Topless Jihad: Why Femen Is Right

Shevchenko began by declaring how pleased she was to hear so many Muslim women speak out, even if it was against Femen. The moderator then cited acid verbiage about Islam from her blog post.

"We are not calling to stone anyone," Shevchenko replied. "They are calling to stone our activist." Femen's problem with Muslim headscarves, she said, centered on whether wearing them was voluntary, adding that the only reason Femen was discussing Islam at all is the "blood, fear, and dead women's bodies" to which it has led, a graphic factual assertion not even Alawa dared contest (though she began to tear up). Despite attempts by the moderator to defuse tensions, Shevchenko demanded of Alawa, who had called herself a feminist, "How can you wear your scarf with so much proudness . . . like it's the hat of Che Guevara? It symbolizes blood and all the crimes that are based on your religion, even if you don't support them . . . . If you're a feminist, if you're for liberation, then be brave [enough] to say that we are against that and take off your scarf until the moment that your scarf will not be a symbol of crime."

The moderator called these words "insensitive," and Alawa, still visibly shaken, tried to explain what wearing a scarf meant to her. Yet Shevchenko doubled down.

"I really don't care how many scarves you wear . . . until the moment when that scarf is symbolizing something, something like blood, something like death." She again urged Alawa to "take [the headscarf] off until the moment when it will not be a symbol of the death of your sisters."

"What you're saying is quite loaded here!" responded the shocked moderator. Alawa, even more shaken up, offered a rambling response, and the show drew to a close.

Should secularists have the right to denounce injustices committed by members of a particular confession? The United Nations resolved that issue more than sixty years ago, when it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (with, notably, Saudi Arabia abstaining) against "barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind." Race, gender, or nationality cannot disqualify defenders of those rights. Femen, with its campaign in defense of Amina, was exercising a recognized right and striking blows for all those who reject oppression.

"We demand human rights for all women, for Arab women and American women," Shevchenko told me a few days after the emotional debate. "The idea of a Muslim feminist is oxymoronic." Her position could not be clearer -- or more provocatively stated.

By now it should be clear that with Femen, we are dealing with something new. Femen originated in Ukraine, born of young women who grew up without exposure to the West's culture of political correctness and who have scant respect for it; from their country's Soviet past, they know how deleterious the stifling of free speech can be. Now that they have moved to the West, Femen has courageously broken rules and enlivened the debate over religion's role in our world. Its activists are charting a new route for public discourse about women and religion, and making it an unabashedly universal discourse, venturing into realms where they may be hated, and they may yet pay a high price for this. But that they have gotten people talking, even shouting and crying, is undeniable, and it is good; only through debate and discussion, sometimes painful, often unsettling, will we progress.

Far from discouraging the discourse they have initiated, we should welcome it.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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