Femen’s April 4 protests in response to death threats against Tunisian nude blogger Amina Tyler have prompted much debate. How do we reconcile the need to defend free expression with the ambiguities of using nude women to market feminism?
Last month Amina Tyler, a 19 year old Tunisian blogger, posted a nude photo of herself as a protest; she is now under death threat. In her defense, the Ukrainian group Femen staged a global "topless jihad" on April 4, causing widespread debate about nude protests, freedom of expression, and Femen's politics.
Femen was founded in 2006 by three young women who wanted to oppose the rise of sex tourism in Kiev and decided to do so naked. On their first demonstration, they wrote slogans on their bare backs and nobody was interested. At the suggestion of a photographer, they wrote the slogans on their breasts, and the rest is history. Moving from the Ukrainian to the global, the "sextremists" have since demonstrated against FGM, Berlusconi, Putin, the G8, Lukachenko, and the Pope, with slogans like "Fuck your morals" written on their bare breasts. Photos of these demonstrations are proudly mounted on their website. In the age of Facebook, it was inevitable that their example would reach young women beyond the Ukraine.
In November, 2011, as pre-election violence spread in Egypt, the youth movement and opposition were angry and fragmenting, and the Muslim Brotherhood looked likely to win a majority in parliament, Alia ah-Mahdi, an Egyptian college student and blogger, uploaded a picture of herself, naked except for long black stockings, as a protest against patriarchy and the sexual objectification of women. She was immediately denounced not only by Islamists but by virtually the entire opposition, including women’s and secularist groups, some of whom feared that Alia’s actions would hold the women’s movement back for decades. After repeated death threats, Alia left Egypt and ended up in Sweden where she ran into Femen last December and joined them for a joint protest called Apocalypse of Muhammed, in which she wrote on her nude body, "Sharia is not a constitution."
As Maya Mikdashi pointed out, Alia’s protest was in a context of searing sexual harassment and violence. “The idea that female bodies are sacrosanct, and that somehow they are “protected” from overt sexualization in Egypt is false. Contrary to what many of Alia’s detractors and what many commentators on the Arab world have said, female bodies have long been the site of struggle, interrogation, harassment, and commodification throughout the region. In particular, Cairo is famous for being the premiere public ass-pinching, breast-grabbing, and body-rubbing capital of the Arab world. ... In recent months, females involved in protests at Tahrir Square were subjected to “virginity tests” by the military junta. The “virginity tests” were administered via the age-old method of inserting two (male soldiers') fingers into each woman's vagina.”
Social progress is also stalemated in Tunisia, where the Muslim Brotherhood party Ennadha controls the state but has yet to address the economic problems that started the revolution against ben Ali, and has been unwilling or unable to protect the rights of citizens against rampaging Salafis. Last month Amina Tyler, a 19 year old Tunisian, wrote Femen asking how to join, and they told her to post a naked photo of herself online. She posted two. In one, she is wearing lots of makeup, holding a book and a cigarette—with a bandaged wrist. Painted on her breasts in Arabic are the words, "My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honor." In the other she has no makeup, is giving the world the finger with both hands, and wearing the Femen slogan, "Fuck Your Morals."
The Salafis responded predictably; Adel Almi, head of the Tunisian Commission for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, said, “The young lady should be punished according to sharia, with 80 to 100 lashes, but [because of] the severity of the act she has committed, she deserves be stoned to death”. He added: “Her act could bring about an epidemic. It could be contagious and give ideas to other women.”
As before, while the Western press eagerly seized on the story and Amina got international support from secularists and feminists, including a petition with almost 100,000 signatures, the Tunisian left and women’s movement distanced themselves, saying her protest was un-strategic, culturally inappropriate, and harmful. But it must also be said that such youth protests are a response to increasing Salafi pressure to make women cover more and more of their bodies—headscarf, niqab, burqa, gloves; nothing seems to be enough; the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is even considering forcing women to cover their eyes, at least if they are "tempting" ones.
At first Amina gave interviews, On March 28th, she told Italian reporter Frederica Tourn that she feared being arrested and raped by police but “nothing they could do would be worse than what already happens here to women, the way women are forced to live every day. Ever since we are small they tell us to be calm, to behave well, to dress a certain way, everything to find a husband. We must also study to be able to marry, because young guys today want a woman who works.” Then she disappeared from public sight, with many rumors in the French press that she had been put into a mental hospital. In fact, she was with her family. She reappeared briefly on April 6, when she gave an interview to French Canal TV in which she said she was afraid for her own life and the lives of her family and knew that she would have to leave Tunisia, but would hold fast to her Femen principles until she was eighty.
But being safe and being with one's family are not always the same thing. On April 15, Amina managed to escape from her family and tell the real story in a skype interview with Inna Shevchenko of Femen. She had been sitting in a cafe in Tunis when her cousin suddenly appeared, threw her to the ground, then dragged her away. Her uncle and cousin took her to their house, where they beat her and her cousin broke her sim card so she couldn’t use her phone. Her father came and took her to her grandmother’s house, where two old women subjected her to a forced virginity test. She stayed there for days, being lectured on morals and forced to read the Koran even though she is an atheist. An imam told her that she had been bewitched, so they put the Koran on top of her head and read verses from it and took her to see him every day. They then took her to an isolated village where she stayed for two weeks under heavy sedation; she had no internet access and was not allowed to contact her friends and does not remember everything that happened during that time. Finally she escaped. She now plans to leave for France, but not until she does another nude protest to continue the struggle in Tunisia.
Whatever one may feel about nude protests, one must respect such courage, and, in the new post-dictatorship countries of the middle east, it is critical to defend the right of free expression. If Tunisia is indeed a democracy, Amina should be able to express herself without being subjected to death threats or familial kidnapping, even if many find her expression obnoxious or disgraceful. Liberals and feminists who feel she has gone too far should calculate the price of backing away from her as well as the price of defending her. Though defense of Amina's right to free expression would undoubtedly bring condemnation from Salafis and Ennadha, failing to defend this right can only strengthen the claim of conservatives that they and they alone should decide what is permissable expression. The stronger their claim, the more precarious will be the right to free expression of anyone who opposes them.
It is also clear that Femen’s naked protests have struck a chord in places where women’s bodies are a major site of political contestation. Does Amina’s body belong to her, does it belong to her family, or is it the symbol of a reborn Islamist state whose purity must be not be defiled?
My question is: how will Femen take responsibility for what happens when young women like Alia and Amina take up the cause in contexts more dangerous than Paris? Does Femen have the resources, knowhow, and committment to move people from country to country, get them jobs and papers, and give them longterm help if they must go into permanent exile? If it is to be real, international solidarity must mean more than petitions and protests.
Femen’s blunt instrument approach to Islam and the fact that they don’t clearly distinguish between religious observance and political fundamentalism, has led some feminists to denounce them as racist and orientalist, neo-colonialists , culturally insensitive and increasing the objectification of women. There is also confusion in the Femen message itself, as opposed to the way it has been adopted by the Aminas and Alias of the MENA region. Female nudity can convey many things; is its meaning the same in Sweden as in Egypt?
In terms of messaging, Femen’s protests are full of ambiguites and contradictions. How does stripping fight sexism? Is marketing feminism with women’s bodies really different from marketing anything else? French fashion photographer Fred Meylan has just done a photo shoot using Femen-style naked blondes with slogans to market jewelry by Fabergé and Cartier—and Femen has posted the pictures on their tumblr page.
The verbal message is both grandiose and incoherent: “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 the ability to feel the problems of the world, beat it with the naked truth and bare nerve. FEMEN – is a hot boobs, a cool head and clean hands. Be FEMEN - means to mobilize every cell of your body on a relentless struggle against centuries of slavery of women!”
Femen is also anti-intellectual in a way that will not help young students like Amina. One of their leaders, Inna Shevchenko, told the Guardian, “Classical feminism is like an old sick lady that doesn't work any more. It's stuck in the world of conferences and books. We have the same ideas as the classical feminists, what is different is the form of fight. We fight in a way that will attract young women to the ideology again.” Okay, Inna, so the rest of us are old has-beens but couldn’t you at least tell young people they need to read a history book now and then?
Femen is not the first group to confuse individual self-expression, marketing, and getting their pictures in the paper with effective organizing. PETA has been having models strip down for years to encourage people to stop wearing fur or stop eating meat. But at the end of the day, is this what comes across? What do you remember after looking at this ad?
A media action is not a mass movement and female nakedness is more powerful when it is not marketing but an expression of mass popular contempt. It is used that way in many parts of Africa, as in the Niger Delta women’s protest of 2002, celebrated in the film The Naked Option, which shows how 600 Niger Delta women of all ages took over the largest oil producing facilitiy in Nigeria and stopped the production of 500,000 barrels of oil per day by threatening to strip naked in public and thus shame the men who ran the company and their families. A similar “bare buttocks” women’s protest took place in Swaziland in 2000 to protest evictions by the king’s brother.
Personally, if somebody has to be unclothed, I think women will gain more power by exposing "the nakedness of the fathers" than our own. That is what another Tunisian blogger, Monica, did in a poem to Ennadha where she says (my translation) “you are unveiled”:
You are unveiled: your models are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran,
Kuwait, Bahrein, Sudan: lands that horrify all humanity. Your models
are religious despots and their cliques, who take for themselves all
the country’s resources...
You are unveiled: the capital of sympathy you got from being oppressed in the past is no more. The people see you for what you are. You are naked...
Ennadha and its political allies: when you sent your troops to terrorize the streets, hurl abuse, rob and assassinate, you made your last stand. You have lost. You are unveiled.