Why protests must be culturally appropriate

Egyptian activist Aliaa Elmahdy (C) and members from Ukrainian feminist group Femen demonstrate against the Egyptian ...

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.