When did breasts become so divisive? Ukraine-based feminist activist group Femen's International Topless Jihad Day, held outside European mosques and embassies last week, has upset Muslims and feminists alike. It's even upset Amina Tyler, the 19-year-old Femen member currently facing death threats in her home Tunisia after posting a bare-breasted selfie to Facebook, in whose honor the protest was staged. It's enough to turn you off toplessness permanently.
Shortly after news coverage of the "topless jihad" began — and there was a lot of it, even for boob news — a Facebook group cropped up for Muslim Women Against Femen. There, women posted selfies with messages for Femen, along with an open letter to the group:
“We understand that it’s really hard for a lot of you white colonial “feminists” to believe, but- SHOCKER! – Muslim women and women of colour can come with their own autonomy, and fight back as well! And speak out for themselves! Who knew?”
The group’s chief complaint is that Femen’s protest was a racist overgeneralization which implied that all Muslim women are helpless victims. Femen silences real Muslim voices, some said. Others accused Femen of having a white savior-complex. This line of argument can be best observed on Tumblr (try searching for “femen” or “white feminism”), but Jezebel summed up the general mood:
"Femen needs to recognize that Muslim women do in fact have agency, and the idea that Muslim women are helpless, passively indoctrinated by the alleged evils of Islam, and desperately need of Western feminist help is oppressive and orientalist....It's disturbing how a the rhetoric of "women's liberation" has been co-opted to justify aggression, violence, and prejudice against Muslim communities. In what way is it appropriate to "rescue" women by indulging in and re-circulating essentializing, stereotyped, and offensive depictions of their culture?"
As for how a protest in support of a silenced Tunisian feminist became offensive to all of Islam and the feminist Internet, at least one member of Femen wore a fake beard and a towel around her head.
Naturally, there are some white (?) people on hand to be like, ugh, lighten up, don’t be so P.C. It’s a protest, it’s supposed to be offensive. Advice columnist (and so much more) Dear Coquette called the protest “Boobs versus Rubes in an international, counter-cultural game of shirts and skins.” Dear Coquette is Team Boobs. “Boobs are awesome and organized religion is evil, but it doesn’t even matter how the rest of this game plays out because, as is always the case, the radicals automatically win just by getting the reactionaries to show up and open their stupid mouths.”
Across the pond, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones called the protest “gloriously crude.” “At a time of tight-lipped liberal relativism when even the president of the United States is damned careful what he says about Islam, here is a woman bearing [sic] her body, quoting Tyler's anti-religious slogan, wearing a pseudo-jihadist black scarf over her face,” he wrote. “Clearly, the protest is provocative.”
Femen’s topless protest has — perhaps mistakenly — been extrapolated to suggest that Muslim women must also "bear their bodies" in order to be free. As if no Muslim woman chooses the veil, and as if no one ever unjustly polices Muslim women for that choice. The New Statesman’s Bim Adewunmi was the first to point out this hypocrisy. "Femen’s imperialist 'one size fits all' attitude shows a deafening inconsistency in their own ideology," she wrote. "'Women!' they seem to be saying. 'Your bodies are your own — do with them what you will! Except you over there in the headscarf. You should be topless.'" It's like an inverted Slut Walk.
But while we conjecture about the relative malevolence of these European feminists, it might actually be "appropriate" to talk about literally rescuing Amina Tyler, the Femen member for whom the protest was called. According to the latest news reports, Tyler is worried for her and her family’s safety and would like to leave the country. Protesting outside the Tunisian Embassy, if not the mosques, is par for the course in such situations. On the other hand, some have said that Tyler's biggest threat is an attack from an angry neighbor or family member, not a criminal sentence. In that case, the whole burning a Salafist flag thing might not have helped matters. Tyler suggested as much, even while pledging her allegience to Femen, in an interview with a French television network.
But how to help Tyler without being colonialist, imperialist, racist, orientalist, violent, or oppressive? Writing in Mondoweiss, Roqayah Chamseddine channels an intersectionality-sensitive Judge Judy and recommends putting on your listening ears. “[Y]ou raise awareness by highlighting native voices, not co-opting them,” she says. “It is your duty to amplify, not commandeer.” So far, Femen does not appear to be heeding the advice. Spokeswoman Inna Shevchenko told the Huffington Post: "They write on their posters that they don't need liberation but in their eyes it's written 'help me.'"
Sadly, one person not at all angry, upset, or disappointed with Femen is Vladimir Putin, the group's sworn enemy since the incarceration of fellow feminist activists Pussy Riot last year. Today he gave Femen two leering thumbs up.