Whither the ‘Topless Jihad’?

What are we to make of this? The Atlantic boasts photos of an April 4 international protest called by Ukrainian feminist group Femen in support of young Tunisian activist Amina Tyler, who received death threats after posting topless pictures of herself online in defiance of the growing hegemony of political Islam in her country. Femen's followers waged a "topless jihad," baring their breasts in cities across Europe—including in front of the Great Mosque in Paris. The Kiev protest was also in front of a mosque. Some of the targets were more appropriate, such as the Tunisian consulate in Milan and the embassy in Stockholm. The women scrawled slogans on their bared torsos, like "FREE AMINA." Somewhat disturbingly, some also appropriated the Islamic crescent in a sexualized way, using it to accentuate their breasts. This irreverent image actually appears on the logo of the Femen wesbite, which also touts its own movement as one of "Titslamism."

Amina Tyler deserves support. As if to vindicate exactly the theocratic reaction she was protesting, Almi Adel, the head of Tunisia's "Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice" (an office newly unveiled by the Islamist administration, in emulation of Saudi Arabia's thusly named ministry of fear) called for Tyler to be "stoned to death." (Huffington Post translates the charming quote from Tunisian newspaper Kapitalis.) Another progentior of the movement is Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, a young Egyptian woman who had to flee her country after provocative posts on her website in protest of the sharia provisions in the new constitution. In December, she held her own fully naked protest outside the Egyptian embassy in Sweden, waving her nation's flag over her head with the words "SHARIA IS NOT CONSTITUTIONAL" written across her body (as reported on Mexico's SinEmbargo).
The movement has sparked an organized backlash, coordinated around the Facebook page Muslim Women Against Femen:

On the 4th April. The so called feminist group, FEMEN has declared 'Topless Jihad Day' in which they are asking women to go topless and write ‘My Body Against Islamism!’ on their bare breasts. We as Muslim women and those who stand with us, need to show FEMEN and their supporters, that their actions are counterproductive and we as Muslim women oppose it.

So please post pictures of your beautiful selves, whether you wear hijaab, nikaab or not. This is an opportunity for Muslim women to get a say and show people that we have a voice too… that we object to the way we are depicted in the west, we object to the way we are lumped in to one homogenous group without a voice of agency of our own.

Muslim Women are encouraged to:

Write signs on paper, telling YOUR story, hold them up and get someone to take a pic and post…on twitter using the #MUSLIMAHPRIDE also tag #FEMEN so we can get the message across. Lets show the world that we appose FEMEN and their use of Muslim women to reinforce western Imperialism.

Hmmm. Is Femen, whatever its indiscretions, "reinforcing western imperialism"? Are we not supposed to call out theocratic reaction because same is also exploited by imperialist propaganda? Or is there a responsible way to do it? And if so, what makes Femen's approach irresponsible? What about the topless protester pictured in Paris with "ARAB WOMAN AGAINST ISLAMISM" written on her torso? Is she also a tool of imperialist propaganda?

One sign held by a hijab-wearing poster on the Muslimah Pride page reads: 

I am a proud Muslimah, I don't need liberating, I don't appreciate being used to reinforce Western imperialism, You do not represent me.

OK, hold the phone. Did anyone say you "needed liberating" if you don't want it? No, the point isn't to make you give up your hijab, but for Amina and Aliaa to be free to let it all hang out without fear of reprisal. Did anyone claim to "represent" you? And (again) what does it have to do with Western imperialism? Another sample (stilted English uncorrected):

I don't need someone running around shirtless to declare me liberated. Please treat your body with respect rather than displaying it like a chunk of meat. Your not some kind of car that needs to be auctioned off. Islam grants me the freedom to cover parts that society demands me to display by showing off your body you fallow societies expectations you become another toy, another puppet. Your a portal that satisfies their desires , your everything they want you to be. You claim to be free and liberated but sorry to say giving men what they want to see makes you equal to public property. Free to be used, and enjoyed by everyone.

This is most telling of all. Nobody seems to have internalized the culture of sexual commodification more than the above poster. She seems incapable of viewing female nudity as anything other than accommodation of male voyeurism. It is pretty clear from the images of the Femen protesters—and the hostile reactions they meet from male onlookers—that their goal was not to appeal to men's desires.
Al Jazeera covered the online counterprotest against Femen, with an image of a hijab-wearing woman with a sticker over her mouth reading "Silence is complicity." Complicity with what? Some uninhibited Western or Westernized women being semi-naked in public? You want to protest Islamophobia? There is plenty to protest that's a hell of a lot more egregious than that of Femen (if they can even be justly accused of it). Ethnic cleansing of Muslims is underway in Burma, and the big online campaign is over public nudity? This reminds us of the bizarre situation seven years ago, when Muslims all over the world were protesting offensive cartoons rather than the destruction of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in Iraq.

Note what Amina wrote on her torso in the pictures that got her in trouble: "I own my body; it's not the source of anyone's honor." Note the first assertion: You own your own body. The same principle that gives you the right to wear a hijab in public gives Amina the right not to wear a shirt on the Internet. The second assertion is a reference to the horrific practice of "honor killings" in the name of sharia across Muslim lands. Would that there were as many Muslim protests over this as over public breast-bearing and sophomoric cartoons.

On one hand, a case can be made that Femen's blatant tactics are indeed counter-productive, merely providing propaganda fodder for the backlash. On the other hand, it can be argued that by demanding that Amina and Aliaa moderate their tactics, we are already ceding cultural space to political Islam. 

On the bad tactics tip, we will note that one of the images on The Atlantic page shows topless protesters in front of the Ahmadiyya mosque in Berlin. A very poor target given that the "heretical" Ahmadiyya sect has met with persecution from the same Sunni orthodox establishment that also threatens feminists. Certainly, Malala Yousafzai is a better exponent of unqualified heroism in defense of women's dignity in the face of political Islam—and we will note (although we aren't sure how significant it is) that she does wear a hijab.

Meanwhile, Huffington Post informs us that Amina is safe and back at home with her family in Tunis—although earlier reports (e.g. The Atlantic on March 22) indiciated that her family sought to have her interned in a psychiatric facility. We hope the world will continue to watch.

  1. Update on Amina
    Is it really such good news that Amina is back with her family? From HuffPost, April 15:

    Tunisian activist Amina Tyler has revealed she was beaten, kidnapped and drugged by her family after posting pictures of herself baring her breasts online.

    The 19-year-old was also forced to endure a humiliating “virginity test” in the aftermath of her protest, which inspired women’s movement Femen to organise a “topless jihad” in support of her.

    Speaking to Femen leader Inna Shevchenko from an undisclosed location via Skype, she told her harrowing story, but was adamant she will continue her struggle for women’s rights in the Muslim country.