I just finished watching an episode of al-Jazeera Stream, where one of the women from the feminist group Femen was speaking. Femen have become widely known over the past few years, particularly for their tactic of stripping to protest patriarchy. Their logic goes like this: women’s bodies are consistently used by men and the media and don’t really belong to us, so we must take them back by re-appropriating them as a symbol of resistance of patriarchy. Therefore stripping becomes an act of “taking back our bodies” and a way to stand up against patriarchy. While I completely agree with this logic, as well as with the fact that in today’s world our bodies still don’t belong to us, what I find problematic about Femen is their tendency to universalize their feminist vision. What works for them, should work for all women, everywhere.
Now this isn’t the first time feminism has confronted this issue. First and second wave feminists in the US, for example, were notorious for excluding women who weren’t like them: white, middle-class, American. Their feminism was distinctly local, but was branded and spread as ‘universal’ and if women didn’t adopt it then they were anti-feminist. The woman form Femen who was on al-Jazeera was eerily reminiscent of those kind of discourses, especially when she accused the other participants of not being feminists because they didn’t agree with Femen’s tactics.
Femen have also been famous for their focus on Muslim women (again, what’s new). Their protest in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower where they wore burqas and then stripped, as well as their decision to march naked through a Muslim neighbourhood in Paris demonstrate their belief that the way most Muslim women dress is against feminism and against liberation. In this case they have defined liberation in a very specific way, and that is the main issue I have with them.
Many feminists define liberation as essentially wearing as little as possible. The more you wear, the more oppressed you are. It is only within this context that a process of stripping can be seen as a liberating process. While this may be the case for some women, it is certainly not the case for me, or for most women I know. That doesn’t mean we aren’t feminists—it means that we see liberation differently. The reason I’m a feminist is because I believe every woman should have a choice in how she lives. These choices are obviously dependent on socially constructed ideas, norms and values. What a woman can choose in Egypt is not the same as what a woman can choose in Paris, simply because societies see different things as “good” or “bad.” Contrary to what western feminists may think, not every woman wears the veil because she’s forced to by her violent, patriarchal father. By labelling specific things as “feminist” or “anti-feminist,” you are yet again imposing rules and boundaries on women—which is exactly what you claim patriarchy does.
Feminism can only succeed if we accept diversity. There is no way we can fight against a system as strongly entrenched as patriarchy if we keep up all this in-fighting about who is a good feminist and who isn’t a feminist at all. Feminism shouldn’t be about whether a veil is “okay” or not—it should be about whether a woman was forced to wear a veil, just as it should be about whether a woman in Paris was forced to wear a mini-skirt. It should be about the effects of capitalism, of racism, of Islamophobia on the everyday lives of women. Feminism has the potential to be greatly emancipatory by adopting an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic and anti-Islamophobic rhetoric, instead of often actively being racist, homophobic, transphobic and Islamophobic.