'Naked Jihad' sacrifices feminism to racism

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Amina Tyler's naked protestWhat gets lost when a reasonable feminist action is subsumed by racist and imperialist language?

Femen is a feminist organisation originating in Kiev that uses the naked female body as a 'weapon' of protest. Naked protest has a long history — it has been used successfully by women activists in Nigeria, Liberia, Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere, for over a century — and its meaning is relative to the conditions it arises from. Femen has had members mobilise globally, including in the Arab world.

Recently Tunisian activist Amina Tyler was exposed to death threats by federal politicians for posting naked images of herself scrawled with protest slogans including 'F*** your morals' and 'My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone's honor'. Tunisian preacher Adel Ami said Tyler should be lashed and stoned to death.

Femen's response left a lot to be desired. It staged a 'Naked Jihad', in which naked protest was levelled against mosques, Islamic cultural centres and Arab embassies across Europe. The actions were underpinned by an insidious form of racism, one statement by Femen claiming a 'lethal hatred of Islamists — inhuman beasts for whom killing a woman is more natural than recognising her right to do as she pleases with her own body'.

Clearly there is something out of sync here.

The phrase, 'white men saving brown women from brown men' was coined by Gayatri Spivak in 1988. She used it to describe how the imperial British mandate in India banned the practice of Sati — widow burning — without ever having consulted the real experts in the field: the women who would participate in the tradition.

Since then, the loaded phrase has been used to describe the practice of using western feminist tropes to further colonial expansion and oppression.

This has ranged from French colonists in Algeria prescribing 'liberation' to Algerian women while objecting to female suffrage back home; to conservative women like Laura Bush justifying the 'war on terror' as a war for women's liberation, despite the fact that nothing sets back the status of women like a military invasion.

And it can be seen, too, in Femen's Naked Jihad.

The perception that Muslim women are essentially subordinate — and subordinate only to Muslim men — serves only to bolster attitudes of western superiority and to deny the west's complicity in the conditions that confirm inequality in the first place.

On Q&A on Monday, in response to a question about whether feminism was still relevant in Australia, Yorta Yorta soprano Deborah Cheetham said we needn't look further than the Northern Territory to see why we still need it.

I would say we needn't look further than our own family structures, where women perform the bulk of unpaid domestic labour and are exposed to domestic violence; our working conditions, where women perform more labour for less income; our neighbourhoods, where women are harassed and assaulted; and our political system, whose female participation ranks below 'sexist' countries like Tunisia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Algeria.

Feminism should be just as relevant to Australian women as it is to women in the Arab world, who are exposed to a range of overlapping, but not identical, oppressive forces. Even the most privileged women in Australia do not escape sexism. Blaming 'brown men' for misogyny is the oldest way of obscuring gender inequity at home.

On the one hand, it should be said that Femen can be applauded for spearing one of the most insidious forms of gender oppression we experience in the west: the categorical sexualisation of women. When women expose their bodies while rejecting demands that their bodies exist for male consumption, they are breaking a longstanding tradition of male possession. This in itself is an important achievement.

But when a movement such as Femen abuses the language of feminism to cast aside the concerns of women with non-white and non-secular identities, they lose credibility as a feminist organisation, and the status of a woman like Amina Tyler gets derailed. In denying muslim and Arab women a voice of their own, Femen denies the possibility of global solidarity among women.


Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage is a Eureka Street columnist and editor of Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow


Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Femen, feminism, Muslim, Amina Tyler, naked protest

 

 

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Existing comments

Just brilliant. Let's not help people because we don't want to look like racists! How stupid.
CR Tassening | 12 April 2013


What on earth is your point? So odd.
F J Costigan | 12 April 2013


"The phrase, 'white men saving brown women from brown men' was coined by Gayatri Spivak in 1988. She used it to describe how the imperial British mandate in India banned the practice of Sati — widow burning — without ever having consulted the real experts in the field: the women who would participate in the tradition." Since when is stopping murder a bad thing? Another stupid dribble which nobody but Eureka Street would publish.
Beat Odermatt | 12 April 2013


Do your research, Islamism is not the same thing as Islam. FEMEN has expressed their opposition to Islamism (that is, the political expression of Islam which is often considered extreme and fundamentalist) not to the religion of Islam. Being opposed to a set of political ideologies is not racist.
C M CATTERSON | 12 April 2013


This is such a good article. How is it that one person can see things so clearly and present an argument so clearly? ...and yet the strangest negative comments are left as a reward. Baffling.
Trent | 12 April 2013


Ellena Savage wrote, "She used it to describe how the imperial British mandate in India banned the practice of Sati — widow burning — without ever having consulted the real experts in the field: the women who would participate in the tradition." So we should ask a woman if she wants to get burned? That is how she would be participating in the tradition. By the same standard before we condemn Islam, do we therefore ask our Muslim sisters if they want to get lashed or stoned? They do? Okay then, who are we to judge their culture? Hey who are we to point the finger when we're just as bad. Sarcasm off. Does Ellena Savage actually read what she writes? The bottom line is the white man is responsible for all evil, even when found in a culture that goes back centuries before there was contact with the white man.
MJ | 14 April 2013


Femen were NOT "helping", they were mocking Muslim culture. To mock ones own culture is satire: to mock another's is bigotry.
victoria | 14 April 2013


@Victoria. Utter nonsense. Satire relates to a fundamental civil liberty, namely the right to free speech. I can think of no more hateful and insidious ideology that is worthy of mockery and contempt than that of Islamic fascism.
AM | 08 May 2013


I respectfully disagree and have published a dissenting opinion at: http://andrewmacniven.wordpress.com/
Andrew MacNiven | 10 July 2013


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