Put Your Shirts Back On: Why Femen Is Wrong

It is possible to practice Islam and champion women's rights at the same time.
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Swiss police remove an activist from the women's rights organisation Femen, during a protest outside the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on January 26, 2013. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

There is a reason why Muslim women across the globe were incensed after firebrand activist group Femen wrote slogans like, "Fuck your morals" across their bare chests and shouted outside of mosques across Europe last month. This "topless Jihad" protest and the discourse packaged with it denigrates Muslim women and their belief system -- the same women Femen claims to be defending. Jeffrey Tayler, in his piece endorsing Femen's protests, claims Femen faced a backlash because their Western roots disqualify them from speaking on Islam and the treatment of Muslim women. As a Muslim woman and an American, I support Femen's right to protest whatever the hell it wants and however it chooses to do so. The reason that I and other Muslim women were turned off by Femen, however, was because their motivations and methods reeked of a pervading and deep-rooted ignorance of Islam itself. Any group with a similarly disengaged and seasonal interest in "saving" Muslim women from their personal beliefs would also be met with a collective groan of frustration.

Femen did not spark a much-needed discussion on human rights violations against women in the Muslim world, as Tayler claims. Instead, it ignited a number of incendiary attacks on the beliefs and autonomy of Muslim women; first in Muslim-majority countries, and later, the global community. The protest prompted Muslim women to speak up -- not just because they took particular offense to the tired notion they are gagged and rendered mute, but because they felt the need to defend their faith and their right to choose how they practice it. This meaningful response undercut Femen's core, flawed presumption, that Muslim women are oppressed because Islam is inherently oppressive. To defend Femen's protests, then, is to defend this line of thinking -- a dangerous, caustic, and inept approach in tackling issues of gender inequality in the Muslim world today.

Perhaps Femen's protest was effective in drawing worldwide media attention to the plight of Amina, a woman who was, at the time, under duress and in need of recourse and protection. But this protest does not extend into any grander aspirations to understand all Muslim women, and it dismisses those who have asserted -- in pictures, editorials, and tweets galore -- that not all Muslim women need saving. Femen may have stood up for one woman's right to bare her body, but they denounce my right and choice to cover mine, however I see fit. The discourse that Femen brought to the floor is not one that will allow us to progress as a society, but it is one that will pigeonhole all Muslim women as oppressed victims, frame the discussion within the bounds of the stereotypes that exist about Muslim women, and will relegate Muslim women to constantly defending their faith rather than discussing the larger issues at hand.

And then there is the hijab, the iconic piece of cloth that Femen has deemed a symbol of oppression. Wearing the hijab, to be clear, is a sacred act of worship that many Muslim women practice voluntarily. In fact, I have friends who cover their hair against the will of their husbands and fathers who, ironically, fear for their safety in an increasingly Islamophobic climate. In a sorely misinformed and cruelly inimical statement, Femen's leader Inna Shevchenko equated the hijab with "the blood and all the crimes that are based on your religion," and called for Muslim women to remove it in solidarity. And what if the Muslim woman she was debating had complied? She'd be doing it as an act of coercion. When Femen's free speech thwarts a woman's freedom of religion, then they have become no better than the abusers they are protesting.

Thousands of Muslim American women wear the hijab, and it falls within their Constitutionally protected rights to do so. Making associations that imply that the donning of the headscarf is oppressive, while showing off silky tresses is liberating, is unscrupulous. In the aftermath of the Femen protest, Muslim women came out in droves to demonstrate that Islam is not oppressive and that they have the right to choose to wear the hijab. In response, Shevchenko told Huffington Post U.K., "They write on their posters that they don't need liberation but in their eyes it's written 'help me.'" As supposed trailblazers in initiating a discussion on women and religion, it is tragically ironic that when Muslim women spoke up, Femen didn't care to listen.

Femen undoubtedly raised a ruckus, but they cleared a path for the wrong kind of debate.

If Femen aimed to shed light on injustices against Muslim women like honor killings or gender-related violence, they would have been better served putting their shirts back on, rolling up their sleeves, and supporting Muslim charities and social service organizations all over the world that are striving to remedy these social ills. Muslims are driven by their Islam (gasp) to address human rights violations, regardless of who is committing them. One of the 50 most influential Muslims in the world, Muslim scholar Habib Ali of Dar al Mustafa Islamic University in Yemen, challenged Muslims to uproot gender inequality by reinforcing true Islamic values, saying, "The Prophet said 'The best of you are those who are best to their families'... Enough of this talk in defense of Islam, that it was Islam that gave woman her right and it was Islam that freed women. Yes, Islam did that. The question really isn't whether Islam did that or not; the question that should be asked is why we're not implementing Islam in that regard."

In the post-9/11 world, Femen's dangerous assertions only feed the already raging flames of Islamophobia. It is wrong to associate violence perpetrated in the name of Islam with an emblem of faith because it perpetuates the horridly inaccurate assumption that Islam condones violence. To say that Islam guides its adherents to commit atrocities against any people speaks to the limited understanding of the accuser. I understand that this maxim doesn't sit well with feminists, Orientalists, Islamophobes, secularists, and others. But the concept of a Muslim feminist is far from oxymoronic; it's tangible and real. Contrary to what Femen would have you believe, it is possible to practice Islam and champion women's rights at the same time. Muslim feminists would tell you as much -- as long as they aren't being drowned out.

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Uzma Kolsy is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Nation, and Foreign Policy.

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