FEMEN, the Ukrainian feminist group that's been grabbing headlines for their topless protesting, has used their naked bodies as billboards for messages against the patriarchy, religion, and political suppression. While Russia's Vladmir Putin smirks at them from behind security guards, in predominantly Muslim countries, their nudity shakes the moral foundation of Arab society at its core.
"Fuck your morals," is what a nineteen-year-old Tunisian woman named Amina Tyler has to say to the religion-centric society from which she hails. Tyler founded the Tunisian chapter of FEMEN a month before posting topless photos of herself with "FUCK YOUR MORALS" and "My body belongs to me," written across her bare chest. Even though Tunisia is one of the most progressive Arab country in terms of women's rights, the country is embroiled in a political identity crisis, leaning towards the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, over more secular regimes. For Tyler to bare her breasts in an act of defiance is nothing Ennahda leaders would smirk at and make casual jokes about. For Ennahda, it's considered a very serious breach to the conservative norms of Tunisian society.
Amina was interviewed on the French Cable station Canal+ on Saturday, appearing heavy with anxiety and fear, stating, "I'm afraid for my life and the lives of my family." After multiple reported death threats against her, and the very real possibility of fundamentalist radicals attacking her, Amina seeks to leave Tunisia.
The buzz surrounding Tyler's topless photography came a few days after FEMEN's International Topless Jihad Day. Protesting what the group labeled as Islam's oppression of women, they included Tyler's plight in their list of reasons for protesting nude throughout Europe.
Tyler isn't the first to use her naked body as a form of protest in the Arab world. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, a 20-something Egyptian blogger and student, posted a photo of herself posing nude in a pair of stockings and flats on her blog in October of 2011. Posing demurely with one leg on a stool, the photo wasn't raunchy, save for the fact that the portrait was nude. Elmahdy hadn't emblazoned her chest with direct messages against an oppressive society, but the photos sparked an uproar, with her blog reaching over 2 million views and garnering death threats and insults.
They've now been folded into the FEMEN mission to "liberate" Muslim women from the oppression of Islamic society.
But the notion that Muslim women need liberating isn't something radical and new. The debate has been integral in Western-Muslim relations since before the advent of colonialism. It's been brought up time and time again as the focal point of debating not only women's rights but Islam as its validity as a religion. Why the debate lands squarely on the head of hijabi women is another question.
The Facebook group Muslim Women Against FEMEN, launched in response to International Topless Jihad Day, states its mission is "to expose FEMEN for the Islamophobes/Imperialists that they are. We are making our voices heard and reclaiming our agency!" From the Western perspective, scrolling through the Facebook page may be a bit unsettling. Women covered sometimes from head to toe with only their hands exposed holding signs like, "My hijab cover my body but opens my mind to greater beauty," "You can't liberate the free," and my personal favorite, "Oops.. forgot to be oppressed. Too busy being FREAKING AWESOME," may appear to be one big feminist oxymoron.
Inna Shevchenko, founder of FEMEN and a self-proclaimed "sextremist," responded to Muslim Women Against FEMEN with her column in Huffington Post. "And you can put as many scarves as you want if you are free tomorrow to take it off and put it back on the next day but don't deny millions of 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! We are here to scream about that."
Shevchenko, though she might be be earnest in her mission, remains ignorant in her understanding of a Muslim feminist. From her column, it's doubtful that she believes such a thing can exist, even though she states, "I don't deny the fact that there [are] Muslim women who will say they are free and the hijab is their choice and right." She reminds me of an overly-tanned British tourist I overheard in Petra, Jordan last year. Taking a drag of her cigarette, the woman turned and smiled at a young, hijabi waitress and told her, "We're here to start a revolution with you women!" and laughed with her friend as the girl served her.
It's that casual and clumsy analysis of a culture so deeply intertwined with religion that enrages Muslim feminists around the world. There's no denying that Arab and Muslim cultures are deeply influenced by misogyny (you can't tell me banning women from driving cars is feminism), but the rushed judgement that no feminism can exist within Islam is a flawed concept. Though some feminists, like Tyler and Elmahdy, may chose to confront religious society altogether, it doesn't mean religious feminists can't exist. It's not an oxymoron— for thousands of Muslim women, it's their daily reality.
The women of FEMEN use their bodies as a medium to get their message across, but the shock of their nudity- any nudity- offends Muslim society at its core. Their condescending belief that Muslim women need saving only adds insult to injury. In Muslim countries, nudity will definitely get people's attention, but whether that leads to constructive progress is still up for question.
The overwhelming message that seems to be emanating from FEMEN to Muslim women is, "You're not doing it right." But to me, anyone telling a woman what to do is anti-feminist.