FEMEN, the "sextremist" feminist group known for staging topless protests, declared yesterday "International Topless Jihad Day" in solidarity with Amina Tyler, a 19 year old Tunisian activist who had received death threats after posting topless pictures of herself to Femen's Tunisian Facebook page. She had written "Fuck your morals" and "My body belongs to me is not the source of anyone's honor" in Arabic on her chest, causing religious officials to call for her to be punished by 80 to 100 lashes or even, horrifyingly, by being stoned to death. Following reports that Amina had been admitted to a mental hospital, FEMEN called upon its supporters to protest the "lethal hatred of Islamists – inhuman beasts for whom killing a woman is more natural than recognising her right to do as she pleases with her own body" at Tunisian embassies around the world. Protests occurred in Sweden, Italy, Ukraine, France, and Belgium.
While it is unquestionably necessary, brave, and noble to stand with Amina (who is reportedly not free to move or speak safely), the protests were distressingly and distractingly Islamophobic. A photo from one of shows a white woman with crescent moons covering her nipples, wearing a fake beard, a unibrow penciled in with eyeliner, and a bath towel on her head. Another photo, highlighted on FEMEN's Facebook page is of a topless woman protesting at a mosque in San Francisco (because, when you're fighting the good fight of "TITS AGAINST ISLAMISM," standing topless in front of any mosque anywhere will do) with the following caption:
TODAY IS AMINA TOPLESS JIHAD DAY. I was at the Islamic Mosque in San Francisco. Some Arab guy tried to grab my sign and pushed me in a violent way. My friend stopped him. MY BODY IS MY TEMPLE.
Further down is a cartoon of a woman crawling out from under her burqa to light on fire the beard of a caricature of a Muslim man (or should I say "some Arab guy"?). In the comments, a woman posted a link to an Al Jazeera article about Muslim women counter-protesting the protest, as they rightfully feel that it was condescending and imperialistic in both tone and intent. FEMEN fans responded to her link in the following ways:
"Stupid muslim women. Made brainless by Quran."
You know that there's something wrong with your protest when its ardent supporters find it appropriate to repeatedly call the women they are "saving" stupid and to affirm that they have no capacity for making decisions of their own.
The counter-protest, Muslimah Pride Day, calls for women to speak out for themselves on social media:
[P]lease post pictures of your beautiful selves, whether you wear hijaab, nikaab 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 in to one homogenous group without a voice of agency of our own.
FEMEN needs to recognize that Muslim women do in fact have agency, and the idea that Muslim women are helpless, passively indoctrinated by the alleged evils of Islam, and desperately need of Western feminist help is oppressive and orientalist. Patriarchy is not specific to Islam — although there are inarguably extreme and truly saddening examples of misogyny in the Muslim community, patriarchy is a global issue. Furthermore, feminism is not only a Western institution — to assume that Muslim women need someone to "speak for" them is insulting to all the grassroots political organizing and activism that Muslim feminists have done. It's disturbing how a the rhetoric of "women's liberation" has been co-opted to justify aggression, violence, and prejudice against Muslim communities. In what way is it appropriate to "rescue" women by indulging in and re-circulating essentializing, stereotyped, and offensive depictions of their culture?
"Muslim women send message to Femen" [Al Jazeera]