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'Naked Jihad' sacrifices feminism to racism

  • 12 April 2013

What 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