Why Femen sends the wrong message

Cultural activism, apart from being fashionable, is much needed.
Femen would have been a good example, just like Voina or Pussy Riot, if it was not for the fact that they ignored the first rule of activism: studying the cause they are adopting (in this case, women’s rights) and learning very well about it before ‘championing’ it.

A few days ago, Femen staged what they referred to as the ‘International Topless Jihad Day.’ Basically, they posed topless right next to Paris’ Mosque, in support of the Tunisian activist Amina Tyler (herself a member of Femen) who had received threats from some Islamists after she posted her topless photo with ‘Fuck your morals’ and other phrases written on her breasts.

Where did Femen go wrong then? Because at a first glance it would seem they were only supporting Amina and defending the liberty of Arab/Muslim women in general, not a bad cause at all! No?

No, not a bad cause, but a method that beats the purpose (and I am not referring to nudity). Here is why:

– The choice of the term ‘jihad’ for describing the ‘action’ they did is more than lame, it’s simply ignorant. While a vast majority of non-Muslims tend to understand the word ‘jihad’ as equivalent to ‘holy war’ (al-Qaeda, Taliban and the Western Media are to blamed for that misunderstanding), Jihad in fact means struggle, mostly against one’s own self in order to be a better person.
Jihad is not the Islamic equivalent of the Crusades!

– Shock therapy (now I’m referring to nudity) beats the purpose of their action. If the idea was to get a message across to the Arab/Muslim world through nudity, then I assure you that the only message that reached the people there is this (knowing how a mainstream Arab would think): what these women of Femen want is for our women to have the kind of freedom and liberty that made them (Femen) free to go bare-breasted or fully naked down the street. No, thank you, we don’t want this ‘model’.

If Femen really wanted to send a message of support, they definitely had not done their homework: the name is wrong, shock therapy does not work for Arabs (we are speaking millennia of rigid traditions) and nudity is not the kind of ‘teaching-by-example’ that would appeal to that part of the world.

Having said that, if the point of the whole ‘campaign’ was some media frenzy, then at least they got that.

Femen's Topless Jihad 2Femen at mosque in BerlinAmina Tyler's Photo

Femen and Aliaa ElMahdy, Feminism and Nudity

“No Islamism. Yes to Secularism.”

One thing is to hear this phrase or read it in a magazine; another thing is to see it written on a naked female body. You guessed right, an activist, but apart from your appetite (or lack of it) for nudity, the one part I find really mystifying is that the activists doing it are part of a feminist group, the Ukrainian Femen, with the ‘guest-appearance’ of Aliaa ElMahdy, already a name that rings many bells in Egypt.

Femen & Aliaa ElMahdy

This week, Femen hit again, this time against the Pope: a topless protest against the Catholic Church’s objection to same-sex marriage. This time, they had the phrase ‘Shut Up’ painted on their naked torso.

Femen against the Pope

Message(s) apart, why is nudity becoming a ‘shortcut’ for promoting feminist causes? Why do new-age feminists confuse activism for exhibitionism (and vice-versa)? To think that nudity is an immediate and assured way of attracting attention (specially media) and gain visibility is a no-brainer. To call this ‘art’ or ‘feminist activism’, that is a completely different story, because it usually ends up beating the whole purpose of feminism (by objectifying the female body once again).

The naked female body can and did serve as a brilliant medium (rather than object or subject) of art and gender activism; and the examples are anything but lacking: Marina Abramovic, Carolee Schneeman, Rebecca Horn, and the list goes on.

Back to Aliaa ElMahdy whose nude photo caused a scandal in Egypt when it was uploaded to the social networks, one can –again- trace the problem to a phrase that she herself said in labeling herself ‘Revolutionary Girl’, a very dangerous label in a country where hundreds of revolutionaries died down the streets while fighting for freedom and dignity. At the time, she claimed that she wanted to open a necessary debate about the taboos engendered in the society, specially those having to do with women. Sounds like a good thing to do, but in a country like Egypt, this type of ‘shock therapy’ is completely out of context, and more than anyone, she herself knew about it. In no time she started receiving both threats (from as far away as Iran) and messages of support from beyond the border (how about Israel for one?), and it all worked: the CNN interviewed her, followed by everyone on earth: visibility and publicity assured.

Aliaa ElMahdy's Photo that caused the controversy

One should pause here and wonder: ‘but revolution…it’s not just what happens on the streets…it’s also what happens in people’s minds as well, no?’ Of course, and one has to admit that, had it not been for the Arab Spring, it would be unthinkable to open such debates using such methods. Aliaa, too, is a product of the revolution, a cultural phenomenon (good or bad, that’s not my issue) among others that call for a thorough analysis. See how much we deviated from ‘feminism’ while tackling a supposedly feminist issue?