Well-behaved vs. misbehaved feminists: FEMEN
This Saturday, 12th of September, FEMEN organized a protest at a Muslim Conference: “The women at honor”. Only 1 of the 10 speakers of this women themed conference was a woman, and there were cooking shows and Islamic women’s clothing fashion parades. Two FEMEN activists participated at the speech of Mehdi Kebir and Nader Abou Anas where they discussed the value of women in Islam. Nade Abou Anas is known for legitimizing marital rape by encouraging women not to refuse to have sex with their husbands or else “they will be cursed by the angels all night.” FEMEN jumped on the stage to protest while the two Imams were talking about whether it is okay to beat your wife or not, and stating that Muhammed did not beat his wife and Muslim community should follow the lead of the prophet.
The two activists took off their burkas and stood on the stage with these messages written on their naked bodies: “No one can enslave me, no one can possess me, I’m my own prophet!”
I shared the photos from the event on Twitter and the reactions the protest gor was insane! Most of the people attacked FEMEN for being pointlessly hostile. It’s easy to see that there was a reason behind this protest as these two imams who were discussing about women were not particularly women’s rights defenders. There was one significant Muslim woman who defended that FEMEN was not physically violated on the protest, even though the live footage clearly shows that one of the activists was brutally kicked on the floor by multiple men while being taken away. I’ve got quite upset over that claim. Why would a woman turn her back on other women who got abused by male violence? What makes you turn your back on your sister? Why would she choose to have her Muslim identity over her woman identity?
This question made me reflect on the 3 days that I spent with FEMEN on the last week of August at the FEMEN & MLF training camp. I see that many people, including feminists are easily judging FEMEN, so I thought I should write about my own experience with them.
Before the camp, I obviously knew who FEMEN was but I didn’t have any further information about what they actually defended. They were clearly a militant group formed against women’s sex trade and had a manifesto where they declared that they use their bare breasts as weapons to fight for sextremism, atheism and feminism. I knew that in Turkey, they were called “women who use their breasts to get attention” and that they were named as “white-feminists” (privileged feminists) who patronizes underprivileged women.
So there I was on a Friday afternoon 2 days right after FEMEN received death threats on their headquarters door. As soon as I saw the police patrol car with a squad outside the building, I realized that we really had to be protected by the police in order to carry out this feminist training camp.
The first day of the camp was more of an introduction to MLF (Women’s Liberation Movement of France) which was founded after realizing how male dominated the May ’68 student protests was. They were active since then. They were the women who marched for the right of abortion with Simone de Beauvoir. They were the women who were in solidarity with Leyla Zana who was imprisoned by the Turkish regime. I felt quite excited to meet such long-time feminist activist women!
The second day was more of a reality check for me as we were outside in a park (again protected by undercover policemen) and practiced various tactics for protests. I was literally a participant of a FEMEN protest yet with no target to attack. We practiced some skills such as protesting together in a line, combating obstacles and what to do during arrest (as each FEMEN protest ends with police intervention.) I believe the arresting act was a bit too much for me as I am quite distressed about police touching/beating my body. Yet I really felt empowered during the slogan exercises, especially when all of us, shouted loudly and angrily feminist slogans.
On Saturday night we had a discussion session open to public: “Women and Religion” with the participation of Zineb El Rhazoui (journalist and human rights activist), Inna Shevchenko (leader of FEMEN), Waleed Al-Husseini (Blogger on exile from Palestine), Michele Idels (MLF activist), Maryam Namazie (secularist and human rights activist on exile from Iran) and Corinne Rey (Charlie Hebdo cartoonist aka Coco).
What did these people have in common?
Some of them had to leave their home countries for being secular and doing blasphemy, some of them were not even safe in the countries they live in as they were fighting for freedom of speech against suppression of religion.
What did they all agree on that night?
Religion does suppress women. As a woman who grew up in a Muslim society, I could not agree more with this point. I do not see the day where women’s rights are fully achieved where any religion exists.
On Sunday, being exhausted from the intensity of the last two days, I could only participate at the photo shoot part where esthetic presentation of FEMEN was introduced. Obviously that was the part where I saw different women, from different ages, different races, speaking different languages, using their body for declaring their message. I saw so many different body types, with so many “faults” on them as the patriarchal media would tell us. Why do FEMEN activists look so white and like supermodels on the photos then? Well – there was obviously something odd there, either with our perception or the touch of the media – because all I saw was perfectly un-perfect bodies of women, present in a room, with pride, anger and full willingness to denounce patriarchy!
There was a point during the camp where I actually confronted FEMEN and asked them about the country flags and why would they use such patriotic symbols. Their response was that they use the flag to denounce patriotism and actually it’s the patriots who hate them the most for using their sacred symbols. I also told them that I see them as white feminists as most of the women and especially Middle Eastern women do not agree that FEMEN represents them, and they believe FEMEN’s statements are patronizing. Their response was simple: FEMEN protesting in your country does not mean that they represent every single woman there. They are also not talking over you. They are talking for themselves, yet they do have many supporters from those countries, of which they get constant appreciation from but these supporters don’t show their appreciation publicly as they are scared.
I guess that was a clear moment of realization for me. Why did we expect FEMEN to be the voice of every feminist and why did we expect them to do everything for feminism? Because they are the ones who get the most media attention. Why did they get this attention? Because they are protesting topless. So many feminists believe that they are re-creating patriarchy by sexually objectifying women and using their naked bodies to get attention. There’s a difference to understand here: do they use their bodies, or do they do just whatever they want to do with their bodies? Why do we label them as misbehaved feminists just because they are naked? They have every single right to use their body as a political platform for displaying a message, but here we are teaching them morals. Morals created by patriarchy. Because of these morals, they are being judged for sexual exhibitionism in France. What gives us feminists the right to tell FEMEN to change the way they protest or what to protest for? Isn’t that what men always do to us? Aren’t we being like men by shaming FEMEN for not using the media attention the way we want them to use it?
I don’t dare to judge a feminist group as longas they don’t re-create patriarchy and FEMEN doesn’t do that! Each feminist organization fights against patriarchy. Each has their part to combat for and contribute to the big fight with their ideology. You don’t have to become a member of that group in order to support them. Feminism is a roof uniting all women. We should not be divided but be united instead. If there is a social identity that should bring us together, than it is our womanhood. We are all women and we are all oppressed. This is and should be our common ground!