FEMEN: You’re Doing It Wrong
An edited version of this post has been published on Al Akhbar English
FEMEN: You’re Doing It Wrong
Paola Salwan Daher and Joseph Daher
A lot has been said and written about FEMEN, and now that their publicity stunt has died out a bit (until they find another struggle to coopt/another feminist of color to use for their own gains), we feel it is of utmost importance to analyse the phenomenon they represent and try and break down why they do not represent a brand of revolutionary feminism, despite their ‘Amazon/wanna-be subversive’ rhetoric.
In a marxist acceptance of feminism, the way we understand it, feminism is a revolutionary current that not only aims at the liberation of women from the shackles of patriarchy, but also aims at the liberation of all people oppressed and from all kinds of oppression: economic, religious, societal, micro or structural. Feminism, again, as we understand and wish to practice it, is a transnational, internationalist movement that stands in solidarity with women, workers and the oppressed throughout the world, for there could be no liberation of women while other segments of the population remain under oppression. Women’s liberation is also intrinsically linked to the struggle against the oppressive capitalist system that focuses on the accumulation of profit by a certain class to the detriment of workers. On that note, it is paramount to underline that women are always the first to be the worst hit by the negative effects of neo-liberal policies and austerity measures as they tend of occupy less-qualified, more precarious positions and account for the vast majority of the workforce working in the informal economy. Thus, a feminist struggle can not do away with a change within material conditions ruling over society.
Let us also be very clear on another point: FEMEN, or Amina in Tunisia, or Alia Al Mahdy in Egypt are not to be vilified for their use of nudity as a means to impact social change. Granted, this is a means that is debatable and that is still currently debated in progressive circles. Many feminists have used nudity in the past as a sign of reclaiming their own bodies, as women’s bodies were and still are not their own, but rather society’s. One can also, on the other hand, ask whether it is judicious to use a tactic that might alienate part of the population given different contexts, but the truth remains that no activist that chooses to use nudity should ever feel and be attacked, threatened, injured, forced to leave her country or even killed. No activist. Ever. Under no circumstances. As leftist movements, it is our duty to stand behind these women and offer the support we can, regardless of our personal beliefs as to their tactics.
This being said, one of the (many) issues with FEMEN is their own essentialist, paternalistic, neo-liberal and neo-imperialist brand of feminism, a brand that they seem to wish to want to impose on every other women on the planet.
Let us try and break down FEMEN’s rethoric and actions.
First of all, FEMEN’s understanding, or lack thereof, of Middle East North African societies , reveal a clear islamophobic tendency within their organisation. According to them, ALL Arab/ Muslim (they don’t seem to know the difference) men are ‘waiting behind their wives with knives’ and ALL Arab women are meek, obedient, submissive little lambs, regardless of the many examples of veiled and non-veiled Arab and Middle Eastern or North African or Coloured strong women who are fighting of their rights and for gender and social justice, on their own terms, using their own strategies. For a self-proclaimed feminist movement, FEMEN seem to forget that patriarchy is universal and is not the social fact of certain given societies. FEMEN are doing what reactionary groups are doing: essentialise women. Just like reactionary groups use a set of values and stereotypes and roles in society about women from the MENA region just because they are women, FEMEN is doing the same, simply applying another set of values and prejudices.
MENA women could use a little solidarity, that is, movements who take up their agendas and publicize them around the world. What they do not need is co-optation of their struggles to advance FEMEN’s publicization and image throughout the world. If FEMEN were really, truly within a solidarity dynamic, they’d let women in the region speak for themselves and they’d caliber their actions and messages according to the lines set by endogenous feminist movements. What they’re doing, however, is imposing their brand of feminism, while no one has asked them anything.
The words of Inna Shevschenko, FEMEN leader, stand for themselves and illustrate perfectly the total lack of respect for women FEMEN claims to be fighting for: ‘Their posters say they don’t want liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me'(http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/04/05/muslim-women-against-femen-facebook-topless-jihad-pictures-amina-tyler_n_3021495.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular). No arab woman and woman of colour ever said she didn’t want liberation, but apparently, to FEMEN, it’s either liberation their way or none at all. Reading these words, one can not help but wonder where FEMEN was during the Arab Revolutions. Indeed, Women in revolutionary processes in the MENA have played a leading role in the struggles in their country, they have been in many aspects at the lead of radical change and the continuation of the revolutions, which greatly questions the plea for help imaginated by Ms Shevechenko.
Besides, FEMEN doesn’t seem to be taking into account the rampant islamophobia pertaining in Europe, that essentialises Muslim women enough as it is. To stand in solidarity with these women would have been to help deconstruct the myths and prejudices mainstream occidental media purports about them. Instead of this, FEMEN carries on with the replication of clichés, therefore strenghtening the discrimination and oppression against them, thus isolating these women further from the public debate. By taking all the space, FEMEN doesn’t leave any to women who would need it to improve their conditions.
What FEMEN is doing is basically telling women from the MENA region what to feel and how to act. Er, isn’t that what patriarchy has been doing for millenia? Weren’t us feminists supposed to be fighting this?
Besides, apart from staging naked happenings, FEMEN doesn’t seem to have any kind of programme or vision to help the world be rid of patriarchy. And No, ‘FEMEN is hot boobs, a cool head and clean hands’ is not a vision, nor it is a programme.
They also seem to have no perspective on social justice or a break with the capitalist system, no strategy of making society more egalitarian at all levels, nothing. FEMEN is not advocating for a change in the material conditions women evolve in: where is their analysis of power relations between economic actors and how they impact women and other oppressed classes? Where is their will to change political and legal frameworks oppressing women? Without not systematic, structural changes there can be little emancipation for women. Wearing a beard and decreeing ‘international topless jihad day’ actually helps very little.
The only impact they seem to be having is reinforcing the legitimacy of reactionary currents by offending rather than meaningfully reaching out to women, thus making the job of feminists twice as hard.
Finally, let us ponder for a bit on the ‘hot boobs’ issue. Is having model-like only activists a pre-requisite to the organisation? Wasn’t feminism supposed to question traditional gender roles and by doing so, to question traditional patriarchal standards of beauty? And if so, why white only, thin, blonde militants are visible?
It is for all these reasons that FEMEN can not present itself as a feminist, subversive, revolutionary movement. It is however unfortunate that their agenda and actions manage to make the headlines, furthering gender, race, religious and class stereotypes, while progressive agendas remain in the shadows. As feminists, our aim should be to lash out at all prejudices and all forms of oppression. Anything else, and we’re right in the middle of our struggles being coopted.