Intersectional look at some of the Free-Amina protests

A few things upfront:
a) This is a post about FEMEN. Therefore, there will be boobs. Don’t do what I did, and look at the below pictures while in class. :-p
b) FEMEN has an undeserved reputation as sex positive because they call themselves “sextremists” and are using their naked bodies to protest. However, apparently they don’t think that the right to do with your body whatever you want extends universally: they are supporters of the Swedish Model, for example. In fact, at least one of the Free Amina photos on their site is against the background of a self-portrait-mural in which one woman holds up a sign saying “not a sex toy” and has “no prostitution” written on her chest. So yeah. Fail on that account.
c) A lot of the comments on FEMEN’s site are assorted attempts at dismissing the protesters as sluts, whores, etc., which gets mostly ridiculed and aggressively defended against on their page; that I think shows that their “sextremism” style activism has a place, in the same way that the aggressive New Atheist style of defending the right to be openly atheist does. But that doesn’t mean that either is unproblematic, or that either fits every issue and every context.
d) There were other noteworthy instances, posted in other places on the internet, but I really just wanted to work with the images FEMEN had on their facebook, and pull out a couple interesting examples. Otherwise, this post could have gone on forever.
e) All pictures are from the FEMEN facebook page.

Alright, let’s get to the actual point of this post:

1) Activists got into a closed conference at the Institute of Arab Culture in Paris, where the president of Tunisia was giving a presentation:003The target here is directly relevant: The Tunisian government is absolutely co-responsible for Amina’s disappearance, and is part of the problem she was protesting against in the first place. On the other hand, none of the pictures I’ve seen showed the activists having anything Amina-related written on their bodies, making this appear far more generically anti-Islam, and not primarily pro-Amina.

2) Free Amina protesters in Berlin climbed a fence and took photos of themselves in front of a mosque, holding signs:003Muslims make 5.4% of Germany’s population. Anti-Muslim xenophobes make anywhere from 21% (wouldn’t want to have Muslims as neighbors) to 58% (believe that Muslims’ rights to practice their religion in Germany should be considerably limited). So I’m thinking a bunch of Germans trespassing on private property of a targeted minority might not exactly send the right message; plus, what did that random mosque have to do with Amina?
One of the women in this action is of Arab descent, and had “Arab Women Against Islamism” written across her front. A number of the other protesters had directly Amina-related things written on their bodies. That reads like solidarity with Amina, and with Arab women in general.

3) A large group of activists protested near the Tunisian embassy in Paris, got arrested for their effort:003003Two pictures this time, because the visuals of that protest were amazingly evocative of suppression of women’s right to speak up (especially the first one). Images like this are why I think the FEMEN style of protest can be quite powerful; but primarily, it is powerful in exactly this way: speaking to the right of women to express themselves.
The protesters gathered near the Tunisian embassy, a clearly understandable connection to Amina’s plight; they also had Amina-related things written on their bodies, and a number of them had stylized portraits of Amina in her now-famous photo on their backs. This could be very easily read as solidarity with Amina.
The wider context of having this protest in France could potentially muddle some of the clarity of the message. Protesting for the right to naked boobs in public spaces in a country that banned veiling in public spaces might not read as “freedom” so much as “freedom to be like us”; not quite the same thing.

4) Many Middle Eastern/North African women also participated in the Free Amina protests (pictures from FEMEN, grouped together by me for easier viewing): five pictures of middle eastern women in face-veil, showing their nude chests with pro-amina messages written on themThe women in the pictures are Egyptian, Iranian, Moroccan, Algerian, and Bahraini; at least one of them is a Muslim. All their messages refer to Amina. In all these cases, their actions directly attack a form of oppression they themselves are subject to.

5) One more from France. French-Arabic women protest in front of a mosque, burn Salafist flag. Two topless women flipping off everyone; burning flag in foreground As with the German protest… why this particular mosque? That point aside, this protest of Arab women, including one Tunisian FEMEN member, standing up against their oppressors is a powerful statement; that image is a powerful visual of that fight against one’s oppression. This too looks less like a pro-Amina rally, but given the context, it’s noticeably in solidarity with her: Arab women fighting together against common oppressor.

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bonus screenshot — a piece of advice: if you don’t want to look like you’re just being ignorantly islamophobic, it would help to do a basic google search before going out to protest:screenshot of FEMEN facebook status showing protester, claiming Hagia Sopia is a mosque

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Then, prohibition of alcohol; now, prohibition of the veil.

I was thinking recently about what it was that could be moving Muslim feminists (and feminists from Muslim backgrounds) to support a ban on wearing the veil. It makes little sense to me, since doing so won’t actually change much, other than forcing those women who actually wear that thing voluntarily to basically run around more exposed than they’re comfortable with.

And then I started reading a bit about the Temperance Movement in the 19th century. It was pretty strong at first, mostly made up of various Christian ministers, but it usually faded out eventually. Except in the States, where it actually led to the 18th Amendment. A major role in this played the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union). Many feminists and women’s rights advocates, for example Susan B. Anthony, were part of that temperance movement, because alcohol abuse led to women abuse in many cases.

Now I’m thinking that the two might be very much related. The temperance movement basically latched onto alcohol as the visible manifestation of many societal problems of the 19th century. Temperance advocates saw people drinking themselves into poverty, people committing crimes when drunk, men abusing their wives and children when drunk, etc., and decided that alcohol needed to go. However, the alcohol abuse was for the most part a symptom of other systemic problems, ones not nearly as easily identifiable or fixable, because they usually didn’t have single-point causes. To truly get what they wanted, the members of the Temperance Movement would have to lobby for a total overhaul of society as it existed at the time, with greatly improved working conditions, social welfare, laws protecting women from their own husbands, etc. And certainly, many of them did so; but Prohibition was a neater, easier defined, and evidently more easily achievable goal, maybe a sort of symbol of being able to achieve what they were fighting for.

It seems to me that this battle to ban the veil might come out of similar dynamics: it certainly is a very clear and visible symbol of what’s wrong with the strongly patriarchal Muslim culture, and just like alcohol wasn’t the cause of poverty and abuse, so the veil isn’t the cause of the suppression of women. But it’s a part of it, and making such a boldly visible step to make it go away might well be a symbol for the much more complex, difficult and long-term fights over actual, structural changes in Muslim society that will be necessary to end the horrible mistreatment of women.

And I’m afraid that another parallel is that it will be similarly useless. Banning symptoms doesn’t achieve anything at all, and merely drives it underground where it cannot be addressed at all, and where it may create even more problems.

But I can understand the need for visible, symbolic victories for the morale and motivation of those fighting the long battles. I’m still opposed to these bans (especially since feminism isn’t the only motivation for them: racism and xenophobia play a far more significant role in getting these bans passed!), but I think I’m starting to understand where this irrational desire for them may be coming from. I wish they’d find a better symbol of their fight, though…

Religious symbols

The discussion about banning “religious symbols” from public schools in France* made me wonder, how the fuck does one tell what is a religious symbol? Does government have to issue ginormous books with pictures of all possible religious clothing and symbolism, and all students have to go through a “religion detector” every morning, similar to the metal detectors in some American schools?

Probably not. So, how the hell does one tell what is or isn’t religious? And how does one avoid discrimination, when something worn by one person is a fashion statement, but worn by another is a religious statement**? I mean, “everybody knows” that a cross is Christian, a Yarmulke is Jewish and a full hijab is Muslim, but what about other symbols? Imagine for a second this sort of thing being introduced into American schools. Which of the following would qualify as a “religious symbol” and which wouldn’t***?

It seems to me that there’s a whole bunch of “religious symbolism” that would fly under the radar because it’s so rare, or because it’s close enough to mainstream culture. This sort of thing would be guaranteed to promote established privilege against the visibly “other”.

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*and, much closer to home: Niedersachsen’s new Integration-Minister Aygül Özkan has made comments about removing religious symbols, as well. If I understand her correctly though, she’s talking about classroom decorations and staff, not students; which is something slightly different.

**well, I possibly already have an answer to that, if the reports of several Muslim girls being sent home for wearing standard bandanas are true…

***And let’s hope none of the students end up with a Latino boyfriend named Jesus, either :-p