By Zenaira Khan
Femen’s “˜Topless Jihad’ campaign has received much media coverage in the last few weeks and has sparked heated debates amongst Muslim communities both in and around Europe. The group, which is no stranger to using topless protests as a means to call attention to violations of women’s rights, have been heavily criticised by both feminists and Muslim women themselves who have described their actions as feeding into a racist, colonial brand of feminism at odds with the central tenets of the Feminist movement.
Femen’s founder Inna Shevchenko claimed that “Topless protests are the battle flags of women’s resistance, a symbol of a woman’s acquisition of rights over her own body!”
There are several things wrong with this statement. It regards a woman’s freedom to remove her clothes in public as an indicator of liberation and the most effective form of activism. Rather than serving as “˜battle flags of women’s resistance,’ they show that the only way to attract media attention as a woman is by taking your top off and performing for the patriarchal gaze. When confronted by bare-breasted women, the violation of women’s rights in the Middle East is the last thing that will cross a spectator’s mind and in this way, Femen’s protests completely miss the point. Femen have laid waste to the centuries-old battle fought by Feminists against the sexual objectification of women.
Femen claims to “recognize the European values of freedom, equality and comprehensive development.” By assuming all Middle Eastern women to be veiled and oppressed by men in comparison to liberated European women, who have the “˜freedom’ to take their tops off in public, Femen are guilty of colonialism/orientalism (demonstrated further by Shevchenko’s claims that “They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation, but in their eyes it’s written “˜help me'”) and for this they have been heavily criticized by outraged Muslim women (many of whom identified themselves as feminists) who formed their own protest entitled “˜Muslim Women Against Femen.’
Controversial methods of protest aside, the “˜Topless Jihad’ debate has raised many important questions about the position of women in both Western and Non-Western societies. It is no secret that many women in North Africa and the Middle East lack the same basic rights as their male counterparts and that there is an ongoing but painfully slow struggle for their liberation. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women have only just been “˜allowed’ the freedom to ride a bike, but only if accompanied by a male relative.
It is disheartening to see that the media and society will only pay attention to a woman if she is naked and this way, Femen are making an interesting comment on how much we still have to achieve in terms of gender equality in the West.
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Zenaira Khan is a senior at the University of Westminster in London where she is studying English Literature. She loves reading, writing and cooking, and hopes to travel along The Silk Road one day. You can read more of her writing on her blog or follow her on twitter @zskha
Photo via Femen