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Boobs as Stones: Femen’s War on Islam

Boobs as Stones: Femen’s War on Islam

by Binoy Kampmark
April 8, 2013

Our boobs will be as strong as their stones
Femen protestor in Paris, April 4, 2013

In An Eye of the Dragon, a classic study of South East Asia between the 1950s and 1970, the veteran journalist of The Observer Dennis Bloodworth recalls the Judgment of Paris: “it is difficult to say which is more dangerous – to arbitrate between gods, or women.” Best leave it to women and see the world turned to ashes. The Gods have better things to do.

Again Femen, the Ukrainian women’s rights organisation (or so it terms itself), is in the firing line, waging a campaign of curvy, mammary-boosted liberation against what it sees as archaic practices in the shadowed lands of Islam. On Thursday, the organisers decide to take things one step further, initiating what they termed to be “Topless Jihad Day.” They deem themselves to be the supreme arbitrators of women’s oppression. Their answers are clear. Their message is pristine. Those who wear the hijab are oppressed. Those who cook, rear families and live to the songs of Allah are living in a tyrannical dream. Ipso facto, it follows that all women of Islam are oppressed.

Why the topless outrage? Closer inspection of the arguments, as opposed to the bodies, reveals that Femen have gotten involved in a specific cause – the plight of 19-year-old Tunisian activist Amina Tyler who has received death-by-stoning threats for posting two topless pictures available through the world wide web. In one photo, she is smoking with a message in Arabic painted across her chest: “My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone’s honour.” Nothing to get stroppy about – unless you are caught, as it were, between cultures.

There is something exciting about this crude, publicity jerking exercise. Yes, it is titillating, which is what terrifies the patriarchal lords and their female collaborators. Sex as a weapon has an indestructible quality to it, taking the politics of the bedroom onto the street. Which explains why certain liberal progressive groups are also terrified, refusing to back Femen’s cause in the name of relativist harmony.

The response from various women activists of the Muslim faith has been strong, at least from certain quarters. Such protests are, however, rarely clear. The anger is understandable – they feel used, their bodies appropriated for causes they might agree with in private, but not in public. Some might wonder what all the fuss is about. Whose bodies belong to whom is a permanent topic of debate, and the owners are the subject of dispute. Autonomy is often a point of conjecture rather than certainty.

Muslim Women Against Femen is one such group incensed by the actions, encouraging supporters to participate in Muslimah Pride Day to proclaim their opposition against Femen’s actions. Reaction is traditional – what would these Western imperialists know? This has been placed on a Facebook page with the following message dated April 6: “This is an opportunity for Muslim women to get a say and show people that we have a voice too, that we come in many different shapes and sizes that we object to the way we are depicted in the west, we object to the way we are lumped in to one homogenous group without a voice of agency of our own.”

Liberation projects so often become slogans. Theatre becomes the substitute for genuine action, and we are left with a vessel of noise. They assume the ease and convenience of a cookie mould – if it doesn’t fit in it, we won’t consider it. The ladies who are so convinced in Femen that they are making a difference often find they are arguing against their own sex. They see free moving breasts as political weapons when in truth these are proving more estranging than they realise. That, they will say, is precisely the point.

For Femen, the rules are clear, a feature of their platform that is both admirable and weakening. They are the fundamentalists of nudity, finding in it a means of comfort and freedom that is powerful but limited. At the end of the day, a nudist’s platform is as limited as the clothing she decides to avoid. The point here is to develop something sophisticated and cooperative. Sex is but a blunt instruments that can only go so far.

Men, misogynists and allies alike, look on in disbelief or amusement, chortling at the floundering of the movement – the fact that the women’s front is so disunited about flesh imperils it to demagogues and the conservative forces it wishes to overturn. “It’s amazing,” says one post on the Muslim Against Femen site, “how the West tries to impose their nasty culture in the Muslim world.” The post, by a person called Naseer Ahmad Ban, is imaginative. “At [sic] occasions, women in the U.S. have had sex with animals.” Axiomatically, it must be said that the same has happened everywhere else, but logic is a far flung creature in this debate.

Nastiness is something best kept closer to home, a skeleton in the closet that lies buried till it is spoken off within that culture. Those indifferent to the needs of women now have some basis to claim that this was but a “bigoted” reaction against “non-Western” culture. Eventually, it will not be Femen but the women within the Islamic world who identify their own need for liberation.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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