Femen: are these naked breasts Islamophobic?

Femen: are these naked breasts Islamophobic?“, an article published in the Weekly Mail & Guardian, focuses on the perception of some former members and other commentators that the supposedly “feminist” group Femen is Islamophobic.  It is a response to criticism (by Femen enthusiasts such as Men for Femen and others), of the previous article, Femen: from enthusiasm to disenchantment, according to which the allegation of Islamophobia has no substance.

The current article makes use of the widely-accepted definition of Islamophobia developed by the British-based Runnymede Trust.  Given the intensity of the discourse around Islam, this definition is likely to be challenged by some as would be any definition. However, those that do so should come up with an alternative definition that still enables one to make satisfactory distinctions between secular religion critique and ‘phobia’ or ‘prejudice’ .

Note: A non-English native reader told me that the phrase “one can argue about minor things here” created the impression that Femen’s Islamophobia is a minor matter. This phrase refers to the allocation of the Runnymede criteria to the different Islamophobic statements by Femen, and is the result of an unfortunate edit done by the newspaper. Femen’s Islamophobia is no minor matter and impacts directly on the well-being of Muslims living in the countries in which they operate.

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Femen: From enthusiasm to disenchantment

Herewith a link to my newest Weekly Mail & Guardian Thoughtleader blog on the Ukrainian “feminist” organisation Femen, a shortened version of a much longer article.

Femen attracted my attention because of the novel that I am working on, “The Ordeal”, in which the main character becomes a member of a radical feminist separatist organisation (more about that some other time). Having worked in the Ukraine I had at least limited insight into the context from which these women came, and therefore empathy.

However, the rather wild rhetoric served to me as an indicator that something was amiss. Herewith a sample:

“We are Femen. You can feel how deep our anger is by looking into our eyes. We are feminism’s shock troops, a spearhead unit of militants, a modern incarnation of the word ‘fearless’(…) Make no mistake about it: we are at war. Every day we find new ways to destroy the patriarchy.”

Thus spake Inna Schevchenko of Femen France earlier this year. She also claimed that the Matriarchy would be in place by 2017. There will be blood in the streets, male blood.

The more I scratched the more questions there were. Their website and newspaper interviews revealed a surprising lack of depth in their thinking. They were into action, not theory and reflection. At the same time, their website, the posters and logos, their entire marketing effort is professional. That is clearly where their energies go.

And then there was the increasingly strident anti-Muslim rhetoric. They are supposedly “anti-religion” and have launched several actions against Christian churches, but Islam is clearly the target of choice. My main concern with Femen is that they will undermine the Feminist and Women’s Right organisations in the Arabic and Muslim world. Also that they are contributing to the alienation of the Muslims in Europe.

I eventually managed to get hold of a number of former Femen members for Skype discussions. Some of them felt strongly that they had a story to tell and were keen to talk. Have a look at the Weekly Mail & Guardian blog.

Postscript:

About one month after writing this article, the figurehead of Femen’s campaign in Tunisia, Amina ‘Tyler’/Sboui, announced that she is parting ways with the organisation as a result of their Islamophobia and issues such as funding. Some have argued that she is under pressure to do so as a result of her court case. This is of course possible, but I doubt that as her damaging comments go further than they would have to under those circumstances. Judge for yourself whether this is fear or disenchantment speaking.

A few weeks later, however, Sboui meets with Femen in Paris – and recants, on radio:

Journalist : “Amina, you said Femen is islamophobe, right ?”

Amina : “… No, no…”
Journalist : “You didn’t say it ?”
Amina : “No…”
Journalist : “So it was a wrong translation then ?”
Amina : “Yeah, yeah, that’s it.”

Some time later, also, this article appeared in the Independent, focusing on Svetlov’s role in Femen and the film on Femen being shown in Venice. Utterly bizarre…  Femen was indeed founded by a male who reigned supreme over the women, inspecting the volunteers’ breasts to determine whether they were fit for protest.  And then, Inna Schevchenko says, they kicked him out.  Really?  Just to mention him as their “ideologue” and “strategist” many months later?

With these revelations the last shred of Femen’s credibility evaporates like mist before the morning sun, leaving behind only the naked truth: a bearded man behind Femen, pulling the strings – exactly how they portrayed the Muslim women that did not accept their liberatory tactics.  Read Die Zeit for an excellent analysis of the Untergang of Femen.