I have been following the exploits of Femen for a while now and have become increasingly frustrated with the way in which they carry out their campaigns. What Femen are doing is highly counterproductive and detrimental to Muslim women across the world. For me and hundreds of other women who have got in touch with me over the past few days, their tactics are a part of the ideological war that is going on between neo-colonial elements in the West and Islamic societies. Their aim is not to emancipate us from our presumed slavery, but instead reinforce Western imperialism and generate consent for the ongoing wars against Muslim countries.
It seemed that many other Muslim women across the world agreed with my stance and what followed was a defiant and vocal rejection of Femen’s invitation. Instead of ‘getting naked’ Muslim women from across the world tweeted and uploaded pictures of themselves to Facebook in their hijabs, niqabs, and western attire. They held up signs telling the world why they were proud of their identities and did not need racist Islamophobic women to dictate to them on how they should dress. The sheer number of participants and support was indicative of the level of anger and frustration that Muslim women feel toward being perpetually infantilised and patronised by Femen and other such groups.
In our open letter to Femen we referred to them as ‘colonial feminists’ to describe Femen’s activities. I believe it is the most apt term to describe their particular brand of feminism. From Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, to the pretext of female liberation surrounding the invasion of Afghanistan, women have always been used as pawns by men as an excuse to wage war. Femen are just the latest chapter in the long history of gender imperialists that manufacture consent and provide ideological foregrounding to justify going to war. By dismissing the role of western countries in the oppression of Muslim women and focusing solely on Muslim men they are only working to demonise Islam, not liberate Muslim women.
In her latest piece in the Huffington Post UK, Inna Shevchenko suggests that we have “bearded men with knives” behind us that have pushed us to launch this campaign. In doing so she is dismissing our right to self-expression as impossible.
What she is implying is that Muslim women are incapable of speaking for themselves. It is a blatant attempt at denying that we have agency in our own lives. This kind of inferiorising is symbolic of why so many Muslim women are so angry with Femen.
The lead up to the Afghanistan war is a prime example of how feminism is used to construct and disseminate negative stereotypes about Muslim women to whip up support for warmongers. Former First Lady Laura Bush provided the speech act on the so-called plight of the women in Afghanistan, which turned a referent object like the Burkha into an obstacle to freedom. The reported plight of Afghan women was used to manipulate the public in to believing that this war was a well-intentioned feminist crusade to free them. The crude/sick reality that the chosen method of liberation for these women was by bombing, killing and raping them was cynically eclipsed by the fervor to save them from their own ‘evil’ Muslim men.
In a climate where we are constantly warned about a ‘clash of civilisations’ and the West’s state of perpetual war with Muslim countries, there is a fundamental need to dehumanise the ‘enemy’. The overemphasis on the Muslim man’s perceived misogyny overshadows the complete lack of scrutiny of the West’s oppression against Muslim women. Femen’s reliance on the overused media tropes of the modern western values versus traditional Muslim values is creating a dichotomous representation of the ‘self’ (West) and ‘other’ (Muslims).
Discourses based solely on the way women dress has historically been used to justify oppression against all dominated groups in history. The French colonialists would physically rip the veil of from women’s heads during the Algerian Revolution. In his essay Algeria Unveiled, in which he examines the role of women in colonised societies, Frantz Fanon quotes the French colonial authorities in saying: “If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the woman; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight”. Neo-cons and Islamophobes use the same approach to keep the Muslim woman subjugated.
The hyper-sexualisation of Femen’s campaign and the insistence on Muslim women to strip naked as a gesture of emancipation is a tell-tale symptom of Orientalist fantasies. When puritanical, prudish Christians from Europe first came across the Muslim world, Muslim women were off limits to the western man but that did not stop writers of harem literature fabricating their fantastical sexual encounters and present them as reality. Muslim women were depicted as the sex slaves lounging around in harems, there for the sexual pleasure of Muslim men. This has led to a construction of the ‘Muslim Woman’ as a submissive sexual object. Femen’s tactics suggest that this mentality has not changed. Now that the West has become supposedly sexually liberated, the Muslim woman (the ‘Other’) represents covered up sex slaves trying desperately to clamber out of their stifling burkhas and forced marriages.
I am not dismissing the fact that there are problems in the Muslim world. However history has shown that the West has directly (through slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism) and indirectly (through the propping up of misogynistic and oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia) done far more damage to Muslim women than Muslim men have. That is why I vehemently oppose Femen’s universal imposition of the neocolonial agenda. If Femen really want to help Muslim women they should address the fact that for far too long now, Muslim women have been marginalised, bombed, raped, killed, and enslaved by men from the western world. They should work within their own countries to try and subvert future wars against Muslim countries and help break down barriers. Or perhaps they should stick to trying to liberate women in the west.
We have been overwhelmed and are extremely appreciative of the messages of support and encouragement we have been getting from non-Muslims around the world. A woman from the US sent us a picture in which she had fashioned a hijaab out of a piece of cloth and headband in solidarity of our right to wear it. Western feminists such as Those Pesky Dames have also come out in support of our campaign. This is indicative of the ability to look past historically ingrained attitudes and the willingness of none Muslims to try and understand this misrepresented religion.
Despite the popularity of our campaign and the strong message that it sent out, Femen have continued to display a flagrant disregard for our agency and have consistently tried to downplay the legitimacy of our collective voices. Femen have tried to dismiss our campaign using conspiracy and conjecture, and there has been no sign of intellectual debate or a constructive argument against the points that we have raised. They have made no attempt to approach us directly, nor have they provided a response to our open letter. Instead Inna Shevchenko has said that’s she will see us on the “battle lines”, but we do not wish to engage on those terms.
For us this is not about a spat with Femen. Rather we are concerned with the bigger picture, of changing attitudes and perceptions and to foster a better understanding between Muslims and the West. This is our opportunity to tell our stories, let our voices be heard and take control of our own narratives. Femen should hope for a warm summer, they can get naked every day for all we care, the vast majority of Muslim women have shown that we won’t be joining them anytime soon.
This article was originally published in The Huffington Post