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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Feminists telling women what to do, Western Edition

Over at pandagon there’s yet another conversation about women taking their husband’s name when getting married. In general, I support their effort at making it socially acceptable and common for women to keep their own names, but I think going to the point of claiming that women must keep their name is compete bullshit. The current discussion started with a post that made fun of women who claim that they made the change because they either had difficult to spell/pronounce names, or because they want to distance themselves from their own families, because 85% of women change their name, while virtually no men do (hence the “only women have hard to pronounce names and horrible families?!” joke), thus making it look like a mere excuse. The argument at one point went so far as to support the banning of name-changing upon marriage (based on a slight misrepresentation of the law in Quebec, which bans immediate name changes, but allows one to change their name if they’ve used a name different from their birth-name for 5 years or more IIRC), which in my opinion goes way too far and qualifies this as a minor version of the “let’s tell women what to wear” idiocy.

So, here’s my detailed opinion on this name-changing issue.

As a tradition, it’s completely stupid and patriarchal, and I have personally experienced that taking a husband’s name can lead to feelings of having your own identity erased. The social pressure on women to take their husband’s name can be overwhelming, as well, and for women who marry when they’ve already have a professional record established under their birth-name, the name-change can cause career problems. For that reason, I very strongly support the movement to abolish the tradition and let women keep their names easily, without pressure to do otherwise.

But I also support the movement to make it easier for men to be able to adopt their wife’s name, and generally make name-changing easier for everyone, at any point. Why? Because I don’t really feel like one’s birth-name is one’s own name: the last name is usually the father’s name and the tradition of taking it is just as patriarchal as taking the husband’s name. And the first name is whatever one’s parents liked, and can feel entirely wrong for oneself. And then there’s the fact that indeed some people have names that are a pain in the ass to them, some people have horrible families that they want to dissociate themselves from, and some people are just weird and OCD and want to be able to have a name that, for them, is aesthetically pleasing and fitting. And all of those are perfectly good reasons to change one’s name, but it can be a massive pain in the ass to do so (or even impossible, if the bureaucracy decides your reason just isn’t good enough) in all but that one instance.

And so, women who for some reason or another aren’t that thrilled with their name, use that one instance when it’s easy to make a change, because all people are, at heart, lazy :-p . And they get lambasted for it because men don’t do it just as often. This ignores that men who might not like their name for the same reasons have a completely different social conditioning (being told they should be proud of their name, that they’re responsible for continuing the family, etc blah blah) that for one may result in a name-change not even occurring to them as an option, and two making it more difficult for them to go through with it: getting married doesn’t make name-changing easier for a man the way it does for a woman, so there isn’t really this opportunity to get it done easily.

So anyway, in Jadehawkworld, everybody would get a naming ceremony at some point of their choosing in their 20’s to chose “their” name themselves, and for married couples I’d adopt a version of the Peruvian (and Spanish?) naming tradition, in which a married woman would add a usage-optional “de [husbandslastname]” to her own; except I’d have husbands do the same, and adopt a “de [wifeslastname]”; children would get a hyphenated name until their naming ceremony.

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

link-dump

1) “success oriented planning”, Big Oil edition: remote shut-off? we don’t need no stinkin’ remote shut-off!

2)The Arizonan immigration-law is sparking calls for boycotts on multiple fronts: baseball, businesses, other cities, foreign countries

3)random obligatory anti-corporate link: two simple statistics

Less clothing doesn’t mean less oppression

We Westerners easily identify the clothes of other cultures as oppressive. And certainly, when dress-codes are enshrined in law and the non-compliance is punished with more than mere social ostracism, this is indeed true. But in many circumstances, this is not the case, and yet we identify this “other” clothing as oppressive, even going so far as to ban it, without seeing the irony of saying “Poor subjugated women, we’d better tell them what to wear”. And at the same time, we miss that our own culture has clothing rules that also serve to limit women, starting with the fact that most fashionable clothing is extremely uncomfortable and limits movement (I’m reminded of various actresses in dresses into which they had to be sown; or actresses wearing dresses in which they couldn’t sit down). I actually remember the idiotic uproar when there was some special edition barbie in muslim dress, and everybody suddenly whined about the oppressive clothing. As if teetering on the tips of her toes, and wearing clothes that would never permit a real woman any room for movement(if you bend a barbie at the waist, she will occasionally fall out of her western dresses, too), wasn’t already oppressive to begin with!

And the next person who tells me how horrible it is that those poor Muslim women have to go completely covered up in the summer heat will be dragged to Minneapolis on a Friday night in February, to watch women run around in open-toed heels, miniskirts and tank-tops in -20F/-29C weather (an experience very similar to what a friend of mine reported was standard in NY high-schools: you’ll wear “sexy” clothes, no matter how fucking cold it is; also, see women’s Halloween costumes, most of which are not designed for October weather anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line) As much as I prefer the cold, I’d say the latter is much more likely to be uncomfortable and health-damaging than the former.

And then there’s high-heels, which have well known detrimental effects on health, but are still considered a requirement for femininity. It’s not foot-binding, but the difference is one of degree, not kind.

Anyway, my point is that it doesn’t matter whether women are pressured into wearing more or less, or whether they’re pressured by religion or some other social-pressure mechanism; as long as women are expected to wear certain things, and these things are restricting them, and not wearing them results in social punishment, it’s oppression. And it’s not just “the other” that oppresses with clothing; it’s us, too. We are not the height of enlightenment in this regard, not by a long shot. Especially if you also add economic oppression to this, since a proper “female uniform” costs a lot of money: almost all clothes are more expensive for women than for men, and women are expected to have more clothes (a man can get away with a single formal suit, but a women will earn scorn for always wearing the same fancy dress, or even the same work clothes too often).

The economic part of this has to do with classism, too though. I remember the ridicule heaped on Evo Morales for wearing his sweater all the time. And for what? It’s a fucking sweater, what’s so funny about it? well, it’s obviously that a sweater isn’t the proper uniform for the class of people he was meeting with, all of which tended to show up in formal wear (oh, and it was the same sweater over and over again, compounding the offense of lower-class appearance)