Article on Femen in Le Monde

An article I wrote about Femen was published in Le Monde. Here is the English version:

Femen are a group of Ukrainian-based feminists who have become well-known over the past few years for their provocative tactics and confrontational strategies. Most notable among these is the tactic of protesting topless, in an effort to reclaim their bodies as their own rather than as instruments of patriarchy. Because women’s bodies are constantly instrumentalized by men and the media, their protests act as a way of re-appropriating the female body as a symbol of resistance against patriarchy. Stripping is therefore a means by which women can “take back our bodies” in the broader fight against patriarchy.

While this logic is accepted by some feminist circles, it is not my aim in this article to discuss feminist tactics. Rather I want to focus on Femen’s tendency to universalize their brand of feminism that renders their activism and organization as neocolonial.

The issue of universalizing feminism is not a new issue. First wave feminism in Europe and America had the same problems: they based their feminism on their own experiences, and expected it to apply to women from all over the world who had completely different experiences. These women also ignored the fact that their own lives were affecting the lives of women elsewhere. For example, many first wave feminists were unable to see how imperialism and colonialism on the part of their governments was destroying the lives of women in other parts of the world. In fact, many western feminists actively participated in the colonial process, by trying to “civilize” and “modernize” women in Arab and African countries. For these women, feminism was about becoming like them.

There was a backlash to this kind of feminism, coming mainly from post-colonial feminists from decolonizing countries, from African-American and Latina feminists in the US, and from some second-wave feminists in Europe and the US. These feminists argued that feminism was more complicated, and that it had to represent the diverse lives and views of women around the world. They also introduced the concept of intersectionality: the idea that women are not only affected by gender, but also by other identities such as race, nationality, sexuality, and so on. This meant that feminism had to account for multiple identities and the ways in which they interacted with one another.

Despite coming after this backlash, Femen seems to be going back to the tendencies of first wave feminism. A large part of their work has focused on Muslim women, in an effort to “liberate” and “save” them from Muslim men, Muslim culture, and Islam in general. At one protest in front of the Eiffel Tower, they wore burkas and then stripped, in an effort to bring attention to the fact that the burka is oppressive. In another protest, they marched through a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in France, they decided to march down the streets naked, in an effort to convince Muslim women to unveil. It is clear that for Femen, liberation is defined in a very specific way: as being free from religion, culture, and oppressive dress codes.

In this view, 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. This kind of logic ties women’s liberations to their bodies and the way they dress, which is very problematic. Who decides what is oppressive and what is not oppressive for women to wear? Also problematic is the assumption that all women who veil or wear the burka are oppressed and need to be liberated. These assumptions reveal a certain view of the world that is Eurocentric and cannot be generalized universally.

My view as a feminist is that women should be able to choose. These choices depend on our socio-cultural, economic and political environment, and cannot be dictated from outside. Femen’s recent stunts in Tunisia show how out of touch they are with the Middle Eastern and North African contexts. Instead of spreading awareness about gender issues, they are instead prompting a backlash from a society who does not see them as anything except outsiders imposing their views on women, similar to the colonial process that occurred decades earlier.

The Middle East and North Africa is already home to a wide array of gender and feminist movements, projects, and activism. If the goal of Femen is to act in solidarity with women around the world, then they should contact these indigenous movements and ask how they can help. The politics of solidarity in a post-colonial world that is full of power imbalances is a difficult process, but it certainly will not go anywhere if movements like Femen keep imposing themselves and asserting that “their” feminism is the “right” feminism.

Women of colour have struggled too long to show how feminism can only help them if it is more diverse and not just about heterosexual white middle-class Euro-American women’s experiences. Unfortunately the amount of coverage Femen is getting is undermining the progress made in this arena. Moreover, the current global climate in which Muslims are already seen as problematic makes the situation much worse. Nevertheless, the criticism Femen has received is a good sign, and it comes from both Euro-American feminists as well as feminists from the Global South. The simple point at the bottom of many of these critiques is that feminists should be careful not to draw new lines of exclusion and to accept that feminism will only succeed if it accepts a plurality of voices.


11 thoughts on “Article on Femen in Le Monde

  1. Pingback: Article on Femen in Le Monde | Neo-colonialism and its Discontents | Aym Playing

  2. Good piece, thanks. I am worried that Femen’s disproportionate media coverage will create an impression of feminism that is wholly unreflective of the broader movement and just as counter productive as the tags borne in the past. This coverage serves to promote a very particular view of feminism and angling for that media attractiveness smacks of arrogance.
    The dangers of a lack of plurality and arrogantly stubborn beliefs is just as pertinent to the left wing, who have become hopelessly incapable of cohesion and common cause. We all need to take in a broader view and as you say, act on solidarity and ask how we can help others.

    1. Completely agree with you!
      A major problem with the left (in Europe and US) is that they also have very problematic views of Arab women, and so reproduce these (although in different ways).

  3. Do you mean Femen should understand that it is ok if a Muslim woman is legally prosecuted and punished for baring her breasts, within the “Middle Eastern and North African context”?

    Their protest is obviously not targeted at those who wear the burqa by choice, but for those who ARE oppressed. Claiming that there are women who wear the burqa by choice is trying to sabotage their principle stance. A Tunisian woman EXISTS who bared her breasts. Is she Euro-American? Do you disown her? Should she be thrown out if the Middle eastern and North African “context”?

    Yours is not a different feminism.. yours is just diluted with apology .. You don’t have to agree with baring breasts but must support the right of ALL women including Muslim women to do so .. including Tunisian and Ukrainian women..

    The protest is against those who don’t agree with such a right.. which probably includes you (correct me if I’m wrong)

    PS: I am a resident Pakistani and know what I’m taking about.

    1. “Do you mean Femen should understand that it is ok if a Muslim woman is legally prosecuted and punished for baring her breasts?”

      Nope. Go back and read the article again please.

      “A Tunisian woman EXISTS who bared her breasts. Is she Euro-American? Do you disown her? Should she be thrown out if the Middle eastern and North African “context”?”

      Nope, never did, never will. Please read more carefully.

      “The protest is against those who don’t agree with such a right.. which probably includes you (correct me if I’m wrong)”

      Yup, you’re wrong again.

  4. Tahir C

    First off it’s not about the “first wave” of feminism, which is actually quite an irrelevant thing to relate to. Of course, even the modern day protests have a lot in common with the previous ones in many ways, out of which one of the fundamental things is that all of them are protests anyway. But it certainly does not imply that such a later protest has attained the label of “first wave” of its own kind; as if acting in solidarity with the initial protests that ever took place on planet Earth.

    FEMEN’s protest was in solidarity with the Tunisian feminist; it was about respecting individual rights. And clearly, the Tunisian feminist didn’t write “LIBERATION OF MUSLIM WOMEN” on her body. And whatever she wrote involved certain objectivity, and not to show off being “topless”. FEMEN’s several protests are the consequence of certain unwanted parameters, especially regarding gender, which are prevalent in most modern societies; it’s not a symptom into itself.

    Rather than issuing the actual context (which leads to such a situation) and focusing on the objectivity, the writer seemed more upset about being “topless”, along with several contradictions in the statements of this article. Women in African tribes, as per their norms, have been living topless to this very day. And there haven’t been any issues with that. Why does being “topless” hurt a lot? Then suddenly it comes under the sheer scrutiny of being “their way of imposing feminism”. Yes they might have received criticism from “different countries” but undoubtedly from the very “offended” ones; never from those who do understand the objectivity behind the protests, not just “the boobs”.

    But of course, this apologetic blabbering is not unexpected.

    1. “First off it’s not about the “first wave” of feminism, which is actually quite an irrelevant thing to relate to.”

      It’s not irrelevant. I’m discussing a modern feminist movement by linking it to previous ones.

      I’m not quite sure why you brought up the Tunisian case, since I didn’t mention it. I was discussing Femen as a feminist movement, not Amina.

      I’m also not quite sure where you got the idea that I’m upset at these women being topless. I am not against topless or nude protests, actually. I’m against Femen’s tendency to universalize their type of feminism.

      But in the end it doesn’t matter what I say since it all sounds like apologetic blabbering, eh? 😉

      1. Tahir C

        Still clinging to the apologetic blabbering, hmm?

        Of course, you’re not sure about many things. And clearly that’s what I was referring to.

        You’ll probably talk on almost everything other than main theme here.

        “Topless” or “non-topless” was never the point. Similarly your personal attachment, to “topless” or “non-topless” protests (or in your own words “their way of imposing feminism”), has essentially nothing to do with the OBJECTIVITY here.

        Amina or FEMEN, whatever the OBJECTIVITY they are portraying simply require a considerably more extended understanding and a fix; not some weird psycho reactions which would further aggravate the things. And that consideration surely does not come from the noise of a chattering mind which has utterly nothing to do with the crux.

        The associations which you are portraying here lead too far away from the main essence.

        Just don’t bite the finger, look where it’s pointing at.

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