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FEMEN and the protest

April 10, 2013

It is interesting that the reproduction of a FEMEN protest has done exactly what they wanted: to provoke shock and response! (Most response is positive, by the way).

There are many takes on FEMEN. I have heard older feminists saying that this is not what women have fought for: to go bare our bodies, even if for political aims. I have heard many more, particularly younger feminists, lauding the bravery of these Ukraine-based women, whose protests were born out of the normalised misogyny that underpins Ukrainian society. Confront your tormentor with the focus of such torment: your female body.

Feminist protests look different everywhere. Stating that your body belongs only to you by undressing yourself is one way of protesting against a patriarchal society. WILPF does not argue that all women must do the same: there are a million different ways of working for women’s rights. We do not say you need to undress to be a feminist. But we are saying that any woman has the right to undress if she wants to, just as you have the right to wear whatever you want to.

Whatever we personally think, it has to be recognised that FEMEN women make a point: they have revived protests of a different kind. Moreover, the issues they draw attention to, sometimes through shocking protests, are all the things that are actually debated in such places as the Human Rights Council and the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Their unusual communication strategy is successful in bringing up many of the Human Rights that we are all aiming for.

Facebook postTheir protest was aimed at showing support for Amina Tyler, a Tunisian woman who had been targeted after posting topless pictures online. She received death threats and religious leaders called for her stoning or flogging, on the basis of her “immorality”.  You can call me old-fashioned, but I simply do not get how a man can enjoy the freedom of his religion to demand the death of a women who is merely exerting her own rights to her own body.  This is not cultural relativism; it is old-fashioned patriarchy.

The message of FEMEN women is feminist and international. They have a go at anything that is used to discriminate, victimise and oppress women. If you look at what they have done, you will see that they are at odds with as diverse (or actually, not so diverse) a group of men as the Pope, the Patriarch and Putin. They are against patriarchy.

I don’t see this protest as anti-Muslim. Not at all. Instead, it demonstrates that women in every region of the world should not accept unquestioningly ideas that cultural rules and religious beliefs are excuses for abandoning a women’s right to her own body. It is about protecting women’s rights in the face of a backlash dressed up as “traditional values”, religion, security or protection of the family.

Saying that it is fine for us to control our bodies, to have freedom of movement and to have access to sexual and reproductive rights, whist pointing out that our Muslim sisters have different rules, is simply unacceptable. That is not their interpretation of Islam. They need our support, rather than our solidarity with the misogyny expressed by the political Islam towards what is “Western”.

We need to pay attention to who is lining up to roll back the progress that women have made in all the multilateral fora. We are talking about the Vatican, Russia and the unreconstructed Islamic states of the MENA region, in particular Egypt. We should be addressing ourselves to them, not to a feminist organisation, which is being brave enough to challenge them all very publicly.

The debate is much more subtle than this. We all know how culture is used to condition women into certain ways of behaviour and we are aware that breaking the rules may lead to marginalisation and worse. We could list so many oppressive practices perpetrated by all systems and by all cultures. That is why we are constantly opposing all attempts by any state or non-state body to prevent women from enjoying their rights. To be reductionist is to miss the point.

I would hope that WILPF, as THE organisation in the world that took the lead in opposing all violence, all war, all root causes of war and that demanded of members that they be suffragists, will not seek to censor the views of others and the way in which they choose to protest.

Instead of focusing on which way of expressing feminism and women’s rights is the correct one, we must accept that women around the world work in different ways and under different circumstances. What we DO need to focus on is the fight against patriarchy and the promotion of the right of women to choose freely how to act, dress and speak, regardless of religion or nationality.

There will always be heated discussion as to the ways and means of achieving our aims. That is as it should be. How we have that debate and how we deal with differences is fundamental to the outcome. Censorship and rejection do not help at all. We are bigger, much bigger than that!

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