The inconsistency of Femen’s imperialist "one size fits all" attitude

You cannot dismiss the aims of Femen altogether - they are a group of women looking to change society - but Bim Adewunmi fears the execution of their protests leaves much to be desired.

 

There was a time in 2011, when you couldn’t walk in central London without bumping into sluts. I am of course, referring to the Slutwalk march that took place in the capital that June.  Following the example of Canadian women – who in turn were sparked by the throwaway comment of a policeman who advised women to “avoid dressing like sluts” to remain safe from rape – women took to the streets to protest rape culture and slut-shaming. I heartily approved, even as I sat it out. Slutwalk, with a message of genuine goodness and worth at its core, was not something I could whole-heartedly join in with. Because I had to consider an extra element: the fact that I inhabit a black body, and that body and the term "slut", or variations thereof, have a long and unsavoury joint history. I understood the appeal and value of Slutwalk, but decided that its execution was not for me. 

For the last couple of months, I have been watching the rise of Femen, the naked feminist protest group formed in the Ukraine in 2008. 4 April has been named "International Topless Jihad Day" by the group, (“our tits are deadlier than your stones!”) inspired by Tunisian feminist Amina Tyler, who posed topless for the Femen Tunisia Facebook page, with the words ‘fuck your morals" written across her chest. The act triggered a cleric, the chair of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, to allegedly call for her death; she apparently “deserves to be stoned to death". More than 100,000 people have signed a petition to charging the Tunisian government with Tyler’s safety. Richard Dawkins has signed it too – make of that what you will. I watched a clip of the Femen activists disrupting a sex show in Paris, pushing over the performer on stage and disrobing to send their message. Once again, I cannot dismiss the aims of Femen altogether. They are a group of women looking to change society, and make the place of women – at the top table, alongside men, in equality – a reality. But, like the Slutwalks, I fear the execution leaves much to be desired.

During the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre last month, African-American photojournalist Miki Turner gave an anecdote in which she’d asked writer and activist Nikki Giovanni why more black women hadn’t been involved in the ERA movement in the US in the early 70s. Giovanni’s response: “Because that was not our struggle.” Later that weekend, in a Q and A session, author and activist Alice Walker was asked a meandering question about the responsibility of Western feminists to turn their gaze on their sisters in the developing world in particular. Her answer brought forth a spontaneous whoop from the audience: “part of the problem with Western feminists, I find, is that they take after their brothers and their fathers, and that’s a real problem. And that is where, generally speaking, the loyalty is and the solidarity.  So, the struggle for many of these women has just been to get what these men have and to share it with them and naturally that means that they don’t connect very much or very deeply with the women in the other cultures of the world. And that’s really a problem.” 

Watching the antics of Femen has reinforced this Walker view starkly for me. Founder Inna Shevchenko’s words: “Muslim men shroud their women in black sacks of submissiveness and fear, and dread as they do the devil the moment women break free...” and “topless protests are the battle flags of women's resistance, a symbol of a woman's acquisition of rights over her own body!” are filled with a rhetoric very much formed by her Western life. Like much of the feminisms that have been exported from the West, it does not seem to take into account the obstacles to carrying out this form of protest. It rides roughshod over grassroots organisations and the work they may have been quietly and steadfastly engaged in over years, and stipulates that this feminism, the one where you  bare your breasts and sloganise your skin, is the feminism. It does not take into account community mores, and, in this case, incorporates more than a little Islamophobia. (Last year, Femen France organised a "better naked than in a burqa" event in front of the Eiffel Tower.) 

Naked protest is not new: I grew up partly in Nigeria, where the famous Women’s War in 1929 (an anti-colonial and anti-taxation protest by Igbo women), a culturally specific and sensitive form of protest, was on the school curriculum. Only last year, women in southern Nigeria protested community invasions using the same method. People who are being oppressed are rarely strangers to this fact. Do you have to tell a woman who is forced to drink the water her husband’s corpse was washed in, or the one forced to marry her late husband’s’ brother that she is being oppressed? And furthermore, will a topless Ukrainian with black ink on her chest and back change her condition? As Zanele Muholi said about Africa and ally activism, the key is partnership: “I personally believe in transparent collaborations. Come to my space, respect the people in that space and negotiate their space. Do not come and project.” 

Femen’s imperialist "one size fits all" attitude shows a deafening inconsistency in their own ideology: “Women!” they seem to be saying. “Your bodies are your own – do with them what you will! Except you over there in the headscarf. You should be topless.” It can’t work like that. It won’t work like that. It simply doesn’t work like that.

Femen activists demonstrate outside Tunisia's Embassy in Paris on 4 April 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear