FEMEN Phenomena not New to the Arab world

by Walaa Quisay on April 11, 2013

First published by Comment Mideast.

FEMEN, a Ukraine-based feminist movement, declared the 4th of April ‘International Topless Jihad Day’. Inna Shevchenko, the founder of the movement, argued in an Al Jazeera interview that her movement was meant to be an international one for all women. It is therefore quite amusing that they would use the term ‘jihad’ alluding to an identity they deem backwards and harmful to women to assert women’s struggle over it. The ironic contradiction of over-asserting an identity they deem harmful to the women they are supposedly empowering is no less amusing than the idea of sexing up feminism ‘to make it relevant again’ – to paraphrase Ms. Shevchenko’s words from the same interview.


Amina Tyler’s infamous photograph

The calls for ‘International Topless Jihad Day’ were in solidarity with Tunisian feminist activist, Amina Tyler, who posted a nude photograph of herself online as a feminist statement. Before Tyler, Egyptian feminist-activist Alia al Mahdi caused controversy by doing the same. The reaction to this in Muslim feminist and intellectual circles was mainly that of indignation, which is fair enough. There was, however, a strong sense of denial that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. We can’t really lie to ourselves and say Tyler and al Mahdi are isolated incidents. Even if, as stated, the manifestations of their feminism are Western orientalist instigation, the issue remains. The fact of the matter that we keep on denying is that not only is their feminism deeply rooted in our political history but that it has also stemmed from the very ideologies that have run the Middle East in the 20th and 21st centuries up until the revolutions.

Huda al Shaarawi, the mother of Egyptian feminism, upon her return from Rome took of her veil as a public political statement. In Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba ‘liberated’ Tunisian women by publicly removing their veils.

It is one thing to ideologically reject the imagined relationship between clothing – or the lack thereof – and freedom and to simply deem this question irrelevant because it is an alien infringement on our society. Whether we like it or not, the globalisation of values and cultural imperialism have long existed and their ideas have been domesticated. In fact, if we take a closer look at popular Arab culture ever since the early 20th century, we will find that the ideology behind FEMEN’s sexed-up feminism is ever present. Tyler and al Mahdi may be radical manifestations of this but they are just two lone examples in a history where the politics of the body were made central.

The idea of sexual liberation is an important point in modernisation theory. As the post-colonial Arab state hoped to forge itself as a secular nation, it forced its modernisation project on society. So whenever an intellectual or artist affiliated to this modernisation project shocks societies with something they hope will deconstruct or challenge their value system, the reaction is both condemnation and indignation. There is never a corrective response rooted in society’s value to contest this. What ends up happening is that throughout the years they succeed in deconstructing the value system and become mainstream. If we were to look at modern Arab literature from Nizar Qabbani to Ghada Samman or modern Arab film or art, we’ll find that theme of flesh politics is ever present.

My argument is that the FEMEN phenomena is not new; it has well established roots in elite culture that dominates the Arab scene and tries (more often than not successfully) to dictate popular culture and affect the value system of society. Our problem, as feminists and as Muslims, is that we are always on the defensive. If our only ideology is to show indignation with a sense of denial on things like ‘Topless Jihad Day’, they will become mainstream. Being a Muslim is not just about negating all that is not Muslim. This is the eternal problem with Muslim feminists; their ideology is highly underdeveloped and is limited to a defensive attitude. This is the problem with Arabs generally: we deny issues until they become the mainstream.

Walaa Quisay is president of both the Middle East and North Africa Society and Arabic Poetry Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, United Kingdom.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

TR April 11, 2013 at 1:09 pm

In the West we make the mistake of assuming mainstream culture’s goofs are mirrored in what we percieve as class struggle’s goofs, too.


Arthur April 16, 2013 at 5:35 am

That is NOT “Amina Tyler’s infamous photograph”. Show some respect…



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