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.