Marina Fuser is a social scientist and doctoral researcher in Gender & Film Studies at the University of Sussex. Marina is part of the RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM editorial team and this week explores the protest group FEMEN‘s recent international protests.
The 10th of April of 2013 is the day of the 5th anniversary of a controversial “Feminist” group called Femen. These Ukrainian activists became popular after a topless demonstration against prostitution in front of Warsaw’s National Stadium in 2012. After figuring among the headlights of the mainstream media, such as BBC News, Le Figaro, Opera Mundi and Al Jazeera, the small group began to grow and produce echoes in other countries, such as France, Tunisia, Canada, Brazil and United States. They define themselves as “the new amazons”, and their strategies of topless protesting are meant to address sexual violence and exploitation. Their intent is to play with the objectification of women’s body as an attempt to capture media attention to sexist violence.
The act of empowering through the exposition of women’s bodies has been a trend since Sexual Revolution between the late 1960’s and early 1970‘s, with tactics such as bra burning, naked performances and urban interventions that brought the female body to the spotlight. In the next decade, the visual artist and activist Barbara Kruger made a photographic silkscreen on vinyl with a ceased chiaroscuro face of a woman crossed by the inscriptions “Your body is a battleground”. It was a moment where Feminists and sympathizers politicized the body, blurring boundaries between the personal and the political. Femen’s attempt to use the body exposition as a source of empowerment is not original nor it is creative, but, by all means, it is valid.
However I intend to address the politics of location, that is to say, the place where they are speaking from and whom they intend to address. The question of women’s liberation, in some ways, can be understood as “universal”, since Patriarchalism has gone global even before the word Globalization had been defined. In fact, the oppression of women is a reality in both East and West, North and South. However, as most broad global fields, they also undergo several layers of complexity and cultural differences. Meanings are produced and hence communicate through different symbols and systems, the paradigms shift and cognitive structures are often lost in translation. By this I don’t mean to fall into the relativistic trap of saying we cannot speak of a culture that is foreign to us, but that one must be very careful not to speak on behalf of another culture. There is a certain arrogance when the white Western woman tries to save the oppressed women of the East.
In a letter full of anger and religious intolerance, Femen’s (cheer) leader Inna Shevchenko, explained to a group of Muslim Women that they are fighting FOR them, in the name of THEIR freedom. Their recent international protests against Jihad in countries such as France and Germany, where there is a critical level of islamophobia and persecution against Muslims, created much controversy. In the demos, they ridiculed Muslims, by wearing fake beards or hijabs, and pretended to pray. One activist wrote in her body “My body against Islamism”. Several white Barbie-looking topless women are telling women of color that they should be set free from the veil in an open manifestation of religious intolerance. We fall into the overrated myth of the white heroes that save the women of the East from oppression, without regards to their culture, to their beliefs, to their feelings about it. They are expected to “develop” so that they can eventually reach Western standards of freedom: freedom of consumption and the objectification of women’s bodies. From how many angles can we define freedom?
As a response to the acute islamophobia manifested by Femen, a group of Muslim women decided to organize a Muslimah Pride Day, in order to reaffirm Muslim identity and “reclaim [their] collective voice”, according to the activist Sofia Ahmed who studies International Relations at the University of Birmingham. Muslimah stands for female Muslims. In the social medias, the Muslimah invite other Muslim women to protest against Femen’s instrumental use of a distorted view of Muslim women as a mean of reinforcing Western imperialism. They also posted photographs in the social media in which they hold placards with inscriptions that claim: “Nudity does not liberate me – and I do not need saving”, “Shame on you, Femen, hijab is my right” and “Femen cannot tell me what do wear”. They have written an open letter to Femen that is also circulating in the social media, where they say: “We understand that it’s really hard for a lot of you white colonial “feminists” to believe, but – SHOCKER! – Muslim women and women of color can come with their own autonomy, and fight back as well! And speak out for themselves! Who knew?” – And continued: “We are proud Muslimahs, and we’re sick of your colonial, racist rubbish disguised as ‘women’s liberation’!”.
According to the filmmaker and U.C. Berkeley professor Trinh T. Minh-ha: “If the act of unveiling has a liberating potential, so does the act of veiling. It all depends on the context in which such an act is carried out, or more precisely, on how and where women see dominance. Difference should neither be defined by the dominant sex, nor by the dominant culture. So that when women decide to lift the veil, one can say that they do so in defiance of their men’s oppressive right to their bodies. But when they decide to keep or put on the veil they once took off they might do so to reappropriate their space or to claim a new difference in defiance of genderless, hegemonic, centered standardization”. This takes us back to the politics of location, to the political necessity grounded within a specific context, embodied in subjectivities that came across several layers of exclusion, and interwoven cultural frameworks. As Feminists, we should support their struggles against sexist oppression, as well as State impositions, but we should encourage their empowerment to speak for themselves and esteem their autonomy. Otherwise, we should go back to questioning our own patterns of freedom, where women are depicted as male fetishes that advertise just about any product out there: from a vehicle to a party at one of Brighton’s clubs. Perhaps we should consider putting on a veil when the media is constantly overexposing our bodies as merchandise. (sic) I’m inclined to think that we need to escape this spectrum of binary oppositions and reinvent strategies of empowerment and liberation according to the place where we’re speaking from. Think global, but act local.
Besides their hatred against Muslims and religious intolerance, the last pearl from Femen is the celebrity they praised as an example of this women’s liberation that they are trying to export. Who else other than Margaret Thatcher? Last week, Femen Brazil posted in the social media a photo of the “iron lady” with the following text: “We dedicate our condolences to Margaret Thatcher, whom with her neoliberal politics, conducted a government that reduced the dimension of the State and transformed the United Kingdom. She was, by far, a worldwide influence, known as the Iron Lady, due to her inflexible conduct. She was the first woman to become the British prime-minister, where she remained for three consecutive mandates, between 1979 and 1989.” The Brazilian activist Luka Franca wrote to Femen UK to inquire whether this position was endorsed by the British branch, but they denied it. “We don’t view Thatcher as a Feminist. She is an extremely controversial figure in our country and most here don’t like her. Femen Brazil has put her up for some reason, it had nothing to do with us, the only good thing she did was liberate the Falklands, but she did a lot of bad things to the English people and I can assure you we don’t support her or her right-wing politics.”. Femen UK wasn’t the only one to disagree with that statement. Apparently, Thatcher also despised Feminism. She mentioned to her advisor Paul Johnson: “The Feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate Feminism. It is poison”. Nonetheless, the British conservative ruler, responsible for the privatization of several segments of British services, nearly annihilating the Unions, and raising the bar of unemployment beyond the unbearable, cannot be an example of Feminism. Like Femen, Thatcher’s (post) colonialist government was also not so friendly to the Muslim people, as she played a major role in the Gulf war and also contributed in the invasion of Iraq. Should I state the so-called “liberation” of the Falklands as another example of Thatcher’s colonialism?