The story of Tunisian women’s activist Amina Tyler is horrifying to anyone who believes women have the right to their own autonomy. After she posted a photo of herself — topless with pro-equality slogans written on herself in Arabic — to the site of women’s activist group FEMEN’s Facebook page, Tyler was threatened by religious officials with death. Now, Tyler lives in fear for her life, and is planning to leave Tunisia for her own safety.
Needless to say, nobody should be threatened with death for expressing their right to be free in their own bodies, and FEMEN, understandably, has risen up to protest Tyler’s treatment. Unfortunately, FEMEN has chosen to do so by embracing some of the worst in anti-Islam stereotyping and Western patronizing — effectively replacing sexism with Islamophobia.
The Ukraine-based FEMEN has a history of topless protests, designed to bring attention to women’s issues, and in response to the harassment of Tyler, FEMEN organized a “Topless Jihad Day” for April 4. The name itself is problematic, but the imagery to come out of the event — including the image at the top of this post — is far more so. It does not advance the idea that feminism is compatible with Islam when you attack Islam with racist caricatures.
This is made all the worse in that FEMEN’s leadership is almost exclusively white and European; the voices of Muslim women were absent from the leadership of this protest. Indeed, when some, like Sofia Ahmed, called out FEMEN for ignoring Muslim women’s voices, they were attacked with vitrol and anti-Muslim hatred.
It’s easy for those of us in the West to criticize those poor, benighted people in Those Countries, and to try to lift Them up through the power of Our goodness. It is much more difficult for us to actually listen to those people, to ask them what they want, to ask them how we can help them achieve their goals, to work in support and solidarity of them as they work for their own goals, rather than to drag them into the world as we believe it must be.
Quite simply, you cannot liberate people by bashing their faith and claiming that you know better than they what their lives are like. It is all well and good to deride the hijab as a tool of the patriarchy; I personally dislike its symbolism. But when you tell someone who wears a hijab that she is foolish, weak, wrong, that she should be barred from wearing it — well, that’s where I part company with you.
We can and should demand that all nations, whatever their religious backgrounds, treat women with equal dignity and respect. This is true whether we’re talking about Tunisia, Israel or the United States. But we should not substitute our own voices for those of the women who live in those nations. Must we stand with those who seek equality? Yes, we must. But we must not claim to stand for them.
Image Credit: FEMEN