Femen Does Nothing to Advance Women's Rights

Editor’s note: the following article contains explicit language. Ukrainian radical feminist movement FEMEN became known worldwide for organizing ...

Feb 14, 2015

Editor’s note: the following article contains explicit language.
Ukrainian radical feminist movement FEMEN became known worldwide for organizing controversial topless protests to defend women’s rights and fight against sex tourism, religious institutions and male oppression. While some of its goals sound like mainstream contributions to the promotion of women’s independence, I became troubled by a particular aspect of FEMEN’s beliefs and approaches, especially after I came to understand Muslim culture and left previous stereotypes behind.
FEMEN has recently appeared in front of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and then in Paris wearing niqabs, which they instantly took off, revealing their bare breasts covered in slogans like, “Death to the Barbarians!” “Guilty because I am a woman” and “The truth = naked!”
This type of advocacy demonstrates that FEMEN is joining the bandwagon on the France veil ban. Yet the activists insist, as stated in the manifesto found on their website, that they “inject modern women with the culture of an active resistance to evil.” A similar tone continues throughout FEMEN's manifesto, which urges individuals  to “push the body into battle against injustice,” thereby “mobilizing each cell” for the struggle against the “world of patriarchy and humiliation” where “a woman’s body became the object of monstrous patriarchal exploitation." Of course, there may be certain problems with gender issues in the Muslim world, but I oppose FEMEN’s extreme view and oversimplification of the diversity of Muslim women's’ experiences. I argue against their conviction in their duty to advocate for Muslim women’s freedom without being asked, especially in such controversial way.
While claiming that Muslim women are in need of saving, FEMEN engages in topless demonstrations and protests outside of religious institutions, pushing their ideology of sexual liberation to the forefront. Indeed, sextremism, as coined by FEMEN, is a newly developed weapon against a male-dominated society; in fact, as described by historian and journalist Galia Ackerman, it is a “female sexuality that has risen up against patriarchy by embodying itself in extreme political acts of direct action."
Is this tactic really a powerful “manifestation over the vicious dogs of patriarchy” or, conversely, an increase in women’s submission? Is the naked body truly a key to women’s liberation? Again, does FEMEN believe that their “female sexual tactic” forces people to seriously rethink the structures and norms within the society, and not simply objectify their bodies?
FEMEN is convinced of the power of a naked woman’s body, representing their “absolute disagreement with Islam, total revolt against submission." While perhaps some proponents of naturalized nudity might support FEMEN, saying that they at least attract attention to serious issues, this nudity does not bring any concrete changes to the lives of Muslim women.
According to FEMEN, condemnation of the movement's actions by Muslim women has proven that Muslim women are in need for “salvation," despite the fact that using the naked body as a tool of agency is unacceptable in a culture with very strong traditions and a respect for modesty. Conversely, the aggressive nudity seems only to denigrate young activists by reassuring them that the only way to “restore the freedom the woman has of her woman body,” as stated by Ackerman, is to have radical topless demonstrations. One of FEMEN's standard slogans is “Fuck your morals!” — indicating that the movement's members are unwilling to respect any beliefs they don’t agree with.
FEMEN propagandizes the standard Western notion that the hijab is oppressive. Hostile to Islam or the hijab, FEMEN, as Katherina Bullock emphasizes in Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil, turns covered women “into silent dummies, unable to speak for themselves, needing outsiders to speak for them and to interpret the meaning of their traditions for them."
In fact, FEMEN’s misunderstanding of the complexity of Islam and diversity of Muslim cultures within nations and societies prevent activists from gaining an adequate understanding of Muslim women’s struggles and from using reasonable arguments rather than hostile slogans during their protests. If FEMEN would simply have a look at Muslim communities across the world, the group would notice different traditions and nuances in exercising customs such as sharia and veiling. FEMEN does not bother to go in depth on the issues they are adherently fighting for.
Women across the globe do not share one single background, whether it be historical, socio-economical, domestic or cultural. Indeed, FEMEN decided to advocate for Muslim women without knowing the context or at least the meaning of veiling; they just took off their niqabs and ran naked, covered in slogans. In other words, the labels and misrepresentation insult Muslim women who are able to advocate for their own vision of women’s freedom and chose their own ways to do so.
For me, FEMEN does not serve as a feminist group that truly fights for gender equality. Its passion for publicity and attracting attention reveals that they are trapped by Orientalist media and a world of sensationalism. FEMEN itself creates sensational stories that in the end have nothing to do with their solidarity with Muslim women. As I emphasized before, FEMEN’s activists do not understand what they are fighting for or whom they represent; they simply want to be seen by the world as a part of extremist radical movements in the 21st century culture.
FEMEN manipulates their audience by picking out evidence of extremism and radicalism to use in their protests against Islam. FEMEN exploited the example of  Rimsha Masih, who was arrested by Pakistani police in August 2012, and who faced a potential death penalty under Pakistan's blasphemy law for allegedly desecrating pages of the Qur’an. While it is true that cases like the Rimsha Masih blasphemy case exist, it doesn’t mean that FEMEN has a right to use them to justify their actions and to manipulate the reader’s emotions. Moreover, how does their so-called advocacy change the norms of the legal system?
The picture presented by FEMEN doesn’t include progressive acts happening within the Islamic states. Take a look at Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize recipient. Yousafzai advocates for human rights, education and women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, her native province of northwest Pakistan, where girls could not attend schools under the Taliban. However, these facts remain unnoticed by FEMEN, probably because the movement is busy leading bare-breasted protests with the motto “Muslim women, get undressed!” and “Nudity! Freedom!”
Amidst FEMEN’s unsophisticated claims, it is hard to find a cause for constructive dialogue. Most of FEMEN’s argument is not made up of analysis of Muslim women’s role in modern Islamic societies, but of endless slogans and hyphens that we have already heard thousands of time in the Western media. Instead of advocating for respect towards the diversity of human experience, they show their indifference and offend thousands of Muslim women instead. In fact, many Muslim women responded to FEMEN’s protest by saying that they are “sick of the colonial, racist rubbish disguised as ‘women’s liberation!’” Muslim women’s agency should come with their own person decisions on how and when to speak out for themselves.
We live in a world of complex interactions between cultures, values and norms, to the point where a simple shout of “Muslim women, get undressed!” is only silly and insulting towards Muslim women. FEMEN, in arguing for the undermining of patriarchal structures for Muslim women, simply has not changed the reality for Muslim women, some who do face extreme gender oppression. In fact, FEMEN has only contributed to a certain narrow-minded narrative of Western media, which often dehumanizes Islam and advocates for a two-dimensional image of female liberation.
Valeriya Golovina is a columnist. Email her at
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