Why protests must be culturally appropriate

Egyptian activist Aliaa Elmahdy (C) and members from Ukrainian feminist group Femen demonstrate against the Egyptian constitution in front of the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm, December 20, 2012.

Egyptian activist Aliaa Elmahdy (C) and members from Ukrainian feminist group Femen demonstrate against the Egyptian constitution in front of the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm, December 20, 2012. Photo: AFP

The first thing that struck me about "Amina", the Tunisian teenager who posted topless photos of herself on the Facebook page of Ukrainian feminist group Femen, was the way in which media reports slamming the violent reaction to her protests themselves censored her naked body. 

The 19-year-old who, in typical Femen style, scrawled political messages across her bare torso, has been threatened with death by stoning, lashes, imprisonment and accused of being mentally ill.

Given our own level of discomfort with naked female bodies used as political statements, is it so surprising that Amina's photos were met with shock, disbelief and outrage? Despite its status as the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the Arab world's first democracy and one of the most moderate Muslim countries in the world, Tunisia is still just that - a Muslim country. And that means it has a particular world view when it comes to women's dress codes and how women's bodies are regarded in the public space.

One of the pictures of Amina posted on the Femen Tunisia site.

One of the pictures of Amina posted on the Femen Tunisia site.

As a woman who was raised Muslim within a Western country, I can relate somewhat to Amina's predicament. It is unbearably suffocating to be intellectually free whilst physically bound by social and religious mores that you just don't agree with.

But it is unfortunate that Amina chose Femen as the outlet for her outrage at her oppression. The tactics of that particular group, dubious even in the West, do not translate to societies that have progressed along the lines as those in the Middle East.

In her analysis for this site, Clementine Ford wrote, "If women begin to think for themselves and question their environments, they might then demand their own liberation from the kinds of patriarchal societies that empower men… to wield control over them." But that's actually part of the problem. Amina wasn't really thinking for herself; Femen was doing it for her.

Femen claims that they specifically chose topless protest as their method as a reaction to the (Western style) patriarchy that exploits naked female bodies.

"Women's bodies have been taken off them," says the group's director, Inna Schevchenko. "A woman's naked body has always been the instrument of the patriarchy… they use it in the sex industry, the fashion industry, advertising, always in men's hands. We realised the key was to give the naked body back to its rightful owner, to women, and give a new interpretation of nudity... I'm proud of the fact that today naked women are not just posing on the cover of Playboy, but can be at an action, angry and can irritate people."

While this is partly true, it simply does not apply to Islam. Although women's bodies are certainly objectified, it is done in a way that conceals rather than exploits them. Women's bodies are not paraded but hidden, they are not used to satisfy the male gaze but to regulate it, they do not sell products, they are products owned not only by men but also by their family and their society.

Femen's method of protest is so completely out of step with the prevailing form of misogyny and oppression in Islamic society that it becomes meaningless.

I am certainly not defending the violent reaction to Amina's protest. I am only stating that there is no space for Amina's actions to be understood as a political statement, making it all too easy to dismiss her as an immoral and mentally unstable young woman. This ultimately benefits those who wish to oppress her.

Femen are of course milking the publicity for all it is worth, calling for a worldwide topless protest in support of Amina. "Bare breasts against Islamism," demands Schevchenko, further showcasing her ignorance at how misogyny works in the Muslim world. Schevchenko, who resides in Paris, seems blind to the privilege that allows her to live in a country that doesn't see death as an appropriate response to baring her breasts.

Nudity has such a completely different connotation in the Middle East than in the West, it does not even take a hardline Islamist to be baffled by Amina's actions.

Amina is not the first Middle Eastern woman to protest in this way. In 2011, 20-year-old Egyptian blogger Aliaa Elmahdy posted a picture of herself on the internet, dressed only in black stockings, red shoes and a red hairclip.

This too sparked an outrage and Elmahdy was threatened with death. She fled to Europe and is now a fully fledged member of Femen, taking part in nude protests across the continent. Also, then as now, it was not only stuffy old-fashioned clerics who reacted. Even liberal progressive groups, such as the Facebook Youth who were instrumental in driving the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, were quick to distance themselves from Elmahdy's actions, fearing her stunt would hinder their drive to be taken seriously as a political force.

In such a sexually repressed society, what benefit could her actions serve other than to be used as a warning by opportunistic clerics over where Western-style freedoms will lead? Nude protest is so far off the grid in Islam it is just too easy to dismiss.

There is a chronic tendency in the West to treat our own liberalism as an innate rather than acquired characteristic. We may be comfortable enough with naked female bodies that we no longer wish to kill women who expose them, but no society can change overnight. And yet, we insist on speaking to Islam through that peculiarly Western phenomenon known as post-enlightenment rationalism.

So while we may be amused at the convoluted logic it takes to protest women's objectification by stripping, our social mindset permits us to understand that such actions are within the scope of individual rights and freedom of expression, even if we personally disagree with them. But no such rights are sanctioned in present Muslim societies, meaning Amina's protest will be just as inexplicable to everyday Muslims as it is to the most hardline clerics who fear her actions will be "contagious".

Femen has ignited the rage of a powerless young woman who is now abandoned to her fate. Amina will pay a high price for Femen's ignorance and, tragically, her protest will be in vain because it simply has no relevance, no point of reference, in an Islamic society. Amina loses, as do Muslim women in general.

The winners? Femen, and those they claim to bare their breasts against - Islamists.

Ruby Hamad is a Sydney-based writer.

84 comments

  • I could not disagree with your headline more. Protests MUST be culturally insensitive otherwise they won't gain any traction and will fade into obscurity.

    They need to gain a reaction, a violent shock of reaction is even better. People need to be shocked sometimes. To have their world rocked. The shame is that they will often be shocked further into their ideals rather than actually considering their position

    The idea that Islam's priority is to hide the female body to regulate male impulses is absurd. If us, as modern men, can't control our impulses then perhaps chemical castration or a male chastity belt is more appropriate. I find the full body covering revolting and an affront to freedom and intelligence.

    It's their body, they can do what they want with it and to moderate a protest against a disgusting misogynistic old world principle is pandering to that principle.

    Commenter
    James W
    Date and time
    March 28, 2013, 9:04AM
    • Well, I didn't actually choose the headline, although I think you are perhaps misreading it. Of course protests are meant to shock people out of complacency. But there must be a point of reference. Even in the West, we censor Femen's protests. That alone should perhaps let you see how there is no possibility that it will be taken in any way seriously in a Muslim country. Now, don't take my comments as a defence for Muslim morality. I am just saying that a Femen-style protest is not only pointless in Islam, it is dangerous and counter-productive.

      Commenter
      Ruby Hamad
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 10:18AM
    • I agree with James. The best and most effective protests are the ones that shock a society to its core.

      In Nigeria, women have had some amazingly successful protests where they threatened to strip naked (I hardly need to tell you this is taken VERY seriously in Nigeria!)

      http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/legislative/oilcompanies.html

      http://derinbyday.wordpress.com/2012/07/19/stripping-for-humanitys-sake-celebrating-women-of-courage/

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 10:40AM
    • "Now, don't take my comments as a defence for Muslim morality. I am just saying that a Femen-style protest is not only pointless in Islam, it is dangerous and counter-productive."

      I completely agree with Ruby here. @james and Red Pony - have either of you ever been to the mid-east? Judging from the complete naivety of your comments then i would say not. Years ago I spent 6 months in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt and one thing I learnt very quickly was that viewing and judging through western eyes was not only a waste of time but, as Ruby mentioned, could be downright dangerous. The key to any change is education. Only the rich are highly educated and consequently, more enlightened. In rural areas, people receive minimal education and often it is with a religious bent. To educate a generation will take 25 years+ and it will probably take twice as long for any meaningful change to occur.

      Commenter
      Dirk Dredd
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 11:23AM
    • Wow, are do smh readers have such short attention spans that they comment after only reading headlines??? Whilst the arguments about the headline are valid they certainly aren't for the actual article. The piece was very insightful and well-written and should be used as a template for anyone wanting to proffer an intelligent argument to a complicated subject. This includes you Clementine: "IF women begin to think for themselves..." What's with the IF??????

      Commenter
      Alex K
      Location
      Ermington, NSW
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 11:32AM
    • Well, I'd say that the Nigerian protests were successful in a society where such things are "taken VERY seriously" actually underlines Ruby's point about the necessity of taking the cultural setting into account when protesting, Red Pony.

      Commenter
      Daithi
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 11:46AM
    • if women the world over did this then it would have a huge impact. a great way to rid society of religion and the rubbish it brainwashes the unintelligent with.
      we ABSOLUTELY know there was never ever a messiah of any religion. not a scrap of evidence ever.
      It was Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti about 3500 years ago that came up with the idea for 1 deity ( who of course they were its sole physical presence on earth ). Greed and power. Power immediately to control 50% of the population. women. All the offerings to the gods came directly to him and he became immensely wealthy and powerful. good trick and it went on from there. women have worn the brunt of the abuses of religion ever since.
      We need to eradicate religion from our schools and teach our children that lock stock and barrel every religion is a con. Only then will women be able to truly come out of the shadows.
      Its not just islam. Judaism is equally abusive of women. Christian nuns are covered from head to toe.

      Commenter
      smilingjack
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 11:59AM
    • I made a similar point to this author yesterday in relation to Clem's article, but as my view wasn't 'pro-fem' or 'pro-victim', and was in fact questioning the rationale of Amina's actions and sensibility, it wasn't deemed appropriate for print.

      Yes her actions will draw attention to oppression, but you can hardly expect her own treatment afterwards to be peachy. Most western families would also be embarrassed or ashamed if their daughter/sister posted nude shots on the net, let alone in an islamic community. It may not be 'fair' by western standards, but it is what is to be expected.

      Commenter
      Dr Warren
      Location
      Meadowvale
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 12:33PM
    • Still would writing a blog or suchlike protest have an impact? If women's rights are being ignored, then they'll still be ignored by the powers that be if they do something that doesn't gather momentum, or doesn't upset the people it is aimed at.

      Commenter
      Matheus
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 3:06PM
  • Correct me if i'm wrong but wasn't the point of her protest against the idea that women bodies belong to their men " family and society"? That she was using a confronting way of saying this is my body and i will do with it what i want?

    Commenter
    Emily01
    Date and time
    March 28, 2013, 9:06AM

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