FEMEN activists. Photo: Jacob Khrist.Such are the risks to some frontline activists who have dared to challenge religious orthodoxies around the world that an international conference on Free Expression and Conscience, 22-23 July, is taking place at an undisclosed venue in central London, the location known only to the participants.
One of the keynote speakers, Bonya Ahmed, was attacked by machete and her husband, Avijit Roy, was brutally killed on the crowded streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh because they ran a blog for freethinkers.
Other speakers and participants – including members of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB), the main organising group behind the conference – also have stories of harassment, death threats and physical danger. Even (or perhaps especially), in the 21st century, with the rise of the religious right, free speech can result in a death sentence.
...in the 21st century, with the rise of the religious right, free speech can result in a death sentence.
Inna Shevchenko, leader of the controversial group FEMEN, is scheduled to speak on "Gods vs Girls: Is Religion Compatible with Feminism?" She had to leave her native Ukraine in 2012, and seek asylum in France, after being abducted, beaten, tortured and threatened with death by security forces.
FEMEN activists have achieved notoriety because their main form of public protest has been inscribing slogans across their bare chests. Shevchenko told me, in their defence: “What do we do? We appear in the square, we take off our tops, we put slogans on our breasts and we scream the slogans, we do nothing else. We are then thrown on the floor and strangled, kidnapped, arrested. This is disproportionate. It reveals a lot about the violence that patriarchal institutions inflict on women who dare to disagree”.
In Ukraine, FEMEN has used these tactics to protest against what Shevchenko calls the three institutions of patriarchy: dictatorship, the sex industry and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – an important reminder to those who equate extremism with Islam that institutionalised religion of all denominations can be dangerous to your health.
Shevchenko says: “Dictatorship is usually one male leader who fosters the cult of the father of the nation. Similarly, in monotheist religions, there is one father i.e. God who punishes you, who protects you and who defines who you are and what your position in society will be”. (Of course, this pattern is also replicated in the family).
A FEMEN activist is tackled to the ground. Photo: Jacob Khrist. FEMEN was founded in 2008, Shevchenko says, as a reaction to the exponential growth of sex tourism in Ukraine. She grew up in post-communist Ukraine and recalls a catastrophic economic collapse in which the national currency was replaced for six years by coupons that expired within three months. Under communism, she says, gender gaps had reduced somewhat as women’s employment and educational opportunities opened up – but afterwards unemployment hit women the hardest, pushing many into the arms of a rich husband or the sex industry.
Shevchenko and FEMEN have been criticised for the crudity of, and contradictions in, their arguments and tactics. But her clarity of analysis on the question of religion is lacking in some feminist quarters. Whilst she accepts that a feminist can be a believer, the idea of religious feminism to her is an oxymoron. Shevchenko says: “It would be intellectually dishonest to say that religion will provide the grounds for women’s liberation. No, it’s feminism that will provide the grounds for women’s liberation and it is through feminist ideas that religious ideas and text could be modified”.
FEMEN’s topless tactics have been condemned by some feminists for playing into the culture of sexism by exposing their breasts. To this Shevchenko responds: “I get it when sexists make this argument, but I don’t understand it when feminists [do]... What those feminists are saying is that a woman’s body can be de-sexualised by hiding it – but that is what religious institutions are saying. I’m saying I’m going to give my definition of what my body is. My body is sexual when I decide it to be sexual, my body should be political when I decide it to be political”.
"My body is sexual when I decide it to be sexual, my body should be political when I decide it to be political”
The success of nudity as political protest seems to depend largely on context. In the west, where women’s naked bodies have been commodified and used to sell goods, reclaiming nakedness for political purposes is much harder. In conservative societies, where women’s dress is intensely policed, any breach of the codes is both brave and revolutionary.
Mona Eltahawy tells a funny story in her book Headscarves and Hymens; Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution about a Tunisian feminist Amira Yahyaoui who asked a Salafist member of the constituent assembly a question. When he refused to answer her, as he did not speak to “naked” women (she was not wearing a hijab), Yahyaoui began to undress. The Salafist was horrified and demanded to know what she was doing. She said: “I’m showing you what a naked woman looks like” – and he promptly answered her question.
Other Muslim women have braved censure or death to use their bodies to make a political statement, including Aliaa Elmahdy, the naked Egyptian blogger, and Amina Tyler, the Tunisian blogger who posted a topless picture of herself in 2013. Maryam Namazie – an Iranian ex-Muslim, and an organiser of this weekend’s conference – has used toplessness as a form of protest on a number of occassions, most recently at the Pride 2017 march in London.
Maryam Namazie. Photo: CEMB (Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain).Namazie told me: “A pillar of Islamist rule is the erasure of the female body from the public space. So what better way to resist than with the female body?” Both Elmahdy and Tyler, under threat from conservatives, have had to flee their countries of origin. Feminists and progressives must defend the right of these women to free expression, rather than make common cause with religious conservatives, even if we do not personally see nudity as a form of liberation.
“A pillar of Islamist rule is the erasure of the female body from the public space. So what better way to resist than with the female body?”
This insight is sometimes missing in white feminist critiques of female nudity. When the Pakistan social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch was murdered by her brother – for bringing “shame” to the family with sexually-charged videos and photos posted online – some older British feminists took to a Facebook discussion where one asked whether Baloch “joining the oppressive western world and slathering herself in make-up and posting vids of herself twerking and always doing the bidding of men... [was] SO empowering”. But nothing is as undermining of religious patriarchal mores as a woman flaunting her sexuality.
The failure of some sections of the progressive left to challenge institutionalised religion’s assault on free expression will be one of the themes running through this weekend's conference in London. Billed as the Glastonbury of freethinkers and featuring 70 speakers from more than 30 countries, other discussion topics will be resistance to religion from gay rights campaigners, the growing influence of religion in the law and the state, secularism as a human right and identity politics.
For Namazie, “the conference is a timely reminder that freedom of conscience is not just for the believer but [also] for the nonbeliever. That free expression is not just to defend the sacred but to reject it”. Exercising this right has already caused harm and cost lives. This is a significant battleground for our times.
This article is part one of a series on the Conference on Free Expression and Conscience, which took place in London in July 2017. Next, we look at the situation of ex-Muslims and the beleaguered freedom to express criticism of religion.