Femen is a feminist group that stages topless protests against a myriad of issues. A young Tunsania woman, Amina Tyler, recently posted two topless photos of herself to the group’s Tunsania page (which she stated), one with the words “My Body is My Own and Not the Source of Anyone’s Honor” written in Arabic across her chest, and another reading “Fuck Your Morals.” After her family’s discovery of the images, Amina has since been placed in a mental institution. This is obviously a sad situation, and as feminists we are right to by angry and upset about the way Amina has been silenced, and to seek ways to support her. The grossly Islamophobic Femen protests that have since occurred are, however, not okay.
Here’s the key difference: Amina was responding to her own culture, her own lived experience. She can say “Fuck Your Morals,” because she is speaking against a specific oppression that she herself has lived with. Her protest speaks to the truth of her own experience. When Western Women engage without nuance in this issue, they risk ignoring their own privilege and the limitations of what they can see from their position.
There is a long, bloody and tragic history in which Western countries and people have oppressed and exploited Muslim countries and people, and we cannot escape or ignore that history when addressing global issues of gender. There is a world of difference when a Muslim woman living in Tunsania writes “Fuck Your Morals” on her naked chest and when a white, non-Mulsim woman living in the West–with all the privilege that brings with it–does the same. The former is activism, the latter is ignorance. In this image (NSFW), a woman has the crescent of Islam painted on each breast, the star covering her nipple, with the words “Fuck Islamism” painted on her torso. Perhaps she thinks that, by adding “-ism” to the end of the Islam, she’s not disrespecting an entire, complicated and multi-faceted religion and culture, with its millions of individuals, each practicing and engaging with issues of gender and culture and spirituality and globalization in her or his own way, and perpetuating harmful stereotypes in the process. But that is exactly what she is doing.
Vilifying the practice of veiling and celebrating nakedness as freedom is an over-simplification of an important issue. In her excellent book on the legal prohibition of veiling in France, Politics of the Veil, Joan Scott writes:
I do not mean to say that the system [of veiling] is not patriarchal; it is, of course. But the French system is patriarchal too; women are objectified in both systems, although in different ways. My point is that sex and sexuality are differently represented, differently managed in these two systems (161).
Women’s bodies are managed differently in various cultures, but as Scott articulates, the constant is that they are managed. Concern over the various ways in which women’s bodies are sexualized and policed according to their appearance has been is a tenant of Western feminism, but here that is forgotten and instead there is an apparent investment of many Western women in championing one patriarchal system over the other.
When Western women cast veiled women as oppressed and their own nakedness as liberation, they are refusing to acknowledge agency on the part of Muslim, veiled women, which is another means of oppression, and they establish a false dichotomy in which their own choices are somehow free of the constraints of sexism and gender exploitation. They establish themselves as heros, bringing “freedom” to brainwashed/enslaved Muslim women everywhere, which is self-aggrandizing and also reinforcing the passive role Muslim women are perceived to occupy. Either she wears the veil, and is “stupid” (as Femen Facebook commenters have repeatedly said) and a victim of male oppression, or she absorbs the wisdom of the Western woman and follows her guidance. In this paradigm there is no agency granted to the Muslim woman; she is perpetually passive, a tool to reinforce Western notions of superiority, which in turn continue to justify a global climate that supports war and exploitation.