FEMEN does not have a monopoly on Feminism

Richard Sudan
Richard Sudan is a London-based writer, political activist, and performance poet. His writing has been published in many prominent publications, including the Independent, the Guardian, Huffington Post and Washington Spectator. He has been a guest speaker at events for different organizations ranging from the University of East London to the People's Assembly covering various topics. His opinion is that the mainstream media has a duty to challenge power, rather than to serve power. Richard has taught writing poetry for performance at Brunel University.
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Something should be made clear at the outset of this article: like many people, I saw how a FEMEN activist was physically removed from a Muslim conference just at the part attendees were discussing when it’s appropriate for husbands to beat their wives.

The actions of those men, who dragged the women from the stage, shoving them and kicking them like animals, are inexcusable. How they acted was disgraceful, and must be condemned. It was an ugly spectacle.

I want to be honest and make two points in this piece, which I hope can offer clarity. At the moment, the narrative of the events being offered by the media is misleading. It obscures the reality of why this situation arose and the way things are being spun in its aftermath tells us a few things.

I do like what FEMEN stands for on the face of it. Who wouldn’t? Challenging patriarchy in an unequal world dominated by men makes more sense than most causes. But the way FEMEN members operate does raise eyebrows, and I don’t mean in the most obvious sense. There have been questions raised as to their motive and what is behind them, but we should take them at their word. They say the days of them being dominated by men are over. They say they want to fight entrenched patriarchy and call themselves modern feminists.

Topless activists of women's rights group FEMEN stage a protest in front of the polling station where France's far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen will cast her ballot in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, March 29, 2015. © Pascal Rossignol

My issue is with the way the media choose to depict FEMEN, in much the same way as I have a problem with the way the same media choose to present Islam and Muslims by and large.

The narrative being offered to the public is unrepresentative of the bigger picture. I would go so far as to say that the current characterization is misleading and divisive

On one side of the coin, the feminism FEMEN offers is a wholly Euro-centric hyper sexualized form of neo-liberalism. They contradict themselves by using their naked bodies to challenge patriarchy. By adopting this method, they have unwittingly played directly into the hands of patriarchy and given credence to it. The fact that they were founded by who they were, and that FEMEN activists were up until recently hand-picked to be the prettiest for maximum impact and attention, hardly paints them as advocates for feminism and true equality (neither does it mean, however, that their motives are not genuine).

Next is the fact that FEMEN is presented as if it’s the sole voice of modern feminism, at the exclusion of the voices of Muslim woman, who they claim to want to liberate.

FEMEN, assuming in this case it knows what is best for and how to speak for Muslim woman, is patronizing. The idea that ‘we know what is good for you and are going to liberate you whether you want to be liberated or not’ is a reminder of the psychological justification for ‘humanitarian intervention’.

Police remove from the scene a topless activist of women's rights group FEMEN as former International Monetary Fund (IMF) head Dominique Strauss-Kahn (not pictured) arrives to attend the trial on the so-called "Carlton Affair", in Lille, February 10, 2015. © Pascal Rossignol

I repeat, Muslim women can speak for themselves. It is up to them if they want to cover up, or wear a Hijab, in the same way it us up to any woman if she wants to do the opposite. People in 2015 need to wrap their head around the fact that many Muslim women choose to make this choice. The Western stereotype of the oppressed little Muslim woman, who needs liberating regardless of what she wants needs to be smashed, not reinforced.

The idea also that FEMEN, who have been around since 2008 (yesterday in comparative terms), decides what feminism is, by virtue of the level of attention they receive, is damaging to already existing struggles against patriarchy and those who have fought in the past.

Again, perhaps the media, rather than FEMEN, play as much or maybe more of a role in this narrow view of feminism than the group themselves.

The same media hailing FEMEN as the cornerstone of modern feminism are also the same media that hold people like Lady Gaga up as figures of female empowerment. And maybe they are in the eyes of some. Who am I as a man to suggest otherwise? But I do know that other voices, Muslim women included, and other voices of feminism, are being excluded from this conversation. That is not a good thing.

Then we have the way in which the same media loves to present Islam, and Muslim men, focusing on extreme acts of violence and little else. Stories offering a different narrative are seldom aired.

So in a nutshell, we have extreme and bullish activists such as FEMEN presented as representing modern feminism, and thugs like those at the Conference who kicked the FEMEN activist on stage in Paris presented as representing Muslims. Anyone else see a problem here?

One could be forgiven for thinking that FEMEN is more concerned with publicity and in provoking a reaction and grabbing headlines than actually championing the voices of Muslim women.

If they were serious, where is their dialogue and offer of support for Muslim women? Where are the views of Muslim feminists in this narrative? Why does FEMEN not support existing struggles and methods of fighting patriarchy? It is not for these women, with their Euro-centric version of feminism, to hijack and claim struggles which are not their own. They can support them if asked, but the assumption of ownership and of their definition of feminism thus far is like Rachel Dolezal assuming she has the right to appropriate a struggle that is not hers.

A topless activist from the feminist movement Femen is grabbed by senate janitors as she protests against the restriction of abortion for women under 18 without their parents' consent, during a session at the senate in Madrid, Spain, September 9, 2015. © Andrea Comas

FEMEN is a protest movement, people will respond. That may well be, but it is complicit in a game, wittingly or unwittingly, which seeks to control the conversation in a completely derisory way at the exclusion of all other voices.

Women are oppressed all over the world.

We need unity with struggles, not individual extravagant headline grabbing- grandstanding, which is then further promulgated by a neo-liberal MSM.

Muslim women are capable of speaking for themselves, and also of asking for help if they need it. It is not for FEMEN to assume this struggle, only support it if asked. And of course there are women who don’t speak out about violence they suffer at the hands of men, for fear of suffering more violence. This happens across all cultures, and it has happened to female friends and family members of mine.

There are many groups working with this issue that have years of experience in dealing with it, and who could and should be supported.

However, storming a stage held by the kind of men who would kick a woman to the floor achieves nothing. It is clearly a senseless publicity stunt, and may actually make things worse.

Many now think FEMEN represents feminism and that violent thugs represent Muslims. This is not the case.

There are some people who feel that FEMEN’s methods, whatever their motives, have made people take actual feminists (who don’t take their clothes of for attention) less seriously.

There are plenty of woman, white, black and brown alike, who support actual and existing struggles against sexism and patriarchy, and who seek none of the limelight and attention for their efforts that FEMEN activists receive by virtue of taking their clothes off.

I have no words to describe the idiocy of the men on the stage of the conference in Paris who kicked that activist while she was on the floor and beat her as they dragged her away.

We should perhaps give FEMEN the benefit of the doubt over its intentions, although many think these are questionable.

But whether or not FEMEN has a genuine motivation in its fight against patriarchy, the group should realize their tactics play right into the hands of the very structures they would like to eliminate.

Right now the narrative is one that excludes all other voices from the debate other than FEMEN and the extreme views it purports to challenge.

FEMEN has a big platform now. Its members would be taken more seriously if they now changed their modus operandi. They would have a bigger following and more advocates. Right now it just looks like they want headlines more than any real lasting change.

The psychology the group uses seeks to legitimize the view that some people need liberating whether they want it or not. Human beings liberate and free themselves. Others can assist in this process as history teaches us, but not appropriate any struggle for political ends or media spotlight.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.