A journalist writing an article about Muslim feminism recently asked me what I thought about secular Egyptian Aliaa Magda Elmahdy and her performance art, which involved menstruating and defecating on an ISIS flag, and the broader tactics of FEMEN, whose mostly non-Muslim members have bared their breasts to protest the oppression of Muslim women. As a Muslim woman and author, I am conscious of how other feminists try to speak for and “save” Muslim women. I understand the party line for any self-respecting Muslim woman is to condemn FEMEN far and wide.
And yet, here is my confession: I have a hard time mustering outrage about FEMEN.
I said this to the reporter. I said that gender oppression—which is sometimes done in the name of religion and sometimes done in the name of my religion— takes many forms, from “mere” harassment to rape and murder. It doesn’t surprise me that women choose to engage in provocative or “edgy” or even naked protests to gender-based persecution. I am not naïve about FEMEN or its motives. And yet, when I consider the collective global harm done to women, it’s hard for me to work myself into a frenzy about what any woman does in protest.
I summed up by telling the reporter that I am pretty libertarian on the issue of a woman’s right to speak, including both direct and symbolic expressions.
“Right,” she said, “but do you think these protests make things harder for Muslim feminists?”
I said yes. And I do. Many Muslims already reject feminism as a secular innovation. Any association with naked protests is likely to further deter conservative Muslims. FEMEN is also problematic for those who understand western culture’s long history of objectifying and commodifying women’s bodies. The path from bare breasts to empowerment is hardly linear. Still, making things more difficult for Muslim feminists does not, for me, outweigh any woman’s right to speak, not even FEMEN’s.
It’s possible my ability to shrug at FEMEN’s sophomoric and not terribly creative tactics is informed by my background. I grew up in the United States and attended a very feminist all-women’s college. I am used to outspoken women. I don’t find “shocking” performance art terribly shocking. I feel like we can survive a bare breast or two. I also have a law degree and believe firmly in free speech, even that which offends, and even that which implicates personal religious beliefs or choices about modesty. I do not wear hijab, although I don’t think that prevents me from understanding at least some of the frustration and pain of having your sartorial choices constantly judged and having to navigate society with so many people assuming, having never met you, that you are oppressed.
And so I understand the women in hijab who post selfies with placards stating that FEMEN does not speak for them, or who tweet that they don’t need white feminists to save them. (“White,” I assume, is a proxy for non-Muslim, even though there are plenty of white Muslims and white feminist Muslims like the author of this piece).
Let’s be clear: women, including feminists, don the hijab and other forms of conservative dress for a number of reasons. They may do so because of a desire not to be objectified, or the belief that God requires it, or a way to protest the legacy of colonialism, or it might simply be a fashion preference. But this does not mean that all covered Muslim women choose their hijab. I worry that in our scrambling to make sure no one thinks Muslim women are oppressed in the ways FEMEN alleges, we gloss over the fact that sometimes Muslim women are oppressed in exactly the ways FEMEN alleges. We cannot answer FEMEN solely by pointing to Muslim women who choose hijab. To be intellectually honest, we must also have tough conversations about Muslim women on whom it is forced.
The issue of covering in Islam is a loaded and frequently divisive subject. And though we complain about non-Muslims’ reductive focus on this issue and though the Qur’an does not have much to say about it, Muslims themselves also often reduce the Muslim women’s experience to exactly this issue, treating it as the “sixth pillar” of Islam and the most important measure of a woman’s piety. In practice, this sometimes results in laws which mandate the hijab or the burka. It also allows some Muslim men—both through public decree and private acts—to feel entitled to punish, sometimes physically and sometimes fatally, women who show parts of their body deemed sexually corrupting.
We need to have these conversations as Muslim women just as much as we need to explain the ways we are empowered. We can easily make the case that sexism and violence against women are not unique to Muslims. But we should never be so defensive that we allow FEMEN to control the conversation about Muslim women who are oppressed. We can’t fixate on the word save to the point that we are afraid to help.
Non-Muslim feminists will continue to raise issues about the treatment of women in Islam, and some of those efforts will play on—and into—stereotypes. But Muslim women’s voices are rising like never before. I trust that we can have conversations in far more intelligent and productive ways than FEMEN does. I’m confident we can be taken more seriously than a woman yelling and baring her breasts. People, of course, have the right to feel outraged by and respond to Aliaa Magda Elmahdy’s or FEMEN’s stunts. As a Muslim feminist, though, I wish we would shrug at their tactics and move forward with the important conversations.
Jennifer Zobair is an attorney and the author of the debut novel, Painted Hands (St. Martin’s Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay (forthcoming from I Speak For Myself/White Cloud Press, 2015). You can connect with Jennifer on twitter (@jazobair) or through her website at www.jenniferzobair.com.
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