FEMEN activists speak to media in front of a mosque during a protest in Berlin, Thursday, April 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
This spring, Tunisia saw the first topless protests in the history of the Arab World.
Three activists from the group FEMEN—self-proclaimed sextremists now internationally famous for protesting the sex industry, dictatorships and religious institutions with slogans written in black marker across their bare breasts—stood in front of the Justice Ministry in the capital city of Tunis and ripped off their shirts to reveal the slogan “Breasts Feed Revolution” scrawled across their bodies. Bystanders attempted to cover the women, whose usually controversial protest was even more incendiary in the Islam-influenced Arab capital.
The protests were a follow up to the “Topless Jihad”—a day organized in support of Amina Tyler, a 19-year-old FEMEN activist from Tunisia who, after posting two topless photographs of herself on Facebook, was forced to go into hiding after receiving lashing and death threats from Adel Almi, a prominent Islamic cleric and the president of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Tunisia who called for her to be “punished according to Sharia Law.”
Although well-meaning, the actions were culturally clumsy, invoking inflammatory Arab and Muslim stereotypes and clichés, with topless women wearing towels as turbans and penciling unibrows and beards on their faces. In Paris, one woman burned the Salafist flag in front of a mosque. In front of Tunisian embassies and ordinary mosques around Europe, FEMEN activists—most of whom were not Arab or Muslim—ripped off their clothes and proclaimed, “Our tits are deadlier than your stones!”
FEMEN’s history predates the controversy surrounding its activism in the Arab world. Although FEMEN’s harshest critics accuse the group of operating in the colonialist tradition of white, Western feminists travelling to the Middle East to “save” and “liberate” women from Islam, FEMEN actually originated in the Ukraine, and, while its members are predominantly white, the group’s politics are rooted in the post-Soviet politics of Eastern Europe, not Western Europe. Their first cause was the burgeoning, often exploitative sex trade and tourism that emerged after the fall of communism in the Ukraine.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, economic opportunities in the Ukraine were scarce for everyone—particularly women. Many women, often those who migrated from the rural parts of the Ukraine to cities like Kiev and Odessa for a better life, turned to sex work after realizing that, given the economic conditions and gender dynamics of the Ukraine, this was their best option for a reliable income.
In 2005, the visa requirements for foreign tourists coming to the Ukraine were lifted—and foreign men flooded the Ukrainian cities to see one of the country’s chief tourist attractions: beautiful women. Kiev and Odessa had become veritable Ukrainian versions of Bangkok—although less expensive and more accessible for European patrons. Sex tourism—and the sex industry at large—flourished.
The sex industry has generated many lasting social problems in the Ukraine. The HIV rate there is the highest in Europe, and it is the only country where most of the transmission is through sexual intercourse, rather than drug use. Many of those drawn into the sex industry are not women, but girls—contributing to one of the largest child porn and prostitution industry in the world. An estimated 30 percent of the Ukraine’s prostitutes are under the age of 18, with 11 percent as young as 11 years old.
Above all, Ukraine’s sex industry and reputation for sex tourism has created the impression among some foreigners that the Ukraine is a brothel, filled with sexually available women who are meant to be objectified. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych—a frequent target of FEMEN’s fury—even told the audience of the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland to “Come to the Ukraine and see our beautiful girls.”
The group formed in 2008, but first captured international headlines in 2011 when, in response to a radio show in New Zealand promising a “Ukrainian bride of his choice” to a contest winner, the nine founding members of FEMEN assembled in Kiev’s Independence Square wearing wedding dresses and the flowered headdresses of traditional, Ukrainian peasant brides. Suddenly, they ripped off the wedding dresses, revealing slogans written on their breasts and “Ukraine is not a brothel!” written on placards in seven different languages. Photographers flocked from every direction, and FEMEN’s first internationally recognized topless protest dominated the front pages the next day. The New Zealand man never got his bride.
FEMEN was criticized from all sides. Ukrainian feminists complained that the activists were protesting the sex industry by dressing like sex workers. To this frequently voiced criticism, FEMEN founder Anna Hustol—who, while rarely photographed topless herself, is one of the radical minds behind the movement— offers the rejoinder, “Topless protests are about demonstrating yourself as a woman in protest. We are reclaiming the idea of woman from sexual object to a protest.”
FEMEN often refers to their breasts as their “weapons.”
Additionally, some sex workers objected to FEMEN’s interference, organizing under the slogan, “FEMEN, get the fuck out of our business.” Other feminists criticized FEMEN for advocating for the criminalization of sex work, rather than standing in solidarity with sex workers and advocating for their rights and protection.
Unfazed, FEMEN soon expanded its political platform beyond sex tourism in the Ukraine to encompass what they refer to as “patriarchy in all of its forms.” According to FEMEN, in addition to the sex industry, this means opposition to dictatorships and all forms of religion.
However, it wasn’t until Inna Shevchenko joined the movement that truly militant atheism—particularly campaigns against Sharia Law—became central to the movement.
Inna Shevchenko officially joined FEMEN in 2010, but her rise to prominence wasn’t until August 2012. As the Russian government was in the process of convicting and sentencing three members of the Russian feminist punk rock movement Pussy Riot for singing anti-Putin slogans in an Orthodox Church, Inna, wearing nothing but protective goggles and pink shorts with “Free Riot” scrawled across her bare breasts, proceeded to fell a thirteen-foot cross overlooking Independence Square with a chainsaw. A criminal investigation was opened against FEMEN and Shevchenko was forced to flee to Paris, where she started FEMEN’s first major activist training center outside the Ukraine.
FEMEN was officially international and Inna Shevchenko became the face—and body—of the movement.
FEMEN in the Muslim World
In Paris, Shevchenko’s first move was to lead a topless march through the heavily Muslim quarters of Paris. The FEMEN trainees who participated in the march painted slogans like, “Muslim women, let’s get naked!” and “Nudity is Freedom!” across their breasts. Shevchenko has organized protests outside of mosques, and has even been known to inform veiled women in Paris that the veil is oppressive and they should remove it. In London, French FEMEN activists were arrested protesting the participation of athletes from Muslim countries in the 2012 Olympics. They dressed as Muslim men—wearing turbans made from bath towels and prayer rugs—and claimed that the Olympics were supporting “bloody Islamist regimes” by allowing these countries to participate.
When Amina Tyler posted two pictures of herself topless—one with “Fuck Your Morals” written across her breasts in English and the other with “My Body is Not the Source of Someone Else’s Honor” written in Arabic—only to be threatened with eighty lashes, and possible death from the Tunisian authorities, FEMEN came forward to support her. Seizing the moment to push their anti-Sharia message, they declared an International Topless Jihad Day.
But on the same day, another group emerged—“Muslim Women Against FEMEN.” According to the page, the group has 11,825 members. Like Tyler, they posted their pictures on Facebook; but unlike Tyler, they were fully clothed, many of them wearing the traditional hijab and some even wearing the more conservative niqab or burqa. They carried placards that read “My hijab is my liberation” and “Nudity does not liberate me and I do not need saving.” Each included the hashtag #MuslimahPride, the term for female Muslims.
Still, Inna Shevchenko was not deterred—indeed, she seemed to miss the point completely. “They write on their posters that they do not need liberation, but in their eyes it’s written, ‘Help me,’” she said.
This response frustrated many Muslim women—particularly those who consider themselves Muslim feminists.
“FEMEN has a colonialist mindset and wants to teach Arab and Muslim women how to dress, how to speak for themselves, how to defend for their rights—this is counterproductive,” said Hajer Naili, who, though she does not formally align with Muslim Women Against FEMEN, is a frequent commenter on feminism and Islam, particularly in post-revolutionary Tunisia. “The way that I see how FEMEN acts shows me that they have no understanding of the Arab culture, the Islamists or the Muslim culture.”
Although Naili—along with many of the members of Muslim Women Against FEMEN—supports Amina Tyler, she considers her method of topless protest not only ineffective but counterproductive for the cause of women’s rights in the region.
“Those in power are going to say, ‘Oh, look—this is the type of feminism you want, it isn’t compatible with our culture and our religion,’” she said specifically referencing the Islamist Ennahda Party that has gained power in Tunisia since the fall of former dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Interestingly, there is also some support for FEMEN in the Muslim world, in the form of yet another Facebook group, Muslim [and ExMuslim] Women For FEMEN—significantly smaller than Muslim Women Against FEMEN with 1,284 members. In the same way that Muslim Women Against FEMEN accused FEMEN of speaking for them, Muslim [and ExMuslim] Women For FEMEN emerged in protest of Muslim Women Against FEMEN purporting to speak for all Muslims.
“Muslim women are not monolithic,” Safiya Taif, a spokeswoman of Muslim Women [and ExMuslim] For FEMEN told me. “There are Muslim women who are being represented by women like Amina and Alia [an Egyptian FEMEN activist who similarly posted a nude photo of herself to the Internet in 2011]. These women are not the ones that Muslimah Pride is speaking for.”
Taif argues that Muslimah Pride is not necessarily representative of the Muslim world at large. “Muslimah Pride is not made up of poor women—they are based in the West, are educated and enjoy Internet access,” she said.
Meanwhile, many of the Muslim women who are not in this demographic—and not in the secular, moderate demographic that she considers herself and the other FEMEN activists to be a part of, either—are often the ones who are most affected by the gender oppression that FEMEN is protesting. These are the Muslim women living in the Middle East and the Global South—exploited not so much by the neocolonialism of Western feminists but by the conditions of global capitalism. It is these conditions that give rise to the poverty that in turn is associated with the persistence of rigid, conservative ideas about gender roles.
“People complain that FEMEN protests won’t make a difference,” she goes on. “But protests don’t really make a difference; they bring things to light. FEMEN has brought many things to light.”
Elsewhere in the Muslim world, Egypt stands on the brink of revolution—or a coup.