Both the Western and worldwide media does not pay attention to women until they take off their clothes. This isn’t news to anyone. Sites decrying the lack of young people’s morality also have gossip pages detailing lasciviously the nip slips and crotch shots of our favorite rehab bound women. With the preoccupation of women’s bodies is many a celebrity blogger’s paycheck made. It is in this light, this raunch culture, that I look at the activism of FEMEN with considerable cynicism.
FEMEN exploded onto the activist movement in 2008, its members quickly became internationally recognizable for going topless, and now naked, to protest sex tourists, sexism and other social ills in the Ukraine. The movement has since spread internationally. They have recently been in the news for the activist actions of a young women from Tunsia, Amina Tyler as well as April 4, 2013 International Topless Jihad Day. While I pray for the safety of Amina and the end of oppression the world over I also see that FEMEN is using her as the poster-child of a movement that runs on shock-value, and often speaks over the voices of the women they seek to ‘liberate’. Most recently FEMEN attacked sex workers taking to the stage in Paris to shove a nude woman who had been giving a lapdance on stage onto the ground repeatedly. While yelling, “Go rape yourself”, because apparently using nudity is only appropriate when FEMEN decides it is. They stated: Mainstream sex industry is allowing millions of user to download each day billions of disgusting images staging women in the most humiliating way as possible to satisfy the beasty lust of patriarchy. It’s a bizarre ideological mash-up when the irony of harming a woman to fulfill their goals seems to escape them.
FEMEN is all over the place ideologically speaking recently, they have even sought registration as a non-governmental organization. They even have the good fortune of a wealthy male benefactor Jed Sunden, the owner of KP media.
It troubles me that naked women with banners are being presented in the media as the new wave of feminism. It troubles me that Inna Shevchenko seems to think she invented nude activism. It troubles me that journalists declare FEMENS actions a gloriously crude protest with an article that makes clear the authors titillation. Male gaze, anyone?
Taking off your clothes to protest is not a new thing. Nor is it soley the tactic of the white, tight bodied frustrated advocate. In Nigeria, Kenya, and Libya nude protest has taken place over a century. What a testament to Eurocentric thinking it is to assume that FEMEN or any other Western organization, looking at you PETA, has invented this style of activism.
FEMEN is opportunistic with their use of the young and attractive female body in order to draw attention. Perhaps more insidious is that Ms. Shevchenko’s ‘beauty as a weapon’ philosophy enhances that shallow binary between “feminists” as the ugly old movement and “Femen” as the young virile fierce beauties. Intersectional feminist theory reminds us to ask ourselves what women are represented and in FEMEN the answer seems to be the young and the luscious. Oh but there are less than perfect members of FEMEN who are active, people tell me. And undoubtedly there are, but these are not the women in the majority of the clips shown by the media or, tellingly, by FEMEN themselves.
Further, the west is decidedly Islamophobic at worst and ignorant at best about Muslims. The media at large misrepresents Islam, often portraying the Middle East as the Islamic capital while Indonesia actually boasts a larger Islamic population. FEMEN doesn’t seem to be doing any better. When Muslim women rally against FEMEN they are called brainwashed and ‘stupid slaves’ by the FEMEN supporters on Facebook. Miriam Cooke, professor of modern Arabic literature and culture of Duke University reminds of of the inherent colonialism in the concern for the oppression of women under the thumb of Islam she says, “so extreme is the concern with Muslim women today that veiled, and even unveiled, women are no longer thought of as individuals: collectively they have become the Muslimwoman.”
What Femen, and feminism, needs to remember is that all women have choices. All of us, as women, have power and our choices to respond how we want to. It’s not as though women who aren’t feminists are brainless they are people with their own experiences and power. They get to decide what they are doing with their lives.
Most of the pushback for Amina is coming from the west while Inna Shevchenko lives in France, where nude protests may be shocking—the penalty for doing so is not lashes. The repeated criticism by women actually practicing Islam and living in the countries that FEMEN seeks to ‘liberate’ is that white women are not bringing feminism to Muslim countries it has existed there before. There’s a lack of cultural sensitivity to charge into a country and assume that you know better, that you are able to save them.
In a civilized society, everyone should have the right to peaceful protest. No FEMEN member should be harmed for the frustration shown through nudity…is liberation making Muslim women available for scrutiny under the male gaze? The argument for nudity is that shock is what causes people to pay attention. But is it shock? Nudity is EVERYWHERE in the western society. There is a deeply Eurocentric mindset to much political discussion among white radicals in discussions of feminism and the struggle for women’s rights. Now the spotlight is being shone on Ms. Shevchenko and her considerable bodily charms—and I’ve never felt further away from progress.