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‘FEMEN’ and the suppression of native voices

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I loathe the premise that people of colour should be ‘grateful’ that others are taking notice of their subjugation, or that they should bite their tongues and clench their fists and instead show gratitude because their varied plights are being in some way ‘acknowledged‘ by others. 

Shouldn’t you be glad that people are recognizing these issues?” is the arrogant lamentation which customarily follows even the most caustious criticism of these perverse pseudo-solidarity actions – FEMEN’s nude predominantly white, predominantly thin photo-ops “for Amina“, a 19 year-old Tunisian woman who posed for them with the words “my body belongs to me, it is not the source of anyone’s honour” scrawled across her torso, being the latest example, and KONY2012 being an earlier one. This aforementioned response contends that we should withhold criticism, alleging that even being ‘noticed‘ should be good enough.

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Despite having our religious attire,  skin colour and even facial hair, being routinely mocked and worn as makeshift costumes as a part of ‘solidarity actions’ it is said time and time again that we should be ‘grateful‘ that anyone simply has reason enough to ‘care‘.

Despite the watered down slogans of liberation and freedom being copy-pasted by the parade of online followers of groups such as FEMEN many of these same activists are so inebriated with colonial feminist doctrine that they gleefully take part in patronizing , Islamophobic and misogynistic rhetoric in response to women of colour telling them that they take great offence, that their voices will not be usurped, that they are the sole guardians of their plights and no one has the authority to speak on their behalf, no matter how allegedly ‘well-intentioned’. In response to FEMEN’s topless “jihad day” event Muslim women created #MuslimahPride on Twitter; Sofia Ahmed, one of the women behind “Muslimah Pride Day” described the campaign as follows:

“Muslimah [term for a female Muslim] pride is about connecting with your Muslim identity and reclaiming our collective voice. Let’s show the world that we oppose FEMEN and their use of Muslim women to reinforce Western imperialism.”

Using #MuslimahPride many Muslim women began voicing their disapproval of FEMEN, one such woman was Zarah Sultana who posted the following photograph on her public Twitter page, which I have received permission to post here, and which in turned catalyzed many other Muslim women to do the same in an array of languages, by women from multifarious backgrounds:

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The sign reads: “I am a proud Muslimah. I don’t need “liberating”. I don’t appreciate being used to reinforce Western imperialism. You do not represent me!”

The responses Sultana received were drenched in perverse Islamophobia, sexism and pure, unashamed hatred:
“Fuck off back to your own country”, “burn in hell”, “grab your ankles and remain silent”, “Mohammad was a pedophile”, “put on your burka”, “she’s happy with her chains” etc.- all coming from those who, just moments earlier, were tweeting gleefully in support of Muslim women. 

When it comes to non-natives speaking in regards to native issues – it is a path that must be tread upon lightly in order to avoid (a) tokenization and (b) the usurpation of native voices. Solidarity is great, but it is when campaigns turned publicity stunts like the ones FEMEN indulges in begin using brown bodies as props while at the same time perpetuating orientalism and engaging in blatant prejudicial acts to promote their idea of ‘liberation’. FEMEN, and other such groups, offer no solution to the undeniable subjugated of women present in the Middle East-North Africa, it is all a show of thin, white grandeur.

Simply stating that you are in solidarity, that you support a woman’s right to don the headscarf, remove it, cover/uncover etc. is in no way dubious. It is when aforementioned solidarity crosses the red line and veers into the seizure of native voices and the tokenization of these voices does this become intensely problematic, ineffective and perverse.

Also it has long been chronicled that women of colour are often left out of mainstream feminist discourse, unless it is by means of humanitarian imperialism channels where they are simply tokenised. Bell Hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), a feminist, social activist, does a magnificent job describing this in much of her work. 

In terms of the mounting questions in regards to how one is to raise awareness in light of such groups as FEMEN: you raise awareness by highlighting native voices, not co-opting them. It is your duty to amplify, not commandeer.

As Sara Salem, PhD researcher at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands, notes:

“Feminism has the potential to be greatly emancipatory by adopting an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic and anti-Islamophobic rhetoric, instead of often actively being racist, homophobic, transphobic and Islamophobic. By clearly delineating the boundaries of what is “good” and “bad” feminism, Femen is using colonial feminist rhetoric that defines Arab women as oppressed by culture and religion, while no mention is made of capitalism, racism, or global imperialism. It is actively promoting the idea that Muslim women are suffering from “false consciousness” because they cannot see (while Femen can see) that the veil and religion are intrinsically harmful to all women.

Yet again, the lives of Muslim women are to be judged by European feminists, who yet again have decided that Islam – and the veil – are key components of patriarchy. Where do women who disagree with this fit? Where is the space for a plurality of voices? And the most important question of all: can feminism survive unless it sheds its Eurocentric bias and starts accepting that the experiences of all women should be seen as legitimate?”

Post-Colonial feminists worth mentioning, a few of many:

Arundhati Roy
Gloria Anzaldúa
Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Audre Lorde
June Jordan

Responses to FEMEN by women of colour, others:

The Inconsistency of Femen’s Imperialist “one size fits all” Attitude - Bim Adewunmi
Femen’s Neocolonial Feminism: When Nudity Becomes A Uniform - Sara Salem
The Fast-Food Feminism of the Topless FEMEN – Mona Chollet
That’s Not What  A Feminist Looks Like – Elly Badcock
The African History of Nude Protest – Maryam Kazeem

My piece on rediscovering Feminism

Suggested reading:
“Is Western Patriarchal Feminism Good For Third World/Minority Women?” By Azizah Al-Hibri

“Women and Gender in Islam” by Leila Ahmed

And two relevant books by Edward Saïd:
Culture and Imperialism
Orientalism

(Crossposted at Roqayah Chamseddine’s blog The Frustrated Arab)

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This!

Thank you, a wonderful piece.

Thank you Roqayah for this astonishing piece.

Once again, western social liberalism. Regardless of what they say, they are going to hate all Muslim men (especially those who are Arabic or Iranian) and show only contempt for those Muslim women who choose to wear hijab or dress in a more traditional fashion- after all, the only way for a woman (or “womyn”, ha-ha) to be truly liberated is when she embraces mindless excess in appearance and action. Any woman who decides she… Read more »

FEMEN is truly disgusting. Anyone remember ‘Draw Muhammed Day’? I recall seeing Muhammed depicted wearing a turban that was a bomb. Or seeing Muhammed depicted as a pig. This was all done in the name of ‘free speech’. Similarly, these – unsurprisingly, mostly WHITE westerners – women slander the entire religion of Islam under the guise of supporting Amina and women’s rights. The FEMEN facebook page is full of comments mocking Islam as ‘the religion… Read more »

Thanks for this. That whole Femen thing has been annoying me from the start. I never got the impression they represent anyone but themselves.