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Feminism, Islamophobia, and the complicated politics of global human rights

Posted by Tom Megginson | 6-04-2013 15:11 | Academy | Category: Ethics

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Earlier this week, I wrote about Femen’s “Topless Jihad”. It was an international day of semi-nude protest against the oppression of Tunisian activist Amina Tyler, as well as a statement against conservative Muslim institutionalized misogyny in general.

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At the same time, a counter-protest Facebook event emerged. Calling itself Muslim Women Against Femen..Muslimah Pride Day, it stated its purpose as:

On the 4th April. The so called feminist group, FEMEN has declared ‘Topless Jihad Day’ in which they are asking women to go topless and write ‘My Body Against Islamism!’ on their bare breasts. We as Muslim women and those who stand with us, need to show FEMEN and their supporters, that their actions are counterproductive and we as Muslim women oppose it.

So please post pictures of your beautiful selves, whether you wear hijaab, nikaab or not. This is an opportunity for Muslim women to get a say and show people that we have a voice too, that we come in many different shapes and sizes that we object to the way we are depicted in the west, we object to the way we are lumped in to one homogenous group without a voice of agency of our own.

Why do you feel proud of being Muslim? Why do you choose to wear the Hijaab/nikaab? Why do you choose not to wear it? Which muslim woman inspires you? How do you feel about constantly being Fetishized by the media/feminists/policy makers in the west?

The page attracted both lively debate and trolls:

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All of these posts bring up troubling questions about activist culture. As a western person, I believe that certain human rights trump others. The biggest example is freedom of religion. People have a natural freedom to believe what they want, as a matter of faith. But when that faith leads them to infringe on the natural rights of others — particularly when it comes to bodily autonomy — then I tend to be critical of that faith.

The problem with this is that religion, culture, nationality and our outdated ideas of “race” tend to get mixed up. A good example is the question of infant circumcision. It seems like a fairly straightforward issue of bodily autonomy, but because religion is involved the discussion can easily bring up the spectre of antisemitism. (See my Osocio posts Foreskin Man and the battle over a very politicized piece of skin and Foreskin Man meets his nemesis.) In a multicultural, connected world, these public discussions can turn friend against friend.

The juncture of feminism and Islamophobia is much the same problem. Western feminists are outraged by the often violent oppression of women and girls in extreme Islamist countries. But religious Muslim feminists counter that their choice to embrace “modesty” is also a powerful female statement:

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Femen are a rather anarchist group, advocating women’s revolution worldwide. They are also outspoken atheists, who see organized religion as part of the patriarchal system that keeps women down. After years of anti-government protest, it was the fallout from Inna Shevchenko’s attack on a Ukrainian memorial cross that forced the group to partially relocate to Paris.

Femen’s outrage at Islam is similarly blunt. Late last year, they joined forces with “Nude Photo Revolutionary” Aliaa Magda Elmahdy to do their first fully-nude protest at the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm, against. the referendum on Egypt’s new Islamist constitution and its poor stance on women’s rights.

This alliance, with atheist feminists from the Islamic world, such as Ms. Elmahdy and Maryam Namazie represent yet another complication in the mix. Because at the same time that Islamic women complain that western feminists are speaking for them in a patronizing way, women from their own cultures are finding themselves banished and threatened for expressing themselves in a nude or sexual way.

As Facebook would say, “It’s Complicated”. Social issues often are. One can wish for a world in which the most uplifting aspects of Islam — faith, a quest for personal purity, and doing good works — are free to be followed by individuals without outside coercion, or infringing on the rights of others. But, as the case of Amina Tyler clearly shows, that world is far away.

At the same time, blanket statements against Islam (rather than against specific governmental and religious regimes) do bring out the reactionary Islamophobia that is growing in the west. This wedge is currently being exploited by notorious anti-Islam crusader Pamela Geller, who is trying to turn the extremely successful American gay rights movement against an entire religion:

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If writing blogs about social issues marketing has taught me anything, it’s to try to understand not only what people of conflicting opinions believe, but why they believe it. I try to work for social change, but at the same time I realize that even some of my best allies have much different visions of where we are trying to go. Looking at interchanges like the ones happening now on Muslim Women Against Femen..Muslimah Pride Day is as important to me as following Femen because even the trolls uncover interesting tidbits of insight into what is really behind these conflicts.

In conclusion, I would like to share a specific post from Muslim Women Against Femen..Muslimah Pride Day that really struck me:

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Not only does this image engage in the kind of victim-blaming that launched a thousand Slutwalks, but it is also incredibly misandric. Like many messages against rape, it seems to assume that men are just walking erect penises, devoid of agency, and it is women’s responsibility to not provoke them into committing sexual assault. For some reason, this is a point of view that is disturbingly common worldwide. And not just among Muslims.


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