Did you miss it? Femen’s International Topless Jihad Day to rally around a Tunisian woman, Amina, who posted a topless picture on the internet, words painted on her chest declaring she was not anyone else’s honor and her body was her own. Her actions caused all sorts of reaction and response: is this really a feminist act? is it debauchery and un-Islamic? is Femen Islamophobic? is Femen racist and imperialist? etc.
I believe in the freedom of expression, freedom to dress as we we choose, that what we do with our bodies is not other people’s business. I also take issue with the notion that liberation is measured by how much you wear (or don’t wear). Liberation is about choice, not about a level of nakedness or of covering.
“Everyone’s honor is their own,” is a message that can be delivered without shocking. Isn’t this preferable? Or is the preference for less shock simply the result of an Arab preoccupation with “respectability”?
I am not your honor… / Everyone has their own honor.
One analyst of Ukrainian-based group Femen said, “Ultimately, a message is only effective if it is clearly conveyed.” A related concept is that effectiveness is measured by persuasiveness. Was Amina’s protest persuasive? It got a lot of attention. Did it convince anyone who did not already see it their way — especially in Tunisia and other Muslim-majority nations? (If not, should she not have done it?)
Femen has been criticized because, while the “sextremists” may be off all body types, the media only broadcasts the standard vision of beauty. As such, “Femen’s political protest is obscured by the patriarchal objectification of their bodies.” To put it more simply “If the penis is keen, it probably demeans.“
There have also been allegedly religious arguments presented, saying the nakedness is debauchery and it risks infecting Tunisia. Religion, a touchy issue, cannot be avoided. In a formerly quasi-secular country like Tunisia, it is a hot issue. Solidarity with activists who reject the strand of Islam (or any religion) that resorts to intimidation and harassment Amina apparently has endured is not a bad thing.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the context of global war and Islamophobia, and the ways in which what a woman wears (the veil, the burqa, no top, etc.) is the focus of analysis of women’s rights in a Muslim-majority nation. The West seems to look at images of oppressed Muslim women, but not really be that interested in other images of women from Muslim-majority nations showing strength or accomplishment (or at least not with the same appetite). And when we see groups like the neo-racist English Defense League cheering on FEMEN for targeting Islam (their phrase, not mine), it’s got to raise some eyebrows.
Some Muslim women organized a counter-protest, saying that they didn’t need saving and that nudity was not liberation, tweeting pictures with such captions as, “#ToplessJihadDay? No, Muslim women reject the efforts of racist, Islamophobic, Imperialists like Femen,” followed by #MuslimahPride.
So, what to make it of it all?
Amina Tyler deserves the freedom to choose what to wear or not to wear. Her honor is her own and not determined by what she wears, nor is it anyone else’s business. Yet the delight this action has generated alerts us that not everyone out there is a friend to women, or particularly a friend to North African Arab or Amazigh women, to women living in Muslim-majority countries. They may claim to be feminists acting in solidarity, but this claim will be treated with some skepticism, and perhaps with good reason.
Additional Reading and Links of Interest