FEMEN, a feminist Ukrainian protest group founded in 2008, is infamous for organizing topless protests. Most recently, FEMEN angered Muslims worldwide with topless protests in support of Amina Tyler, a young Tunisian activist who posted onto FEMEN’s Facebook page a topless photograph of herself with the Arabic words for “FUCK YOUR MORALS” written on her chest. In response, Islamic extremists threatened to kill her.
In reaction, FEMEN activists took to the streets. They declared April 4 “Topless Jihad Day.” Activists stood in front of a Paris mosque and set fire to a flag bearing the Arabic words, “La ilaha illallah,” which mean, “There is no god but God” — the unifying profession of faith for all Muslims. Additionally, FEMEN staged topless protests outside masjids around the world with signs reading, “FUCK YOUR MORALS,” “FREEDOM FOR WOMEN,” and “NO ISLAMISTS.”
Anger over the outcry regarding Amina Tyler is understandable. Even reasonable. But FEMEN’s threatening and offensive actions are over the top and rightfully angered many Muslims around the world. To make matters worse, FEMEN has acknowledged the outcry from Muslim women especially who feel their struggles are being unfairly and offensively appropriated, but has chosen to ignore it.
While Tyler resides in predominantly Muslim Tunisia, Muslims are a marginalized group in the majority of European countries where FEMEN staged its protests. In countries like France and Germany, for example, where FEMEN called for a “topless jihad” and issued the cry to “fuck Islamists,” Muslims face serious socioeconomic disadvantages, as well as increasing political disenfranchisement, including but not limited to “hijab bans” and other onerous laws targeting religious minorities.
There is something intensely problematic — in fact, violent — about carrying out such protests against a population that remains a disenfranchised minority in many countries. It ceases to be simply a complaint against a particular attitude or perspective and instead becomes reactive, personal and incredibly menacing.
Burning flags bearing the Islamic creed in front of masjids that have been recently vandalized, where worshipers that gather may face physical attacks and daily discrimination, is an act that is less a protest and more a hate-filled rally. It tells European Muslims that they are unwelcome. Unwanted.
Even more unfortunate, FEMEN displayed a stunning disconnect about the complicated nature of Islam.
Case in point — as part of Topless Jihad Day, half-naked FEMEN activists staged a protest directly in front of the doors of the Ahmadiyya-Moschee, the oldest Ahmadiyya masjid in Berlin. Ahmadiyya Muslims are a minority sect within Islam, and are unfortunately regarded by many Muslims as heretics. They are subject to discrimination, attacks and death worldwide. Saudia Arabia does not even allow Ahmadi Muslims to perform Hajj.
That FEMEN members chose to stand on the steps of an Ahmadiyya masjid with its “FUCK YOUR MORALS” signs shows their absolute ignorance as to the true significance of their actions. Not only did they seek to insult an already targeted minority in Europe, but they chose to insult one of the most internally persecuted members of that minority. Incredible.
Additionally, FEMEN’s message is lacking in logic. While the message behind the topless protest should have been that there is nothing inherently sinful about the feminine form — which is absolutely true — that message was obscured by FEMEN activists.
FEMEN’s calls for a “topless jihad” strongly implied that the modest clothing mainstream Islam recommends for men and more visibly, women, is oppressive and backwards. Member actions imply that the liberation of Muslim women can be achieved through baring the feminine form in defiance.
Defiant exposure of the body may very well be how some women feel empowered, but it is ignorant to presume that this is true of all women. This is especially true of female Muslims, who can be shamed by both outsiders and fellow Muslims because of the way they chose to dress.
The discussion of modesty, clothing, and how both relate to spirituality within the world of Muslim women is far too complex and charged to be reduced to “a topless jihad” that equates the naked feminine form with empowerment.
In reaction to the protests, Muslim women from across the world took to social media, posting pictures of themselves holding signs addressed to FEMEN. These Muslim women appeared in various forms of Islamic dress — some in hijab, some in jilbab, some in the niqab and others in more secular clothing .
The messages were loud and clear. “NUDITY IS NOT LIBERATION.” “I SPEAK FOR MYSELF.” “I DO NOT NEED SAVING.” And the incredibly powerful, “FEMEN STOLE MY VOICE.” The images tell a straightforward narrative: Muslim women possess the agency to dress in any way they choose.
FEMEN’s crucial mistake was acknowledging the resistance of Muslim women to their actions and then choosing to dismiss it — in essence employing the same patriarchal techniques that it condemns.
Aleksandra Shevchenko, who established FEMEN Germany, told the Huffington Post, “They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation, but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me.’”
Little surprise then that Muslim women are distrustful of other (usually white) women who try to “liberate” them. In fighting for the liberation of Muslim women, non-Muslim women rarely engage Muslim women in a way that allows Muslim women to keep their own agency. Instead, non-Muslim women try to “liberate” Muslim women through control — imposing Western perspectives and in essence, causing Muslim women to become invisible in their own battle.
And what about Amina Tyler, the young Muslim whom FEMEN members are rallying around? When asked about FEMEN’s actions, Amina Tyler had the following to say: “I am against [FEMEN’s recent actions]. Everyone will think that I encouraged their actions. They have insulted all Muslims everywhere and it’s not acceptable.”
But such condemnation, even from the very person for whom FEMEN purports to fight, is unlikely to have any impact. FEMEN will still pose as the defender of Muslim women, making it clear that it does not understand a basic principle — “no” means “no.”