Skip to main content

Sexualized Femen protest 'naive and foolish at best'

By Bim Adewunmi, special to CNN
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Mon April 22, 2013
Femen groups staged a day of international
Femen groups staged a day of international "topless jihad" on April 4 in support of Tunisian activist Amina Ahmed.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Femen activists have used topless protest in a campaign against patriarchy
  • Journalist Bim Adewunmi says the group's message of equality is good and true
  • But she says treating women as "helpless" and "hapless" robs them of agency
  • It is not up to Femen to "free" the women of the Middle East and Africa, Adewunmi says

Editor's note: Bim Adewunmi is a freelance journalist and editor whose work has appeared in the Guardian and The New Statesman, among other titles. She writes about popular culture, race and feminism, and lives in London. Follow @bimadew on Twitter. Adewumni says the approach by woman's rights group Femen is naive at best -- but in a counter-argument, Femen leader Inna Shevchenko says mass sexual protest will allow women to take back control.

(CNN) -- "My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone's honor."

The words of Tunisian activist Amina Ahmed, scrawled across her naked chest in Arabic and posted on Femen's Facebook page are true, and right. Women should have the choice to dress how they want, when they want, without fear of reprisal and safe from harm. As too many women in all corners of the can attest, this is not the reality.

Bim Adewunmi
Bim Adewunmi

From war to politics to art, shock tactics can be useful, powerful tools. They force the opposed to take notice, to hopefully retreat, to surrender their advantage. In the arena of human and women's rights, they are a staple -- from the burning of draft cards during the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s to bra burning (myth or no) to Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who set himself on fire and inadvertently roused the Tunisian Revolution -- shock tactics can, and do work.

They work across cultures too: I first learned of the Women's War which took place in eastern Nigeria in 1929 (an anti-taxation and anti-colonialist protest which ended with reports of up to 100 Igbo casualties), when I was at school in Lagos. I learned that some of these women stripped naked to make their case -- an admirably thought out and executed case of naked protest, in a non-Western culture, from more than 80 years ago. It was effective, too-- administrative reforms were carried out, bringing an end to the Warrant Chief system (introduced by British colonialists) and women were appointed in local courts.

So my issue with Femen, and any other such organizations, is less to do with the mode of protest, and more the gaze and rhetoric behind it. Femen purports to know, in an almost patriarchal way, what is "best" for these poor, oppressed women in Africa and the Middle East. Their problem is religion, and their naked protest is there to "help" free them from the "tyranny" therein. Yes -- there are huge chasms between the rights of men and women all over the world, and perhaps more visibly in these communities. But there are also women (and men) in those communities working to remedy this, using different tools, (some more blunt than others) and in all likelihood just as effective or even I would argue, more so, than Femen's methods.

Topless protesters denounce Berlusconi

Read more: Why topless protesters will hound Islamic leaders

I am Nigerian-British and a Muslim, now living in the geographical West. I know that my experiences do not match that of a woman my age in a small town in Mali, or Pakistan. I don't wear a hijab; never have done, unlikely ever to. I don't care one way or another about the hijab, but I do care about choice. In electing not to wear a headscarf, I have exercised that right, and not all of the women who wear scarves have the luxury of that choice. But there are also millions of women who choose, very happily and deliberately, to wear the hijab. Is it "liberating" to ban the hijab for these women? Femen's intent may be honorable, but the implementation seems wrong-headed to me.

A lot of us in brown and black bodies have become used to the neo-colonial lens through which the rest of the world views us. We are there to be "helped", to be "liberated". There exists a powerful and deliberate narrative around Africa and the Middle East: "we must go there and free them!" If you are only viewing people as hapless, helpless children -- which is how I see a lot of Femen's rhetoric as applied to Africa and the Middle East -- you rob them of agency. It is not up to Femen to go and "free" these women. We cannot export tactics that simply don't work, in the name of sisterhood.

Read more: Topless feminist protesters show what they're made of

What kind of sisterhood insists that an attitude of "this works here and will therefore work over there" is the way forward? Is there no nuance to be found, if the objective is to free women of the patriarchy that governs their lives? It is naive and somewhat foolish at best, and at worst dangerous and stupid. It is looking at a health problem and deciding that their prescription is the only drug that will clear up the rash, when locally sourced medicines may work just as well, if not better. At the very least, work with organizations already at the coalface day after day, collaborate with and listen to them. If the aim is genuinely to make a fairer society, not to merely impose benevolent condescension, it's a necessary step.

The Femen message, with a core belief in self-determination and equality, unshackled from damaging patriarchy, is good and true. But their methods leave much to be desired.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are soley those of Bim Adewunmi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT