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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.