Pictured is the author, Yumna. Photo by Andrew Tan.
The 22 years I have spent on Earth so far have consisted of many Diasporas coupled with constantly shifting ideologies, often paralleled with my environment. From Pakistan to New York to Toronto to a small, right-wing, predominantly white town that shall remain unnamed for the sake of the good-hearted folk who live there.
Leaving the melting pots that are New York and Toronto, where I was virtually invisible, and moving to a town where I was practically the only “brown” individual was my first realization that I was in fact, a minority. This, paired with the fact that I was a young girl growing up in a Muslim household slowly started to dawn on me; I was not like the others.
Post-puberty and entering high school, double standards within the household and hypocritical rules became obvious, and thus began an internal tirade of anger and dissonance concerning sleepovers, hangouts, dating and what I wore. My family was liberal compared to many other Muslim families, but this did not change the fact that gender roles were assigned and the rules made clear.
As the girls around me began experimenting with their sexualities, spaghetti straps and school dances, I tried to come up with excuses for not participating in any of the above. I would talk to my immediate group of friends and try to explain the situation and how much it, well, sucked.
Rather than giving any constructive advice or the basic sympathy and understanding I wanted, they would put on their tones of superiority and get ready to school me as to exactly why this was happening. To be fair, they were only trying to help, but the ignorance and absolute misunderstanding was hard to ignore as they raved about how I came from a backwards society and nation where women were treated barbarically, how my parents were not fit to raise me “if this is how it was going to be,” and above all, how Islam and Allah were to blame. They would place Allah upon their tongue as if he was some strange Pagan Idol that did not belong to the Judeo tradition, as if he was not the same monotheistic God that all the Christians in this town believed in. For those who don’t know, Allah is the literal Arabic translation for the word God.
In this way, I felt isolated in my struggles as I realized that no one really understood where I was coming from and when they tried, they accidentally ended up shaming my roots and religion. The result of all this was an important dialogue cut short and my voice silenced.
Years went by and I discovered the magical world of feminism; finally, a space in which like-minded women would actually listen! I grew giddy with excitement and craved the personal stories, historical and socio-economic explanations as to why women were treated the way they were. It was all coming into focus and I finally had some perspective until I started noticing some complications.
The Western phenomenon of feminism and it’s globalization is problematic, because it excludes women from other countries and cultures. Feminism in Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Pakistan has vastly disparate constructs than feminism in Britain or the United States. My experience and this realization that feminism was not an all-encompassing entity that represented all the women ever is the microcosm to a greater issue – it is the catalyst to a problematic occurrence taking place as you read this.
Femen is an international feminist movement that has garnered international media coverage due to their topless public demonstrations against patriarchy and religion. Bare breasts and women urinating on posters of leaders such as Putin have circulated all over the Internet.
I bring Femen to light because they have a…unique, view on Muslim women. Mostly white European and American women represent Femen; these women live in nations where they experience privilege by default. I am not denying that feminism is not a white issue, of course it is, but white women experience disadvantage, disparity and sexism in a very different way then women of colour. These women of colour also experience the aforementioned troubles in their respected patriarchal societies differently from other women of colour; it is, above all, a complex dynamic that could span the length of a PhD dissertation that someone is probably writing right now.
Femen has decided that Muslim women are being enslaved by their religion, and to truly be a woman of freedom and choice, every woman must emancipate herself from Islam. This is not an accusation or a hyperbole but a fact.
This focus on Islam was sparked by the story of a young Tunisian woman’s brave actions. Amina Tyler, a 19 year-old woman was sentenced by religious officials to 80 to a 100 lashes for posting topless images of herself with the words “My body belongs to me and is not the source of your honor” and “Fuck Your Morals” on her chest.
Amina’s parents admitted her to a mental institution, claiming she was not right in the head. It’s unclear whether this was done to keep her safe from an Islamic regime, which is not unlikely.
This sparked outrage and caused Femen to declare “International Topless Jihad Day” on April 1, 2013. They began a series of protests that took place in front of Tunisian Embassies and mosques.
While it is wonderful for Tyler to receive support and acknowledgement, Femen’s protests in the name of Tyler and Muslim women in general quickly turned into a display of blatant Islamaphobia. A quick Google search of Femen reveals dozens of pictures of white women with phrases like “Fuck Islam,” “Topless Jihad,” “Bare Breasts Against Islamism,” and more painted on their stomachs and breasts. These words accompany the Islamic symbol of a crescent moon and star painted on the breasts, as well as towels wrapped around the head, uni-brows drawn with eye pencils and fake beards.
This is not liberation and does not help Muslim women; it is only one thing, racist.
Femen is reinforcing the stereotype of the docile and voiceless Muslim woman, as well as perpetuating the idea of Islam as evil and lesser than the great Western Civilization. The depictions of Islam by Femen are Orientalist, offensive and ironically oppressive.
The Muslim world sees examples of misogyny, but patriarchy is not only an Islamic issue, it is a global issue. Hundreds of Muslim women have spoken out against Femen, criticizing them for their assumptious and insensitive nature.
Femen’s response has been anything but tactful. They have referred to these women as “stupid,” “brainwashed” and “slaves.” Clearly, Muslim women are not capable of having thoughts of their own, according to Femen’s logic.
Femen’s preoccupation with women in the Muslim world has done more harm than good; they have taken away the agency and voice of the Muslim woman and created a hostile environment in which Muslim women are being spoken for in a manner highly misappropriated.
This is dangerous and must be acknowledged because the female body of the Muslim woman is being used to further the notion of Western Imperialization.
Femen is speaking for the millions of Muslim women around the world just as the girls I went to school with spoke for me. I’ve come to terms with my relationship with Islam, and though it may not conform directly to fundamental doctrines, I respect and love the religion.
To strip away the sacredness and love women have for their beliefs and way of life by deeming it unworthy is terrible. Feminists, please tread lightly when you think you are being generous with your empathies, because often these concerns come across as offensive, racist and Islamaphobic, even if you didn’t mean it!
I now live on my own, and write this happily in a space where I am free to act, dress and do whatever I wish to do. I am not an oppressed Muslim woman, and I do not need saving. I can quite easily articulate my problems, thank you very much. I love my culture, I love where I was born and I love that you can’t paint a singular image and say, “This, is the Muslim woman.”
It isn’t, and never will be, that simple.