Back in mid-March, a 19-year old woman named Amina Tyler from the tiny, North African country of Tunisia became an international sensation when she posted two topless photos of herself on Facebook. Although the photos did break Facebook “Community Guidelines,” this sort of action usually does not garner much attention. The reason, though, for the interest was across her bared chest the words “Fuck your morals” were scrawled and in Arabic “My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone’s honor.” Later, in an interview with Tunisian newspaper Jadal, Amina stated the pictures were an attempt to “make the voice of Tunisian women heard and protect them from suppression.” Not surprisingly, the photos sparked fierce reactions from conservative religious leaders throughout the country, with the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Tunisia calling for her to be “stoned to death.”
After being held captive by her own family for nearly three weeks, Amina eventually escaped and went into hiding. However, she emerged again last week in the Tunisian city of Kairouan during a clash between police and Salafist group Ansar al-Shariahi, whose annual conference had been banned by the new government, in an attempt to crack down on extremism. In the confusion created by the confrontation, she passed through heavy security and checkpoints to the city’s main mosque. Once arriving, she unveiled a head of cropped, bleach-blonde hair and painted the word “FEMEN” on the wall of its cemetery. She then began removing her clothing as an enraged crowd converged upon her shouting “Get out” and “She is dishonoring us,” but was “saved” by police before they could reach her.
FEMEN is the name of a Ukrainian feminist protest group that has been staging topless protests throughout Europe since 2009, on whose Facebook page Amina had posted her infamous pictures. According to their website:
FEMEN – is the name of the new woman
FEMEN – is the new Amazons, capable to undermine the foundations of the patriarchal world by their intellect, sex, agility, make disorder, bring neurosis and panic to the men’s world. FEMEN – is the ability to feel the problems of the world, beat it with the naked truth and bare nerve. FEMEN – is a hot boobs, a cool head and clean hands. Be FEMEN – means to mobilize every cell of your body on a relentless struggle against centuries of slavery of women!
FEMEN – is an ideology of SEXTREMISM.
FEMEN – is a new ideology of the women’s sexual protest presented by extreme topless campaigns of direct action. FEMEN – is sextremism serving to protect women’s rights, democracy watchdogs attacking patriarchy, in all its forms: the dictatorship, the church, the sex industry.
In solidarity with Amina after the outrage over the photos – and while her family held her in captivity, beat her, drugged her and subjected her to virginity tests – the group held an “International Topless Jihad Day,” calling on women to “bare breasts against Islamism” in front of Tunisian embassies throughout Europe. The protests were met with almost universal condemnation from Muslim men and women. However, this time it was not just conservatives, but liberal Muslims in the West who were outraged, as well, calling the group racist, classist, imperialist, colonialist, Eurocentric, Islamophobic, and even sexist for excluding women who “don’t have vaginas.”
These types of accusations against white Feminists are nothing new. However, all these critics seemed to ignore the fact that these protests were held to support a Tunisian woman who had chosen to associate herself with FEMEN’s radical message. And not only that, but FEMEN is an equal opportunity offender, who targets all religions that force women to subjugate themselves to men – not just Islam. This was demonstrated once again a few days ago, when a FEMEN activist was arrested at the Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris holding a fake gun in her mouth with “May Fascists Rest in Hell” written across her naked torso, the day after far-right essayist and historian Dominique Venner committed suicide there.
But why is it OK for FEMEN to offend Catholics and not Muslims just because the majority of Christians happen to have the same skin color as them? We currently have no reasonable way of dealing with this contradiction because we are taught two entirely conflicting ways of thinking about it. Jeffrey Tayler perfectly summed up this problem in an article about this situation last month in The Atlantic:
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… Its activists are charting a new route for public discourse about women and religion, and making it an unabashedly universal discourse.
And as the world continues to grow more and more interconnected, this is a problem that is only going to increase in frequency because, in most cases, there is a deep conflict between a more traditional culture’s values and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (this is also the issue at the heart of the “Culture Wars” here in America, as well).
While I do not really agree with FEMEN’s tactics, it is incredibly interesting to see the responses to their uncensored rhetoric. They are pulling no punches and forcing people to confront this in a very real way. Perhaps, though, it does not have to be an either/or choice, and there can be creative ways to synthesize these seemingly conflicting tendencies – which is what FEMEN’s recent liberal critics, I think, were trying to get at. But until we realize that our current approach of compartmentalizing is counter-productive and that the vocabulary of “-ists” that has been created around these issues only further complicates, confuses and covers over the problem, we are never going to be able to create any workable solutions.
For now, Amina Tyler sits in custody, awaiting trial. She currently faces two years for the graffiti, but that is likely to increase, as charges for the photos will undoubtedly be added. An Interior Ministry spokesman said in a recent press conference, “Tunisian society is a Muslim society and doesn’t accept such eccentric acts.” In response, FEMEN posted on their Facebook page that they are “preparing a naked rematch,” and “won’t let wild anti-human traditions stop the liberation of Arab women.” Does that make FEMEN insensitive, or are they just “speaking Truth to Power”?