I was going to write an insightful post on the aesthetics of vampires vs zombies (guess who wins?) but events overtook my intentions, and I now find myself compelled to add my grain of strychnine to the debate on FEMEN’s topless jihad day.
The ukrainian feminist activists who demonstrate topless, with protest messages written across their chests reacted to Amina Tyler, a Tunisian member of the group, having being threatened, and put under house arrest after she posted a picture of herself topless, with a message of protest against her perceived islamic attempts to control women’s bodies, on her facebook account. Her messages were: “Fuck your morals” and “My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honour”.
Femen protesters called out for a massive demonstration in support of Amina and asked their members to go out, topless, with similar messages written across their chests.
Of course, FEMEN being an extremist kind of group, some of the messages went further – some directly attacked Islam, in ways that would be offensive to believers. This is what they do: during their protest against the Catholic groups who sought to prevent the new law for gay marriage in France, some FEMEN members dressed as topless nuns with ‘In Gay we trust’ spelled on their breasts! Not the way to win friends and influence people.
FEMEN’s slogans are sometimes offensive, but whereas FEMEN demonstrators are often manhandled by the police, and beaten by members of the public, they are not themselves violent. Nor do they force anyone to join them. One Egyptian member called out for all Arab women to join in the protest, under the assumption that none of them thought it was right to threaten to stone a woman for showing her breasts on the internet. However, this particular response may well have been over enthusiastic: just because you do not condone stoning, and are ok with other women baring their breasts does not mean you will want to bare yours. Nor does it mean you will want to turn against your religion.
It’s not the case, however that all Muslim women were encouraged to join in the protest, nor that anyone said that Muslim women were all oppressed and needed to strip to become free. There is a big difference between thinking that Islam is your liberation, your source of empowerment, as some Muslim women are saying in response to the topless jihad, and thinking that it’s ok for a young woman to be forced into hiding (which is the best interpretation of what’s happen to Amina) because extremists are threatening her and no-one is standing up against them. Some of those extremists are her relatives. So presumably her female relatives are Muslim too. Should Muslim women think it’s ok for a young woman to be threatened in this way? Will it vindicate their religious beliefs if they allow it to be so? I doubt whether Amina’s mother, aunts, sisters, if she has any, are first and foremost worried about whether they have offended god, right now: more likely they are fearing for Amina’s life.
I also fail to understand how FEMEN’s act of solidarity, started as it was by French Muslim members of the group, is in any sense racist or colonialist. FEMEN regularly turns agains any group who attacks women – the Catholic church, last year in Paris, and the group’s country of origin, Ukraine, to protest against sex tourism. I’m also not entirely sure that we can ask Ukrainian women to ‘check their priviledge’, or indeed, the Egyptian member who called out for arab women to join in, or Amina, who started the whole thing.
It seems that if you take away the sometimes offensive messages which are no more offensive than many you see in newspapers, movies, tv news, etc., all that there is left to be angry against is breasts.
The man pictured below, kicking the FEMEN activist is coming up from behind her. He’s not upset about the message which he can’t read from where he stands. He’s not upset about the headgear – only secularists are and only in the context of schools and other public buildings. He’s upset about the breasts. And the curious thing, is that the person posting it, along with many others writing about Femen online, also seems to find the breasts insulting. They’re blacked out! (The first part of the message, the word “Fuck” written just above the breasts, is blurred).
But what on earth can be offensive about breasts? To religious people, they’re not even supposed to be part of the sexual act! (Sex being simply the insertion of the penis in the vagina, for the purpose of reproduction). Yet we do act as if breasts were offensive, in muslim, christian and atheist circles alike. Women who breastfeed their babies have to do so ‘discreetly’, or hiding in a toilet. Women whose breasts show through their clothes are judged ‘slutty’ and, if they are at work, ‘unprofessional’.
I have personally never seen anyone hurt by a breast (save perhaps Woody Allen in “All you ever wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask”). But judging by the constant prejudice against their exposure, and the violent reaction against FEMEN, it seems that what Femen members say must be true:
“Our breasts are more dangerous than your stones!”