Oppression is Global, Sisterhood is Not

Poster for Anti-Homophobia Day in Lebanon
Jun 8, 2013

By Christina Nesheiwat

The sentiment that sisterhood is global, though seemingly well intentioned, continues to perpetuate cycles of oppression on a global scale. The current media storm surrounding the Ukrainian women’s group Femen and its Tunisian supporter Amina Tyler is only one example of racism and neo-colonialism under the guise of “sisterhood.” Femen has chapters all over Europe and North America, and claims to be the face of “the new woman,” and that Femen women should be “morally and physically fit soldiers,” with “hot boobs, cool heads and clean hands.” According to its mission statement, Femen has deemed itself fit to “defend sexual and social equality in the world.” In reality, rather than contributing to gender equality on a global scale, Femen has done the opposite by furthering toxic stereotypes that reek of orientalism. Femen’s topless hijab campaign and mission statement have created a form of feminism that leaves no room for pluralism, instantly demeaning those who do not believe that gender equality lies solely in public nudity. Beyond its members’ attempts to export a one-size-fits-all feminism with unrealistic ideals of women’s bodies, Femen has also belittled Middle East and North African (MENA) women’s movements and has adopted Islamophobia as a tool to further its bigoted agenda.

Are MENA women ‘more oppressed’?

Femen was founded in 2008 in response to the high number of Ukrainian women who are trafficked into the sex industry annually. It is estimated that more than 50,000 Ukrainian women are sex workers. Yet even with all of the marginalization and objectification that Femen faces in its own backyard, the organization still somehow has enough time on its hands to act on behalf of MENA women.

Femen leader Inna Shevchenko recently vowed in a statement to CNN to “deploy an entire network of Femen activists in Arab countries. We will hound Islamic leaders across the globe, subjecting them to desolating criticism. We intend to hound spiritual leaders who are personally responsible for mistreating women.” This threat is saturated in colonial discourse, and as many others have pointedout, creates the myth that MENA women need to be saved from brown men — “bearded men with knives,”  to be precise. By creating a narrative that MENA women are in need of saving, specifically by non-Muslim, European women, Femen operates upon a subtext that MENA women face a much greater subjugation than their nudist “sisters” in Europe. To create a hierarchy of oppression is deeply insulting to all marginalized people. Are MENA women more oppressed then other women globally, including those living within countries where Femen functions? Are European, or even Canadian and American, women “more free” when activists in those countries are still waging battles against victim blamingtraffickinghomophobiagender-based violenceobjectification of women in the media,and are still under-valuedfinancially for doing the same work as men?

Femen is not the first and will not be the last group of misguided activists to unleash their imperialism on the global south under the guise of sisterhood. The world was horrified by the fatal gang rape and disembowelment of a young woman from New Delhi in December 2012. Shortly after, a group of students affiliated with the Harvard College Women’s Center encouraged students to participate in the “Beyond Gender Equity”policy task force whose“principal taskis to produce a working paper that advises on the implementation of the recommendations from the Verma Committee,” a three-person committee led by former Chief Justice of India, JS Verma, with the purpose of reviewing India’s sexual crime laws. The task force described Jyoti Singh Pandey as a “victim of a long-standing history of violence in the subcontinent” and “the face of the movement fighting for gender equality.”

Where was this group of concerned gender equality activists only a few months earlier when an unconscious sixteen year old girl in Steubenville, Ohio was gang raped throughout the night, and even urinated on, while over 50 people watched and documented the horrendous crime on Instagram and YouTube? Why is it that these students from Harvard decided a young Indian woman, rather than a young American woman, should be “the face of the movement for gender equality”? Where is the discussion of the United States’s longstanding history of violence? Both Femen and the Beyond Gender Equity task force — with their belief that they have the “know how” to save, advise, and ultimately liberate “oppressed sisters” abroad — perpetuate the myth that Western women are better suited to tackle gender inequalities and simultaneously minimize violence against women and deep-seated misogyny in their own societies.

Both Femen and “Beyond Gender Equity,” in their simplistic attempts to help oppressed women abroad, show a blatant disregard for the dynamic activism of women in the countries they seek to “help.” In response to their actions, a coalition of Indian activists wrote an open letter to “Beyond Gender Equity” pointing out the group’s arrogance in both ignoring and de-valuing the history of grassroots organizing for gender equity on the ground in India. It is evident that Femen has never taken the time to learn about the women they have come to liberate either.

Ignoring MENA activism

MENA women’s movements frequently reflect an understanding of the different ways their struggles intersect with other forms of oppression; thus fighting for their rights takes the form of fighting for the betterment of their societies as a whole. As a result, women in the MENA region often do not have the luxury or desire to alienate men from their movements.

With respect to the Arab revolutions, women are on the front line of activism and social change. Thousands of women risked their lives in Tahrir Square, and many were spearheading the calls to revolution, such as Asmaa Mahfouz and the Egyptian women’s movement Nazra. Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karmanbecame an international face of the uprisings in Yemen, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership and non-violent resistance. Karman was one of many Yemeni women who took to the streets and led their own demonstrations against ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In Syria, women are taking up arms in the revolution and fighting both for President Bashar al-Assad and for the Free Syria Army.  Femen must have also missed the news of the fully competent women of Saudi Arabia who see themselves as their own champions of change. Manal Al-Sharif, who was imprisoned for nine days for posting a video of herself driving on YouTube as part of a larger campaign for women’s equity in Saudi Arabia, was able to create a media storm just as publicized as Femen’s, and she did it with her clothes on.

In contrast to Femen’s mission statement that women on the front line of equality should have “hot boobs” and be “morally and physically fit,” MENA women’s campaigns and grassroots efforts rarely enforce unrealistic concepts of womanhood that alienate other women who do not fit the “mold.” LGBTQ movements throughout the Arab world promote liberation for all, as well as challenge and dare to re-define womanhood and gender normativity. In Palestine, a society stifled by illegal occupation, two prominent LGBTQ organizations, Aswat (“voices” in Arabic) and Al Qaws (“rainbow” in Arabic), are active in confronting intolerance in their own society as well as opposing Israeli apartheid, asserting that queer/gender rights and Palestinian liberation go hand in hand. Lebanon and other MENA countries have movements that include all spectrums of women, including transgender members of society — women who may or may not have “hot boobs”, or even vaginas.

Finally, when international groups create the narrative that non-western women need saving, they only deepen existing racism towards brown men, further entrenching the women they seek to liberate in colonial and sexist discourse that women in the global south are forced to resist. Even Amina Tyler, though she still considers herself a member of Femen, quickly, publicly denounced their actions, saying,“Everyone will think that I encouraged their actions. They have insulted all Muslims everywhere and it’s not acceptable.” In a post-9/11 world, did it not occur to the women of Femen that their topless jihad campaign re-enforces dangerous stereotypes of MENA men that have led to violent foreign policies that continue to imprison and kill the partners, fathers, brothers and sons of the women they seek to liberate – stereotypes that sound a lot like scenes from the film Aladdin of “helpless wives forced into harems” and “stonings” by “bearded men with knives,” to Femen members wearing towels around their heads and donning fake beards.

Do the women of Femen know that children and women as well as men are being killed in drone attacks that are justified by mainstream Islamophobic sentiment, as is the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay, where Muslim and Arab men are detained and tortured without evidence of their criminal intent. Beyond Guantanamo and drones, there are countless more policies in place to further oppress the MENA community in their own countries and those living abroad, including racial profilingno-fly lists and invading armies. Femen chapters all over Europe and the United States, whose countries have a military presence in Arab countries, only continue to embed hate of Islam and Arabs into their societies, which translates into directly fatal consequences for MENA women.

Femen’s actions and statements, rather than contribute a more just society for all, encourage and fan the flames of oppression that MENA women already face on a daily basis. They, like many other groups that force their views, bodies, and weapons on MENA women, have only furthered this marginalization on a global scale. Until Femen and other groups like them are able to confront their own racism, colonial histories, and even their standards of beauty, they will only perpetuate the type of oppression they believe themselves to be fighting against. When these groups are able to view brown women not as victims in need of saving, but as their equals who are skilled and resourceful allies — and when western movements understand that women from the global south have knowledge and expertise that women in the west can learn from — then we can begin to move towards globally just societies. Until then, Femen and other “sisters” in Europe and North America can keep their shallow, ignorant and condescending sisterhood to themselves.

Christina Nesheiwat is currently a Fulbright researcher in Amman, Jordan studying curriculum development for survivors of gender-based violence. She has worked with Arab women’s groups both in the Middle East and the United States for several years. Her writing has also appeared on Jadaliyya.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

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