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.