Femen’s latest antics are completely abhorrent, completely denying the humanity and agency of Muslim and Arab women, as well as parroting the imperialist argument that women’s oppression is somehow rooted in Islam, or in the hijab, instead of the social relations of our globalized capitalist society. They are not brandishing feminism, but the sword of empire, all the while ignoring the ways states in the West have criminalized Muslim women through policing their dress and the hate crimes that have resulted from the institutionalization of Islamophobia. These ideas are outright reactionary, and no feminist should accept them. Imperialism and racism have nothing to do with feminism. End of story.
It’s not about clothing.
The constant debates in Western media about the clothing of Muslim women act as the mouthpiece of a racist empire, but a surprising number of people who should know better continue to engage in this debate as though it were actually legitimate. Debates around women’s oppression that fixate on the question of clothing–or non-clothing–completely miss the point. Nothing a woman wears–or does not wear–is the source of her oppression. Just like wearing a mini-skirt is not asking to be raped, covering your head with a hijab is not submission to male domination. There is nothing inherently oppressive about any piece of clothing. Oppression is denying women access to social services because of their religious beliefs.
And, of course, what always goes unsaid is how oppressed women are world-wide, how women are assaulted no matter what they wear, or how we are dominated through violence, low wages, and unequal treatment in law.
It’s important to remember that clothing, like everything else in our world, emerges in a specific historical context. Every piece of clothing can take on myriad social and cultural meanings, and these meanings can change person to person, day to day. Women’s oppression, on the other hand, can be empirically documented, can be traced back to social structures constantly reinforced by social practice. The oppression is not rooted in the clothing, but the social structure from which it emerges. Clothing is a red herring, and if that is the focus of critique, the structural problems will never be addressed. Furthermore, it does not matter why it is done, policing women’s dress is oppressive itself.
But the (rightful) outrage around Femen’s Islamophobic response to right-wing attacks on one its Tunisian members has also prompted a larger debate among feminists and women’s rights activists about tactics for social change. Is nudity an effective tactic for feminist organizing?
Sara Salem, a staff writer at Muftah.org, wrote a piece last week taking up the question. She argued:
This fresh debate about Femen’s activities brings up several persistent issues. Femen is a group that advocates against various forms of patriarchy most notably by holding topless protests…My critique is not generally against the use of nudity as a tool of protest, which is a decision best left to individual activists. Rather, I see a problem with co-operation between feminist activists from the Middle East and Femen, an organization with a problematic viewpoint on the region. It also strikes me that, if the aim of specific tactics is to work toward societal change, these actions would be more effective if modified to fit the given context.
The reaction from hard-line Islamists is both troubling and hardly surprising, and is yet another demonstration of their lack of depth in dealing with gender issues, as well as their extremely problematic views on gender equality and women’s rights. Regardless of whether one agrees with Amina’s actions or her alliance with Femen, it is important and necessary to stand behind her against these. Indeed the solidarity of many Arab feminists has been heart-warming, despite their differences in ideological orientation.
Media coverage on Amina’s story has, however, left much to be desired. There has been little discussion of the issues facing Tunisian women, and much sensationalization, either through a focus on the “evils of feminism” from a hard-line Islamist perspective, or the “evils of Islamic/Arab societies” from the perspective of mainstream media. In this discursive battle, nuance is lost, the actual material realities of Tunisian women are ignored, and feminist activism that has been taking place in Tunisia for decades is erased.
Another interesting debate—albeit one happening mainly within feminist circles—revolves around the question of tactics. If certain actions are intended to enact social change, then to what extent can Femen’s topless protests be effective in societies where such acts will simply be rejected outright? On the other hand, should feminists allow societal norms to dictate its actions, or does this defy the point of feminist activism? These are touchy questions. No doubt many feminists will be angered by the suggestion that certain tactics should be avoided. But to what extent can we expect grassroots change if actions that alienate the majority of the population are employed time and time again?
I am inclined to agree with her general conclusion, but from a different perspective.
I defend and will always defend the right of woman (or any person) to wear or not wear whatever they like, at/as protest or otherwise. However, as someone who wants to build a movement for women’s liberation that is able to challenge sexism’s power in a real way, and create meaningful, broad, and permanent social change, and as someone who wants to see a socialist revolution, one that liberates all oppressed people, I do not think nudity-as-tactic will achieve these ends.
Even in cases where is not intended to, or does not, shock the viewer into paying attention, nudity remains ineffective as a tactic for movements because it is highly individualistic. In other words, individuals can go nude together, but nudity cannot be collectivized in the way other forms of action, work, and community can be (such as the anti-street harassment organizations in Egypt that Salem cites). Nudity makes a statement instead of building a movement, and hence, has the tendency to be static, and undynamic. And I think if we are going to challenge sexism in a way that actually presents a question of power, we need a broad, collective, dynamic social movement, not individual acts that are less directed toward shifting social consciousness.
The Slutwalks in 2011 merged the collective social movement with public nudity in an interesting way. There was, at least at the one I attended, an element of “provocation” but also featured two key aspects that prevented Slutwalk from becoming an event of individual expression and maintained its social aspect.
While some women decided to wear lingerie, or nothing at all, the nudity was not protest in itself, but rather a way to enhance the delivery of the demand–that it is unacceptable to blame women for assault or to slut-shame them, no matter what we are wearing or not wearing. It was also made clear that liberation was not bound up in the clothing or lack of clothing. Liberation had nothing to do with what women wear, but in the ability of a movement to end sexual violence against women. That’s key. What Femen (in addition to their other political problems) misses is that clothing–the material thing, whatever it may be, or lack thereof–is never inherently oppressive. Social relations of male domination, which exist across the globe and are not rooted in a specific culture or religion but rather the economic relations of society, are the oppressive force. Femen’s viewpoint is a rehash of the argument put forward by “feminists” who claimed invading Afghanistan would “liberate” women. The focus on clothing serves the interests of the ruling class, and their imperialist, racist, sexist, cissexist, homophobic interests very well, because it divides women (and people of all genders) who should be fighting together.
The case of Slutwalk demonstrates why it’s equally important not to elevate nudity to the level of strategy–as Femen has done, or to adopt similarly reactionary ideas about how protests “should” look (remember those idiots who told us that police wouldn’t beat us if we wore suits and ties to Occupy protest? Please), policing the clothing choices and bodies of protestors, bare or covered. These ideas are two sides of the same coin. Both miss the point, and aren’t helpful to movement building.
Nudity is not bad, or morally wrong, and feminists should defend every person’s right to wear as little or as much as they want. We should defend their right not to be harassed, assaulted, or degraded. That should go without saying. But when nudity becomes a political strategy, it’s worthwhile to think about its implications. The problem with nudity-as-tactic is not that it is “provocative,” because it’s not. The whole concept of a body being provocative feeds into victim-blaming. But neither is nudity inherently liberating, nor confrontational to patriarchy. In fact, it can reinforce it. Nudity, as a strategy for organizing, is unlikely to build the movement we want–a dynamic movement that doesn’t equate liberation with certain clothes or certain bodies, but instead focuses on changing social conditions women face, which includes fighting for the right of all women to wear whatever they want and not wear whatever they don’t want as well as the right not to be discriminated against or bombed or dehumanized in the process.