FEMEN: Flower-Crowned Islamophobia

What do you get when you mix white women, flower crowns, racism and colonial imperialism?


Unfortunately, FEMEN and their actions are no laughing matter. Self-described as a “radically feminist” organization, FEMEN’s roots are in protesting against sex trafficking of Ukrainian women and demonstrating for pro-choice legislation in Ukraine. The group was founded in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2008, and now boasts having members and branches all over Europe, with a large branch located in Paris. In October of 2012, FEMEN claimed to be composed of 40 topless protesters, with another 100 who had joined their protests outside of Kiev. Most recently, FEMEN has become increasingly offensive and racist and has sparked an international debate.

The women of FEMEN, who have recently acquired mainstream media fame for what they declared to be a Topless Jihad Day, have become known for staging topless protests in front of religious institutions. The group claims that staging protests while topless is the “only way to be heard” in their native country of Ukraine. FEMEN’s ‘Topless Jihad Day’ is said to be in response to death threats that were made to Amina Tyler – a Tunisian woman who posted nude photos of herself on Facebook with the words “I own my body; it’s not the source of anyone’s honor” written on her bare chest. Overall, Topless Jihad Day appeared to be a protest against Islam and Islamist “oppression of women”. At least, that’s how FEMEN sees it. White women wore flower crowns, black skinny jeans and scrawled ‘FUCK YOUR MORALS’ and ‘FREE AMINA’ on their bare chests. In Paris, topless protesters burned a Salafist flag in front of a mosque. All of this, in the name of ‘liberating’ Muslim women.

And then there’s this photo:

It is counter-productive to attempt to ‘save’ women by upholding racist, Islamophobic stereotypes. Can the rights of one structurally oppressed group, i.e. Muslim women, be saved while the rights of another structurally oppressed group, i.e. Arabs, Muslims and people of Middle Eastern decent, be mocked and oppressed? The level of racism in the photo above is overwhelming–the ‘towel head’, the beard, the unibrow, the mocking of Islamic prayer. How can this hope to further FEMEN’s agenda?  How can FEMEN hope to be taken seriously on the international stage?

It is not hard to believe that Muslim women around the world are angry with FEMEN. A group called Muslim Women Against FEMEN, or MWAF, have formed to make it clear that FEMEN does not speak for all Muslim women. MWAF states:

“This group is primarily for Muslim women who want to expose FEMEN for the Islamophobes/Imperialists that they are. We have had enough of western feminists imposing their values on us. We are taking a stand to make our voices heard and reclaim our agency. Muslim women have had enough of this paternalistic and parasitic relationship with SOME western feminists.”

Even Amina Tyler, the activist who inspired the Topless Jihad, has expressed disapproval.  “They have insulted all Muslims,” Amina explained during a brief interview on a French television station, “and that is unacceptable.”

MWAF began to spread their message with posts that included Muslim women with or without hijab (religious head gear), holding signs with messages like ‘I am a proud Muslimah and I don’t need to be liberated!”, and “Do I look oppressed to you?”  Inna Shevchen, a white Ukrainian member of FEMEN, wasted no time responded to MWAF and their posts (like this one):

In a Huffington Post UK blog post, Shevchen wrote:

“Being born in post USSR country (Ukraine) I know exactly that it’s a common trait of dictatorial countries to promote the official position of the government pretending that it’s backed by the people. I don’t deny the fact that there Muslim women who will say they are free and the hijab is their choice and right. … So, sisters, (I prefer to talk to women anyway, even knowing that behind them are bearded men with knives) you say to us that you are against Femen, but we are here for you and for all of us, as women are the modern slaves and it’s never a question of colour of skin. …  They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me.'”

Chin smacks floor.  True feminism should respect a woman’s freedom in everything she chooses – that includes the freedom to choose her religion and religious headgear. Inna Shevchen and FEMEN are upholding racist and Islamophobic stereotypes and generalizations, and frankly, many of their methods look to be more attention-seeking than possessing good intentions. Instead of fighting oppression and joining together in upholding women’s rights, FEMEN alienates themselves as white, paternalistic radicals who may be adding to modern negative stereotypes of Westernized feminism instead of furthering the progress that feminism is supposed to strive for.

Can white feminists help women of color who may be oppressed?  Of course.  Are all white feminists bad?  Of course not.  What FEMEN is missing in their approach is an intersectional sensitivity.  FEMEN claims to fight for the rights of Amina Tyler, who had been threatened and persecuted for simply showing her breasts on the Internet.  FEMEN’s efforts to bring attention to Tyler’s plight are well-intentioned but their methods are ignorant.  When writing about how FEMEN could continue to help Amina Tyler without resorting to racism, imperialism and oppression, Roqayah Chamseddine reasoned: “[Y]ou raise awareness by highlighting native voices, not co-opting them. It is your duty to amplify, not commandeer.”

As of now, it seems that FEMEN are unwilling to change their misinformed attitudes.  One thing is certain:  FEMEN will serve as a humbling reminder that even the most committed feminists can be wrong if they do not continue to check their privilege.

Author:  Eva Trampka

20 thoughts

  1. Whether you agree with FEMEN or not, they are getting the issue talked about. That is half the battle. Success often takes singleminded vision and dogmatic approach to opposition, even if that often enough is the reason for ultimate failure. What is needed now is a claming voice like your own… many of them… to keep the discussion going in a more successful direction.

    1. I agree with you, but I also don’t agree, because bringing attention to the oppression of some Muslim women by perpetuating exaggerated, racist cartoons of a religion doesn’t help anyone. FEMEN is trying to ‘save’ these women based on a Western viewpoint, and they are hijacking the fight from women who don’t want the help of white foreigners. Yes, the issues are getting attention in the Western world now, because everyone wants to know what those hot topless chicks are yelling about. What we need is to pay attention to native voices like MWAF, instead of being like Inna Shevchen, who brushes them off as being manipulated by Muslim men. How can a woman take back her power and use her voice if when she does, we don’t listen, because we just assume that her voice is someone else’s?

  2. I think the level of prudence you expect from Femen is not realistic, and to argue your point, you’ve pretty much repeated the mistakes you accuse them of. You speak of white western women from a standpoint that is equally racist, but I understand it doesn’t feel that way since the whites have spent most of history oppressing other races. For the same reason, it is naive to ignore how easy it is for men to coerce women to support their own oppression in communities where this is taken for granted.

    Femen stumbled onto an effective way of being heard. Sure, they’re massively over-the-top and occasionally trash their own agenda, but considering how easy to ignore the voice of feminism was in recent years, this new way was more than necessary. So what if most of them are too young to be able to wisely use this newly found power to be heard? It has always taken the reckless and the wise working together to change the world.

    Men are biologically primed to take notice of naked female bodies. This is one of many ways in which nature creates a balance of power between sexes of an intelligent creature. Are we seriously to believe forcing (or conditioning) women to cover themselves up is about anything other than tipping the scales and maintaining male supremacy? Or that a tradition brutally enforced in places it originates from should receive carte blanche trust to allow and respect a different personal choice? If you will be scorned by your closest friends and family for your decision, is that fact to be ignored?

    Sure, Femen needs to grow up and learn to communicate more responsibly. But should that be said in a way that legitimizes an act symbolizing a transfer of responsibility for male desire to women? You’re basically standing in defense of a view of human sexuality that, in its original form, establishes an excuse for rape. I respect a woman’s right to wear whatever she damn well pleases, but I also refuse to turn a blind eye to the origins and record of this tradition.

    1. Femen did not “stumble onto” the tactic of topless protest. they were coached into it. Do some research. There are so many problems with that group and how they operate. i speak as a co-founder of a grassroots (no money involved) organization that advocates for the safety of women’s (and all genders’) bodies no matter what we are wearing or not, questioning the sexualizing and shaming of women, and challenging the hypocrisy and racism that are an integral part how women experience misogyny. And yes we have events where women, and people of all genders are topless, but unlike Femen, our events are “toptional” and we welcome members/supporters who don’t want to take their shirts off. we seek to have thoughtful discourse and welcome critical thought. As a woman, a topless activist, and an anti-racism activist i find Femen very offensive and they certainly don’t represent me or my struggle as a woman activist. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/03/12/femen-s-abusive-patriarch-victor-svyatski-exposed-in-ukraine-is-not-a-brothel.html

      1. I don’t think a protest organization should represent everyone – those that do rarely have any impact on anyone. I read the article you’ve linked for me. I hope you read it too, past the title and summary.

        I don’t personally know any Femen members and all sorts of things could be true about them that I wouldn’t agree with. I’m not here advocating for the group. What I am saying is that trashing them for being white, young and pretty, and therefore automatically wrong, or questioning their right to use their bodies as they see fit for activism, or portraying them wholesale as mere puppets of a man are all really bad arguments implying women have no agency and are determined only by race, background or men that manipulate them. Sorry, I respect the ability of women to think and act on their own behalf way too much to buy into all that.

        I also find defending practices specifically designed to subjugate, marginalize and disempower women, used exactly for that purpose in societies they originate from and maintained through brutal enforcement, to be a cheap and cowardly way to present oneself as inclusive. Women have a right to wear whatever they want for whatever reasons they want, and other women have a right to challenge and even ridicule some of those reasons.

  3. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Many thanks, However I am having difficulties with your RSS.
    I don’t understand why I am unable to join it.
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  4. Forget race. Women all over the world are oppressed by religion and we need to stand up against it. Race doesn’t come into this, we are all just human beings, no race better than the other. Sometimes in order to get others to listen you have to use shocking tactics. Instead of being so concerned about racism be more concerned about the women who are left to suffer because others are scared of being branded racist and end up doing nothing about everyday abuse and oppression of women.

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