Femen has struck again. After reports the Ukrainian based feminist group would be focusing its activism on locations outside of Europe, fresh controversy has erupted following events in Tunisia.
In March 2013, a 19 year-old Tunisian activist by the name of Amina posted topless photographs of herself on Femen’s Facebook page. In one photo, “my body is my own and not the source of anyone’s honor” is written on her chest. In another image, Amina is holding up her middle fingers with “fuck your morals” written on her chest.
Predictably, hard-line Islamists were quick to condemn Amina and suggest she be “stoned to death.” Equally predictable was the speed with which Western media outlets fixated on this minority position, generalizing it to the entire Arab population and succumbing to the same narrow-minded discourse typically used to discuss Arab women and feminism.
Rumors that Amina had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, in the aftermath of criticism of her actions, spread like wildfire in respected Western news outlets. These reports were later denied by Amina’s lawyer, who claimed she had not gone missing and had not been institutionalized.
This fresh debate about Femen’s activities brings up several persistent issues. Femen is a group that advocates against various forms of patriarchy most notably by holding topless protests. I have previously written about the movement’s problematic ideological underpinnings, and how Arab feminists who align themselves with the group enter into a troubling alliance with an organization that is Eurocentric and Islamophobic.
This was the case with Alia el Mahdy, an Egyptian feminist who held a topless protest against the Muslim Brotherhood, and can be argued to be the case with Amina as well. My critique, then as now, is not generally against the use of nudity as a tool of protest, which is a decision best left to individual activists. Rather, I see a problem with co-operation between feminist activists from the Middle East and Femen, an organization with a problematic viewpoint on the region. It also strikes me that, if the aim of specific tactics is to work toward societal change, these actions would be more effective if modified to fit the given context.
Reactions to Amina
The reaction from hard-line Islamists is both troubling and hardly surprising, and is yet another demonstration of their lack of depth in dealing with gender issues, as well as their extremely problematic views on gender equality and women’s rights. Regardless of whether one agrees with Amina’s actions or her alliance with Femen, it is important and necessary to stand behind her against these. Indeed the solidarity of many Arab feminists has been heart-warming, despite their differences in ideological orientation.
Media coverage on Amina’s story has, however, left much to be desired. There has been little discussion of the issues facing Tunisian women, and much sensationalization, either through a focus on the “evils of feminism” from a hard-line Islamist perspective, or the “evils of Islamic/Arab societies” from the perspective of mainstream media. In this discursive battle, nuance is lost, the actual material realities of Tunisian women are ignored, and feminist activism that has been taking place in Tunisia for decades is erased.
Media coverage has also paid little attention to what Amina was protesting against, what she meant in using the terms “honor” and “morals,” and how these concepts relate to Tunisia’s particular context. How have these concepts evolved, and what historical forces have led to their emergence? How has the Tunisian women’s movement fought against gender equality, and how does it view Femen? The answers to these questions provide important contextual information, but are lacking in the simplistic narratives found in much media coverage.
Another interesting debate—albeit one happening mainly within feminist circles—revolves around the question of tactics. If certain actions are intended to enact social change, then to what extent can Femen’s topless protests be effective in societies where such acts will simply be rejected outright? On the other hand, should feminists allow societal norms to dictate its actions, or does this defy the point of feminist activism?
These are touchy questions. No doubt many feminists will be angered by the suggestion that certain tactics should be avoided. But to what extent can we expect grassroots change if actions that alienate the majority of the population are employed time and time again?
The question of tactics has already been debated, to some extent, in the United States and Europe. Meghan Murphy, the founder and editor of Feminist Current, writes,
When it comes to women, nudity is a great tactic if your priority is to get media attention, but can be problematic because, often, that is the only way the media will pay attention to women — i.e. if we are performing for the male gaze.
While there is much to be said for tactics that shock society, and while it may be, as some argue, that these activities are the only ones that can lead to radical change, it is interesting to consider whether this has historically and universally been the case. Indeed it would appear that in Egypt, for example, it has been grassroots mobilization that makes use of local contextualized symbols, values and norms—albeit reformed—that has led to noticeable changes. While this debate is controversial, it is certainly one that needs to be applied to the case of Femen in the Middle East.
Although Aliaa el Mahdy’s topless protest late last year certainly caused a stir inside Egypt, it is questionable whether it sparked debate about the role of Sharia’ and gender. On the other hand, more recent initiatives, including groups like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment that have formed to oppose sexual assault, have relied on grassroots activism to challenge the same gender norms and inequality that Aliaa was trying to address. These efforts have been successful in starting a widespread debate in the public sphere about sexual harassment, gender inequality, and the role of women in post-revolutionary Egypt.
Productive dialogue on women’s issues in the Middle East cannot hope to be based on sensationalist stories lacking in background context and details about the situation facing women in particular regional countries. While tactics that shock local sensibilities may be successful in attracting attention, they are less effective in providing this important contextual information about feminism and women’s rights in the Middle East.
This is not to imply that nudity should not be used as a form of protest, but rather to question the effectiveness of such a tactic by historically situating feminist activism in specific contexts. This has been done extensively in the case of Europe and America, where numerous feminists have questioned the long-term success of topless protests. This would be a useful debate to have in the Middle East as well. The aim of such a dialogue is not to demonize or prevent topless or nude protests—every feminist should have the freedom to decide on her own form of activism. Rather, it is to analyze its effectiveness and to question whether it can function as the exclusive tactic for challenging patriarchy.
*Sara Salem is a staff writer at Muftah. Follow her on Twitter @saramsalem.