The politics of nudity as feminist protest ? from Ukraine to Tunisia

Frontline
activists, including women who use their topless bodies as political statements,
are gathering in London to deplore threats to free expression worldwide.

FEMEN activists. Photo: Jacob Khrist.Such are the risks to some frontline activists who have dared to challenge religious orthodoxies
around the world that an international conference on Free Expression and
Conscience
, 22-23 July, is taking place at an undisclosed venue in
central London, the location known only to the participants.

One of the keynote
speakers, Bonya Ahmed, was attacked by machete and her husband, Avijit Roy, was
brutally killed on the crowded streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh because they ran a
blog for freethinkers.

Other speakers and participants ? including members of
the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
(CEMB), the main organising group behind the conference ? also have stories of
harassment, death threats and physical danger. Even (or perhaps especially), in
the 21st century, with the rise of the religious right, free speech
can result in a death sentence.

…in
the 21st century, with the rise of the religious right, free speech
can result in a death sentence.

Inna Shevchenko, leader of
the controversial group FEMEN, is scheduled to
speak on “Gods vs Girls: Is Religion Compatible with Feminism?” She had
to leave her native Ukraine in 2012, and seek asylum in France, after being abducted,
beaten, tortured and threatened with death by security forces.

FEMEN activists have
achieved notoriety because their main form of public protest has been
inscribing slogans across their bare chests. Shevchenko told me, in their
defence: ?What do we do? We appear in the square, we take off our tops, we put
slogans on our breasts and we scream the slogans, we do nothing else. We are
then thrown on the floor and strangled, kidnapped, arrested. This is
disproportionate. It reveals a lot about the violence that patriarchal
institutions inflict on women who dare to disagree?.

In Ukraine, FEMEN has used these
tactics to protest against what Shevchenko calls the three institutions of patriarchy: dictatorship,
the sex industry and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church ? an important reminder to
those who equate extremism with Islam that institutionalised religion of all
denominations can be dangerous to your health.

Shevchenko says: ?Dictatorship
is usually one male leader who fosters the cult of the father of the nation.
Similarly, in monotheist religions, there is one father i.e. God who punishes
you, who protects you and who defines who you are and what your position in
society will be?. (Of course, this pattern is also replicated in the family).

A FEMEN activist is tackled to the ground. Photo: Jacob Khrist. FEMEN was founded in 2008, Shevchenko says, as
a reaction to the exponential growth of sex tourism in Ukraine. She
grew up in post-communist Ukraine and recalls a catastrophic economic collapse in
which the national currency was replaced for six years by coupons that expired
within three months. Under communism, she says, gender gaps had reduced somewhat as women?s
employment and educational opportunities opened up ? but afterwards unemployment hit
women the hardest, pushing many into the arms of a rich husband or the sex industry.

Shevchenko and FEMEN have been
criticised
for the crudity of, and contradictions in, their arguments and tactics. But her
clarity of analysis on the question of religion is lacking in some feminist
quarters. Whilst she accepts that a feminist can be a believer, the idea
of religious feminism to her is an oxymoron. Shevchenko says: ?It would be
intellectually dishonest to say that religion will provide the grounds for
women?s liberation. No, it?s feminism that will provide the grounds for women?s
liberation and it is through feminist ideas that religious ideas and text could
be modified?.

FEMEN?s topless tactics
have been condemned
by some feminists for playing into the culture of sexism by exposing their
breasts. To this Shevchenko responds: ?I get it when sexists make this argument, but I
don?t understand it when feminists [do]… What those feminists are saying is
that a woman?s body can be de-sexualised by hiding it ? but that is what
religious institutions are saying. I?m saying I?m going to give my definition
of what my body is. My body is sexual when I decide it to be sexual, my body
should be political when I decide it to be political?.

“My body is sexual when I decide it to be sexual, my body
should be political when I decide it to be political?

The success of nudity as political protest seems to depend largely on context. In the west, where women?s naked bodies have been
commodified and used to sell goods, reclaiming nakedness for political purposes
is much harder. In conservative societies, where women?s dress is intensely policed, any breach
of the codes is both brave and revolutionary.

Mona Eltahawy tells a funny
story in her book Headscarves
and Hymens; Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution
about a Tunisian
feminist Amira Yahyaoui who asked a Salafist member of the constituent assembly
a question. When he refused to answer her, as he did not speak to ?naked? women
(she was not wearing a hijab), Yahyaoui began to undress. The Salafist was horrified and demanded to know what she was doing. She said:
?I?m showing you what a naked woman looks like? ? and he promptly answered her
question.

Other Muslim women have braved censure or death to use their bodies to make a
political statement, including Aliaa Elmahdy,
the naked Egyptian blogger, and Amina
Tyler
, the Tunisian blogger who posted a topless picture of herself in 2013. Maryam Namazie ? an Iranian ex-Muslim, and an organiser of this weekend?s conference ? has used toplessness as a form of protest on a number of occassions, most recently at the Pride 2017 march
in London.

Maryam Namazie. Maryam Namazie. Photo: CEMB (Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain).Namazie told me: ?A pillar
of Islamist rule is the erasure of the female body from the public space. So
what better way to resist than with the female body?? Both Elmahdy and Tyler,
under threat from conservatives, have had to flee their countries of origin. Feminists
and progressives must defend the right of these women to free expression,
rather than make common cause with religious conservatives, even if we do not
personally see nudity as a form of liberation.

?A pillar
of Islamist rule is the erasure of the female body from the public space. So
what better way to resist than with the female body??

This insight is sometimes
missing in white feminist critiques of female nudity. When the
Pakistan social media celebrity Qandeel
Baloch
was murdered by her brother ? for bringing ?shame? to the family with sexually-charged videos and photos posted online ? some older British feminists
took to a Facebook discussion where one asked whether Baloch ?joining the oppressive western world
and slathering herself in make-up and posting vids of herself twerking and
always doing the bidding of men… [was] SO empowering?. But nothing is as undermining of religious patriarchal mores as a woman flaunting her sexuality.

The failure of some
sections of the progressive left to challenge institutionalised religion?s
assault on free expression will be one of the themes running through this weekend’s
conference in London. Billed as the Glastonbury of freethinkers
and featuring 70 speakers from more than 30 countries, other discussion topics will
be resistance to religion from gay rights campaigners, the growing influence of
religion in the law and the state, secularism as a human right and identity
politics.

For Namazie, ?the
conference is a timely reminder that freedom of conscience is not just for the
believer but [also] for the nonbeliever. That free expression is not just to
defend the sacred but to reject it?. Exercising this right has already caused harm and cost lives. This is a significant battleground
for our times.

Country or region:
Ukraine
Tunisia

City:
London

Topics:
Culture

Rights:
CC by NC 4.0

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