Sextremism: really as radical as they think?

Where the female body - through its societal projections in media, art, politics and religion - has always formed the first port of women's oppression, it is necessary to consider whether attempts to reclaim it through topless protests in the public arena are more likely to defy or to reify existing, repressive paradigms, says Zoe Holman

In 1840, a woman in the Indian state of Kerala cut off her breasts and presented them to district tax collectors in protest against a local tariff on women who wished to cover their chests. Several decades later, American feminist writer Elizabeth Stuart Phelps called on women to “burn up the corsets” in order to achieve emancipation – a trope which became famously (if erroneously) associated with the alleged “bra-burning” 1960s women's liberationists. In the latest wave of self-proclaimed feminist radicalism, 2013 has seen hundreds of topless female demonstrators take to the streets of Western cities to demand the right of their North African counterparts to bare their flesh in public. The message may have changed but the medium, it seems, remains the same. So what is it about boobs that has seen them take centre stage time again in campaigns for women's rights and how useful is their latest divested deployment in advancing the cause of female equality? 

Since the Ukrainian professedly “sextremist” group, Femen, launched a transnational crusade in solidarity with persecuted Egyptian and Tunisian feminist bloggers, the issue of their topless protests has become one of explosive contestation amongst women's-rights advocates worldwide. The maniacal assault by those professing Muslim creeds against Tunisian Amina Tyler, who posted nude images of herself online in March with encouragement from Femen, sparked an offensive by the activist network in the form of a “topless Jihad day” declared for 4 April. With mass demonstrations staged from France to San-Fran, the protest has done wonders for Femen's already lucrative PR profile. However, as an exercise in inter-cultural feminist solidarity-building, the operation appears to have gone – well, tits-up. Muslim women across the continents quickly decried the protest for what it was: a reductive, patrionising, ill-informed and largely counter-productive attempt to co-opt the cause of women's rights in the Islamic world. Emblematised by slogans like “better naked than the burqa” and images of topless white women with crescent moons on their nipples, fake beards, monobrows and bath-towel turbans, the protest and its fallout also afforded many the opportunity for a scantly-clad orgy of Islamophobia. Vast numbers of Muslim women pointed to these xenophobic manifestations as part of a broader, principled rejection of what was perceived as an offensively neo-colonial campaign.

Hijab- & burqa-wearing women: Photos posted to the Muslim Women Against Femen Facebook page

An online counter-protest was staged with a Facebook page 'Muslim Women Against Femen' and Twitter tag #muslimahpride, and women turned out en masse to rebut Femen's claims to female emancipation. A deluge of outcry from women announcing “I don't need saving”, “nudity does not liberate me”  and “Femen cannot tell me what to wear” quickly undercut Femen's projections about quiescence, passivity or inhibition amongst Muslim women. Other commentators, both Muslim and non-Muslim, disparaged the superficiality of a campaign that defined freedom through an emphasis on women's attire, or lack thereof. As Sara Yasin argued in the New Sara Yasin argued in the New York Times:

wearing a hijab isn’t inherently liberating – but neither is baring one’s breasts. What is liberating is being able to choose either of these things... Both sides of this argument present a shallow understanding of women’s empowerment, which only drowns out the substantive challenges facing all women – issues that cannot be encapsulated in a debate about a piece of fabric.

There is no doubt that women in all societies face vaster, more insurmountable obstacles than the right to veil or divest, and that debates over dresscode are merely a fig-leaf for the more fundamental demand for female sovereignty. However, the recent controversy over nude protest is no less important for this fact. For Femen's topless tactics strike, as it were, to the bosom of ideas about women's liberation. In doing so, they highlight the cultural, political and ideological debates which have for centuries divided feminists world-over, clouding and disaggregating broader agreement on the baseline question of rights.

In defence of their “titslamism” campaign, Femen's most high-profile founder, Inna Shevchenko recently explained that “we are not calling for everyone to take their clothes off and be naked every minute... The question is that we have a right to do that. This is what we are asking for.” This is perfectly laudable demand. It is beyond question that all those who support female equality should stand in support of brave women like Tyler in the face of violent and primitive attempts to persecute, demean and violate them. Simultaneously, it would seem naïve, arrogant and/or ignorant in the extreme to assume that the battle for the right to take one's clothes off was either universal or paramount for women worldwide, or indeed that is one to be fought by Femen on others' behalf. Elaborating on her defence against charges of cultural imperialism, Shevchenko argued that: “I don't understand how we are making this issue separate. The are no different ideas about freedom amongst our people, amongst European or American people. There are just universal human rights that everyone agrees on.” It is here that the callowness of Femen's platform is revealed. Beyond debates between Muslim and 'Western' women (a false dichotomy in itself), there are and always have been very different ideas of freedom amongst feminists in Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere in the West. Moreover, the divergence in perspectives on how best to achieve these freedoms is even greater. For Femen to take for granted that feminism is homogeneous and that their good intentions necessarily translate into constructive (or welcome) actions, suggests an idea of women's liberation which is more rudimentary than radical. As Zeinab Khalil, President of the University of Michigan Muslim Students' Association noted in her critique of Femen on Al Jazeera TV in April:

It is not their tactics that's a problem... Rather, it is that they have a very exclusive approach to feminism. We have to realise that women from different backgrounds prioritise different concerns, which will be contingent on the time and place and politics. Women in Cairo might be concerned with transitional justice, while women in Chicago might be concerned with the prison industrial complex. Personally, I am concerned with sexual assault, and who are they to tell me I should spend my time worrying about issues of dress and culture?

Indeed, Femen's past mobilisations have addressed a broader range of issues, from the legalisation of abortion and prostitution to homophobia and trafficking, with greater relevance to the concerns, culture and politics of the Ukraine (a country which is itself very far from a beacon of feminist enlightenment). It was there that the group's defining motif of topless protest evolved, with members' gradual realisation that the bare-all approach, above all else, got them noticed. As one of the founding members recounted of prior attempts to demonstrate in colourful clothing or underwear, “journalists weren’t interested… We realised we had to do something more radical.” Since that time, the group has chosen to vest their energies (and eye-catching wares) away from the issues troubling women in their home region to the evermore prominent and controversial international causes of post-revolution North Africa and the Middle East. What is perhaps more problematic than the exportation of Femen's limited repertoire of direct action to unfamiliar cultural concerns and contexts, or even the mindless equation of nudity with radicalism, is the basic assumption that to get noticed is to get heard – that visibility equals influence. While Femen have clearly excelled in the former field, their efficacy in changing the substantive political issues they seek to redress remains questionable.

Indeed, with some of Europe's top labels adopting Femen-style postures in their marketing, and protesters reportedly being paid as much 2,500 Euros per day, one would be forgiven for wondering if it is a political statement or a fashion statement that Femen is making. According to the network's manifesto:

Femen is the new Amazons, capable to undermine the foundations of the patriarchal world by their intellect, sex, agility, make disorder, bring neurosis and panic to the men's world.... FEMEN – is a hot boobs, a cool head and clean hands.

There may be a strong intellectual and political basis to Femen's campaigns, but it is rather more the hot boobs which have been getting airtime since the group assumed the spotlight in international coverage of feminism. The media loves boobs. The patriarchal order loves boobs (or loves to hate them, depending on which country/whose boobs). Over the past century, women activists have fought hard to eliminate the gratuitous, and largely destructive, propagation of boobs across media platforms (with limited success – think Page Three). I would therefore wager that if one thing is going to shatter the foundations of the patriarchal order/strike panic into chauvanist hearts, it might not be 'hot boobs' – more of them, more visible, more places. This is not to refute the emancipatory potential of the naked body, whose capacity for frank, shocking, humorous and/or poignant communication is often more powerful than any words. However, where the female body - through its societal projections in media, art, politics and religion - has always formed the first port of women's oppression, it is necessary to consider whether attempts to reclaim it in public protest are more likely to defy or to reify existing, repressive paradigms. In the case of Femen, the proliferation in media coverage of what are in fact overwhelmingly 'hot boobs' (the organisers claim that overweight or unconventional-looking women are often too shy to protest), on well proportioned frames, with pretty faces and nicely-manicured pubic hair does not seem to signify a major transgression of the prevailing norm.

Feminists have long-since noted the dangers inherent in using the body as a tool of protest towards emancipatory ends. As writer and cultural critic Janet Wolff notes in her treatise on the subject, “[the female body's] pre-existing meanings, as sex object, as object of the male gaze can always prevail and re-appropriate the body, despite the intentions of the woman herself”. Wolff points to the case of women in Dublin in 1989 who staged a protest against the exclusive right of men to bathe in a public seafront area. As the men often swam naked, the women also decided to take to the water topless or nude, with the effect of attracting the local male population to gawk or ridicule at the demonstrators - or at least this was the scene depicted across media outlets at the time. Not only did this coverage work to denigrate the claims of the women involved, Wolff notes, the smattering of topless photographs also rendered more liberal newspapers indistinguishable from tabloids littered with pin-up girls. As she observes, “one can only assume that female nudity achieved little more than male lechery... The political gesture is neutralized and doubly cancelled – first by the look of those at the scene, and second by its representation in the press for the reader's gaze.” This critique can be fairly transposed to the possible outcome of eye-catching (or jaw-dropping) tactics such those of Femen and other protests like Slutwalk, where defiant displays of female sexuality can be construed and repackaged by the media in a palatable, or (no pun intended) titillating format. However feisty the spirit or savvy the intellect, the message risks getting lost in the medium.

Women dressed provocatively in crowd. Signs saying: my body belongs to me, I'm a human being, I am 'asking for it: respect. Slutwalk in Toronto, 2012. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Skeezix1000
The pitfalls of these contemporary spins on the important and age-old struggle to reclaim female sexuality highlights the conundrum for women-rights campaigners of how to pick, and importantly, wage one's battles. If we take as a given that boobs will always win-out over dungarees in the media, or that demands for sexual liberty will invariably garner more attention than those for equal pay, political representation or access to education, how can we ever begin to shift the focus to the less glamorous, nuts-and-bolts issues of women's equality? Moreover, how can we affirm the fight for sexual and corporeal autonomy while refuting the assumption that for the majority of women in any society it is the defining political battle? The campaign for women's bodies is the frontline of feminism. So too, the right to adorn it, expose it, share it or withhold it as desired may be of exponential urgency for women in countries where these baseline liberties are denied by law, religion or social convention. However, for me and for many of my female peers in the West, the crusade decreed by Femen (or even by Slutwalk) is not our battle.

On the contrary, the freedom to dress provocatively or reveal flesh in public is one I feel well-endowed with. So much so in fact, that I might happily exchange it for another, more novel one – say, the ability to walk into a room full of men as something other than a pair of boobs, an arse and a pretty/ugly face. Dressing up is fun, but it would be more fun if I knew that I could equally wear a tracksuit and no makeup without consequence or judgement. Likewise, sunbathing topless is liberating, but it would be more liberating if I thought that no-one was looking at my boobs. Of equal importance to the struggle for the right to be a sexual female body, it seems, is the right not to be a body at all: to receive recognition, respect or influence regardless and not because of our female sexuality or gender. 

Discussing the traditional role of corporeality in protest, Judith Butler recently noted that: “if there is a body in the public sphere, it is masculine, free to create, but not itself created... When male citizens enter into the public square to debate questions of justice, revenge, war, and emancipation, they take the illuminated public square for granted as the architecturally bounded theatre of their speech.” By contrast, the female body has customarily been associated with the sexual, the childish, the labouring and the pre-political. This being the case, Butler argues for the need to interrogate and challenge the division of gendered bodies into “one that appears publicly to speak and act, and another, feminine, foreign and mute, that is generally relegated to the private and pre-political sphere.” Like other feminist direct-actions before it, Femen's mode of protest reasserts the female body in the political arena with maximum visibility. However, where bodies are brandished (and reproduced from The Sun to The Guardian) in a hyper-gendered display of 'sextremism', it may as yet reflect a case of seen and not heard. 

Boobs can be fun. Boobs can be frivolous, primal or sexy. For this reason, they are compelling. In the right context, they might prove powerful. But they are also distracting. And for those women wishing to enter the theatre of political speech to debate questions of justice, emancipation, war, or indeed the sales tax on tampons, to achieve something more than lechery and to be taken seriously, they may prove a diversion. Of course, following the example of activists like Tyler, it is hopeful that feminism can encompass the battles for women to be both sexual and political - to be minds as well as boobs – and to win it. In the meantime (and in the right context), I am keeping my top on.  



About the author

Zoe Holman is a London-based Australian PhD candidate and writer, working on projects related to politics and the Arab Middle East. She has lived and reported in Syria, Lebanon and Cambodia, and written for outlets including the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, The Guardian and Lebanon’s Daily Star. Her doctoral thesis examines British policy in the Middle East after the Iraq War