Apr 082013

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Apparently there is an ongoing war between FEMEN, a feminist organization that protests topless, and a group calling themselves Muslim Women Against Femen, among others.

What is of interest to me is the rhetoric and politics at play. FEMEN is not exactly known for taking the diplomatic road to getting their voice across. Whatever their methods, whether one agrees with them or not, or whether they are effective, considering that so far they got huge backlash and won controversy more than anything, the response is certainly interesting.

The row ignited when Amina Tyler, a 19-year-old FEMEN activist, posted topless pictures of herself on FEMEN-Tunesia’s Facebook page with “Fuck your morals” in English and “My body is my own, not anyone’s honor” in Arabic. A certain preacher called Adel Almi was quoted by Tunisian newspaper Kapitalis that she deserves 80 to a 100 lashes according to the sharia law, but added that due to the gravity of her actions, which he believed may encourage other women to do the same and bring an “epidemic” and “catastrophes,” merits death by stoning.

FEMEN has reacted by protesting, as any feminist human should do. A photo of a man apparently kicking a topless FEMEN member protesting in front of the Great Mosque of Paris was posted in a piece on The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section. A video of that protest, with the man in question, is available on Vimeo.

Muslim Women Against Femen has responded with an open letter with eight-point objections of Muslimahs (Muslim women) to FEMEN. In addition, a number of women (including a child) have posted their photos on Facebook holding slogans to the same effect and interviews with supporters on The Huffington Post.

What is amazing is that between the preacher, Muslim Women Against Femen, and the women with the slogans, not a single reference is made to the young woman responsible for the debate in the first place. Amina Tyler is missing from the picture and there is good reason to fear for her life.

The Muslimahs who took to themselves the right and initiation to defend their rights and religion, some of whom are self-identified feminists, apparently forgot to do Tyler even a lip-service to denounce any harm that could be inflicted on her. Instead, they took the opportunity to first generalize and speak for all “Muslim women, women of colour and women from the Global South,” as if appointed spokespersons. Second, the opportunity to lash at “racist, imperialist, capitalist, white-supremacist, colonialists” was not missed, never mind that they are irrelevant.

Some of the slogans in the self-photos read “Do I look oppressed?” and a child of perhaps five held one that read “Shame on ‘FEMEN’ Hijab is my right!” I do not see anyone taking anyone’s rights from them, if anything the rights of Amina are the ones at risk. Least of all the rights of a child, which, I should add, beyond their welfare, health and education they can barely demand any rights that adults don’t give them. Which raises the question of who, if not her parents, gave her the “right” to wear a hijab when she clearly is in no position to choose to wear one anymore than the blue-jeans that she has on. Besides, if these women are not oppressed, they need not answer to the calling. (Although I do wonder if that will remain to be the case if and when they decide to change their outfit.)

The open-letter doesn’t offer any more wisdom from the thirteen or so university students who wrote it. Rife with ignorant accusations, misguided rhetoric, contradictions and ad-hominem attack on the protesters. If they are to be believed, “FEMEN is a colonial, racist rubbish disguised as “women’s liberation”,” and “rubbing shoulders with far-right, racist and Islamophobic groups is just ANTI-FEMINIST beyond bounds” and “EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.” And members of FEMEN “don’t really care about violence and harm being inflicted upon women, you only care about that when it is perpetrated by brown men with long beards who pray five times a day.” Which is quite interesting considering that the group had focused most of its activity to protest against “sex tourists, religious institutions, international marriage agencies, sexism and other social, national and international topics.” In fact, had the authors check their facts they would have run into FEMEN’s four-point goals on their MySpace page explicitly targets “Ukrainian women” and “Ukraine” explicitly. Not to mention that if anything Ukraine was a victim of -Russian- colonialism. (But I guess all “white” people are “racist” and “colonialist.”)

Completely oblivious to the irony that it was a Muslim (male) preacher who called for the lashing and stoning of Amina Tyler, the authors declare “we don’t have to conform to your customs of protest to emancipate ourselves. Our religion does that for us already, thank you very much.”

In a particularly off-topic and a below-the-belt swing, the epistle writers pulled a punch on the physique of the topless protesters saying that “not all of us are white, skinny, physically non-disabled [sic] and willing to whip off our tops merely for press attention.” Perhaps alluding to both being white and skinny as undesirable attributes in women (by who?). To add insult to injury, they advised them to “check yourselves before you go into the streets again.”

Perhaps of the more salient remark is that the authors “understand that it’s really hard for a lot of you white colonial ‘feminists’ to believe, but- SHOCKER! – Muslim women and women of colour can come with their own autonomy, and fight back as well!” The takeaway seems to be that while encouraging Muslim women to protest against oppression is “racist,” to say “white colonial ‘feminists'” is not. (Again, never mind that Islam is not a race, but white is.)

They advise the protesters to “Take aim at male supremacy, not Islam.” Perhaps oblivious to the fact that some male supremacists are also Muslim. They conclude the letter with the banner “SMASH THE WHITE SUPREMACIST CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY! POWER TO THE MUSLIMAHS!”

One has to wonder, what has colonialism and racism anything to do with defending the rights of a woman to post her own topless photos online without getting stoned to death?

One could give them the benefit of doubt and assume they simply didn’t understand what the issue was, had these women not been from Birmingham and other “western,” “colonial,” “capitalist” and “imperial” cities, instead of the “Global South” and the middle-east. Not only did they fail to address the subject matter, that of a teenage woman getting death threats for no other reason that posting her own photos online, but they muddled the “messed up world” that “we live in” (as they called it) even further. Silence in the face of injustice and oppression is a form of injustice and oppression. Do they really believe Amina deserves to be stoned to death? That she is a “white colonial racist” herself to be fought? Or is anyone who doesn’t agree with their ultra-conservative views is an enemy to be chased away?

Muslim Women Against Femen are not oppressed, but they wouldn’t lift a finger to support a sister under death treat. They wouldn’t recognize her right to control her body and her outfit. They wouldn’t even speak out against the preacher who is openly encouraging others to take matters into their own hands and apply the harsh law of lashing, nay, stoning her. Instead, they took to grinding the ax of “white colonialism.” Like the preacher, they feel threatened, and fear a “epidemic” of sorts.

“Nudity DOES NOT liberate me and I DO NOT need saving” read on of the slogans. Perhaps, but you aren’t implying that Amina doesn’t need or deserve saving either, are you?

What feminist ignores the need of another woman under attack by male preachers calling for her stoning? Apparently those who believe the protests of FEMEN is a “crusade.”

Meanwhile, a petition to prosecute those who threatened Amina Tyler’s life has already collected more than 110,000 signatures. At least there are still some left who differentiate between agreeing with someone’s opinion and agreeing to their right of having an opinion.

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