My thoughts on Femen & feminism

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.

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There are too many brown/black babies.

A mere 10 days after the traumatic Ted X Rotterdam experience, and against my better judgement, I decided to go to a UN event for the release of some new population report. The fact that it was a UN event and that it was hosted by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs were two CLEAR warning sings that I somehow decided to ignore.

Basically the conference was talking about how the 7th billion person will be born on Monday, and how crazy/scary/amazing that is. The main point throughout the presentations was that the earth is suffering and can no longer sustain the human population at the rate that it is currently growing. The solution to this is that women in “developing countries” need to stop having so many babies.

Now we’ve all heard this before. Brown and black women love to have a million kids even though they know they can’t afford to. Why can’t they just be rational and realize having 2.3 kids is the right thing to do? Why do they insist on burdening the poor planet with their flock of children? When will they learn?

Yet at the same time, it is a widely acknowledged fact that people in industrialized countries use much more of the planet’s resources because of their lifestyles. Moreover, multinationals that are predominantly western in origin, are some of the main culprits when it comes to pillaging the earth.

So how and when did the burden fall on brown and black women?

One presenter pointed out that a Dutch kid has a footprint that is 3-5 times more than a kid in a developing country (he didn’t specify which country since they are all the same). So isn’t the solution for Dutch kids to consume/waste less, and not for there to be less children in developing countries?

While this seems logical, it is clearly not the solution envisioned by development experts. At the end of the day, Europeans and Americans want to be able to live their current lifestyles and not change anything. So the easiest solution is for them to (yet again) turn to the “developing world” and pin the problems on them.

Another issue brought up was the disturbingly low birth rates in white western countries. This is worrying to white European leaders because they are concerned about there not being enough white Europeans in the future. Their main argument is that there need to be enough young people to work and support the older people. If this is really the case, then why not open the borders and let people from other parts of the world come and work here? If it’s *just* about labour, then why do you care whether they are Dutch, Moroccan, or Surinamese? It should be okay. But it’s not. And why? Because (I believe) there is still the issue of race.

Europeans want their own race to continue. They are worried about their own declining birth rates and also concerned about how high the birth rates of “immigrant” groups are. And so they try to encourage their own citizens to have more babies, while telling people in developed countries to have less. (Uhm, I thought the planet was in trouble?) Simultaneously they tell immigrant groups in their own countries to also have less. So basically their stance is: more white babies = good; more brown/yellow/black babies = bad (for the “planet”).

One presenter actually said: “God forbid Africans would ever want to eat the way we do here in Holland.”

Yes. God forbid.

At this point I have given up expecting any chance of reform from within these circles (including the development circle, the Dutch circle, and the wider European circle). Change will probably come from the marginalized, and until then, let the privileged continue to live in this bubbles they’ve blown up for themselves.