutual conversation centred on resolution about issues that are otherwise difficult, emotional, complex, and personal. It was a reminder of how limited this experience is for many of us.
Gender inequality is a global reality for all women. 1 in 3 women have or will face physical and sexualised violence (UN statistics) in their lifetime; women are disproportionately affected by poverty, they face unequal pay, instability and exploitation in employment, amongst many other things. As a consequence, women navigate their lives accordingly, finding pockets of agency and resistance, doing what they have to survive, and organising against multiple oppressions.
Femen, the Ukraine-based feminist group, has recently launched International Topless Jihad day in support of Tunisian feminist activist Amina Tyler who reportedly faced death threats after posting her own topless protest photos on Facebook. Having used their naked bodies to challenge Putin and the Pope, they have also taken to fighting Islam, burning flags of the Shahada outside mosques and taking pictures of themselves bare-breasted with towels on their head mocking Islamic prayer. Demanding that Muslim women get naked in order to fight the Islamist beasts that hold them captive, to start a real war through nudity – a radical symbol of a woman’s reclamation of rights to her own body.
Muslim women have reacted globally – writing, taking pictures, and launching Muslim Women Against Femen as a way to counteract the ideology that Femen assert. Little of this has to do with naked protest in itself; women of colour have historically used this method in appropriate cultural and political contexts like the Nigerian Women’s War of 1929. Instead the crux of the matter is about the racist, colonial and imperial nature of mainstream Feminism that continues to claim Muslim women as oppressed, victims of religion and culture, and in not knowing what freedom is – unable to liberate themselves.
This ‘herstory’ that is used in mainstream movements - unabashedly White, Western, Middle Class - to trace the roots of women’s oppression, and justify particular forms of political action, is an imperial history; one that suffers from similar historical amnesia that plagues white male-dominated accounts. These narratives delineate Western feminists by re-iterating ‘non-Western women are what we are not’. It wrenches collectivities and experiences out of essential context and freezes women into objects/victims (and men into subjects/perpetrators). Reducing women to a homogenous category without sociohistorical embedding risks losing indigenous meanings or alternative understandings of gender/sexuality based on location, or social and sexual destinies that differ from both Western male-centred and feminist visions. Furthermore, it leaves women with multiple identities, such as Muslim women, unable to ‘pick’ and ‘choose’ one. These identities are inextricably defined by one another and we cannot simply drop or alter what are core tenets of our experiences.
Whilst Femen are using more ‘radical’ methods that are Islamaphobic, they are symptomatic of broader problems that plague Western feminisms. We have witnessed the same ideologies lay claim to our bodies and politics. We only have to think about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Burqa ban in France, and discourses surrounding Female Genital Mutilation or forced marriage to see this rhetoric play out vividly.
There have been many articles circulating by Muslim and Women of Colour challenging Femen. Whilst it has given platform to an array of Muslim women’s voices to counteract these narratives, it has also pointed to continued isolation with regards to mainstream Western feminism. Having to constantly defend our communities against racist, neo-colonial assumptions shifts the discourse away from being able to simultaneously talk about pervasive localised gender inequalities. Dangerously, it also means that when the dialogue is truncated and unequal, how we talk about patriarchy, freedom and justice in these spaces remains framed by the racist other. In this case, it’s centred on questions of aesthetics – nudity versus veiling – as opposed to rights and issues that plague women globally such as rape or poverty that are experienced in localised ways.
Inna Shevchenko, leader of Femen, responded:
"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 colour of skin… but don’t deny millions of your sisters who have fear behind their scarves, don’t deny that there are million of your sisters who have been raped and killed because they are not following the wish of Allah!”
This indicates that what we say, feel, or think has no value, that there is no dialogue unless someone is actively listening and engaging. It means, in our safe spaces away from these white women we all grunt a ‘ain’t nobody got time for this’ and get back to work that is rarely celebrated, serving our community’s needs. But, as an isolation that is necessary to safeguard our politics away from those that lack accountability in order to be there ‘for us’ we lose the feminist praxis.
Feminist dialogue is the pretext for feminist action, one that makes for a politics of accountability, responsibility and vision. It is not a reaction or shock politics but a space for building an alternative with longevity and permanency – a world free of patriarchy amongst other systems of domination that hold our lives in varying degrees of oppression. It’s this that makes for progressive politics and I’m glad that as active agents of their own lives, Muslim women globally are exemplar of that even when others don’t want to listen.
Illustration by Sofia Niazi