Just a heads up: this post and a few of its links feature topless women. Please click and read accordingly.
FEMEN, a “sextremist” 1 feminist group based in Ukraine and known for their topless protests, organized “International Topless Jihad Day” this past Thursday. Protests were organized all across Europe to show support for Amina Tyler, a 19 year old Tunisian FEMEN activist who posted topless photos of herself on Facebook with the words “Fuck your morals” and “My body is my own and not the source of anyones honor” written on her body. Reports reveal that Amina was committed to a mental hospital, and many high ranking Islamic figures have called for rather extreme violence in response to her photos. She has been reportedly hiding in a village a few hours from the Tunisian capital, fearing for her life and the lives of her family.
I feel like I should first note that I can’t stress strongly enough just how very much FEMEN is on the right side of the issue, here. Anyone who believes that, in FEMEN’s words, “killing a woman is more natural than recognising her right to do as she pleases with her own body” deserves our strong condemnation, regardless of whether they subscribe to a particular religion or not. That said, I can’t help but agree with Jezebel when they note that many of these protests 2 are troublingly islamophobic.
REALLY IMPORTANT NOTE: 3 I realize that “islamophobia” is a somewhat contentious term right now, particularly because of the recent popular articles painting new atheism as islamophobic. Glenn Greenwald puts forward what I think is the strongest case for this, and Hemant Mehta responds to many of these charges. It should be noted that I (maybe unsurprisingly) fall closer to the Glenn Greenwald side when it comes to this issue. That said, criticism of Islam so obviously isn’t what I or anyone else, as far as I can tell, mean by the term.
Because this seems to be such a touchy issue right now I’ll try to make it clear what I mean when I say that these protests have troubling undercurrents of islamophobia—even without going any further than the image above, I hope it shouldn’t take that much explaining. It’s hard to see what posing with a fake beard, a unibrow drawn on in eyeliner, and a towel fashioned into a turban achieves other than to exploit a crude Islamic stereotype.
More and more it seems that the go-to reaction many Westerners have when faced with legitimately condemnable actions on the part of Muslim radicals is little more than this: rush to find the nearest Muslim 4 to stage a protest. 5 Don’t think about it too hard, any local Muslim or mosque will do! We saw this clearly with Everyone Draw Muhammed Day, 6 where statements by Muslim radicals lead to atheist groups across the country drawing chalk Muhammeds on their college campuses—as if the already-marginalized Muslim students could somehow serve as appropriate stand-ins for hateful radicals—and we see it now with FEMEN protesters from Paris to San Franciso taking to their local mosques to perform topless protests.
Imagine that, in response to the reported “secret squads” enforcing modesty in conservative Hasidic parts of Brooklyn, local activists protested topless in front of random synagogues across the country while dressed in crude caricatures of Hasidic men. How many hours do you think it would take the Anti-Defamation League to put out a press release, and do you think they’d be wrong to think that there was some implicit, if not (extremely) explicit, bigotry going on?
On top of that, when presented with a counter-protest by Muslim women objecting to what they saw as imperialistic and patronizing attitudes of the FEMEN protesters towards Muslim women, the leader of FEMEN, Inna Shevchenko, told the Huffington Post UK that:
through all history of humanity, all slaves deny that they are slaves. . . They say they are against Femen, but we still say we are here for them. They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me.’
I hope this attitude speaks for itself, and that I don’t need to add any more commentary to explain how wrong and condescending a view like that is. I can’t deny that hearts are in the right places and heads are on the right side of this issue, but I just ask of FEMEN: please, slow down and make sure that your protests are respectful of whoever you’re tying to help. There’s no need to be patronizing or to exploit harmful stereotypes.
Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.
- Their words. FEMEN should also maybe slow their pun roll. ↩
- Certainly not all. Many of them strike me as extremely brave and powerful. ↩
- So important that I won’t even footnote it. ↩
- or anyone who looks like they could be one. ↩
- Or worse. Read Stephen’s HuffPo piece on islamophobia for a few examples of people who were assaulted or murdered simply for looking Muslim ↩
- An event that the original cartoonists later dissociated themselves from ↩