Beyond Barbie

It was a gruesome image: Barbie tied to a burning white cross, engulfed in flames, charred and melting, brandished like a weapon by a topless blonde activist standing atop the giant pink stiletto which greets visitors to the new ‘Barbie Dreamhouse’ at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. Across her chest were the words ‘Life in plastic is not fantastic’ – a reference to the 1997 anti-Barbie pop song by Aqua.

This ‘ritual Barbie-cue’ on 17 May 2013 was one of the latest in a recent series of impressive media stunts by the now international feminist group, FEMEN. They were quite rightly protesting the transformation of ‘a piece of plastic into a god for millions of girls’ for whom the only ‘reason to exist [is] in the continuous care of their appearance and the house’.

And it might have been funny, too, if it weren’t for the alienated and bewildered five-year-olds who witnessed the burning crucifixion of their favourite consumerist idol. Or the fact that this separately organised stunt stole the media show from a broader collectively organised demonstration of over 300 people. Or, more importantly, if in the past two years FEMEN had not taken such a colonialist and even seriously racist turn, alienating many who might otherwise sympathise with their attempt to reinvigorate ‘third wave’ feminism.

The truth is, many of FEMEN’s actions are funny, in a way. So is their website, among whose images is one of a FEMEN activist brandishing a bloodied sickle in one hand and a pair of testicles in the other. But usually I’m laughing in an ‘I-can’t-believe-their-politics-are-so-off-the-mark’ way. And increasingly, it has started to feel a bit like laughing as you slowly realise that you’re actually watching a train wreck.

FEMEN, the founders of ‘Titslamism’, ‘Sextremism’ and other equally confusing neologisms, are currently the most talked about feminist group in Europe. FEMEN was founded in the Ukraine in 2008 by Anna Hutsol, Oksana Schachko, and Alexandra and Inna Schewtschenko to protest the use by ‘foreigners’ of the Ukraine a destination for cheap and no-strings-attached sex, with the slogan ‘the Ukraine is not a brothel’. Rapidly obtaining publicity, these topless women activists became (in)famous through staged tactics that follow a consistent pattern. A very small group of FEMEN activists will burst suddenly into a public space. They are topless, wearing Daisy Dukes, bright red lipstick, a wreath of flowers with ribbons on their heads, and political slogans written across their chests; they are dragged off kicking and screaming by police (this last being an almost essential part of the theatrics).

It was in 2012 that FEMEN’s international fame exploded. Their stunts often target top-ranking politicians or religious leaders, including Vladimir Putin (‘the most dangerous dictator in the world’), Viktor Yanukovich and Silvio Berlusconi. Their interventions have a leftist edge: they have participated in anti-Nazi protests in Berlin, pro-gay marriage demonstrations in France, and in August 2012 conducted a solidarity action with imprisoned Russian band Pussy Riot, during which one woman cut down a giant wooden crucifix in Kiev with a chainsaw. In Germany, the group has since even appeared on the widely watched current affairs program Menschen bei Maischberger.

Within the last two weeks alone, FEMEN stunts have taken place in the Ukraine against the Japanese Mayor of Osaka’s comment that ‘comfort women’ helped maintain military discipline in the Second World War; in Paris in the Notre Dame cathedral calling on French fascists to follow the example of conservative politician Dominique Venner, who shot himself on 21 May in protest against gay marriage and ‘Islamist’ control of Europe; in New York, in support of the laudable decision to decriminalise female topless nudity; and in Germany, where two FEMEN activists sprang onto the stage at a live broadcast of the final of Germany’s Next Top Model, bearing the slogan ‘Heidi [Klum’s] Horror Picture Show’.

Yet despite their fearless tactics, cleverly timed stunts and many admirable motivations, FEMEN’s political perspective has been filled with contradictions and confusions from the start. FEMEN’s website states that they are ‘serving to protect women’s rights, [and are] democracy watchdogs attacking patriarchy in all its forms: the dictatorship, the church, the sex industry’. But their self-proclaimed ideology of ‘Sextremism’, for which there is no clear definition, seems to boil down to the idea that women exposing their breasts is the best way to shock the world into granting women’s emancipation. Their equally opaque summary of feminism as consisting of ‘hot boobs, a cool head and clean hands’ has also been criticised for reinforcing the same body-stereotypes created under capitalism that FEMEN itself claims to oppose, in which women must aspire to a certain ‘look’: unblemished, skinny but not-too-skinny, blonde, blue-eyed, sexually available, and perfect (usually white) skin, just like Barbie. In fact, looking at some images on their website, it is difficult to tell the difference between FEMEN and FHM-Men. In one interview, German FEMEN activist Irina said their aim is to ‘show [that] feminism is not limited to old, bitter, ugly women with short hair’.

Their topless protests have generated a great deal of controversy in mainstream Europe. In the Ukraine and Belarus, they have been accused of obscenity, moral outrage and contempt for public decency. But there has also been no shortage of sleazy innuendo by a media that thrives upon the objectification of women. An early piece of international coverage for the group by the Economist magazine, for example, reported that the group had ‘aroused’ much attention, and advised its assumed male readers that they ‘might not want to read this story with your boss around’ – get it, boys? Yet the Economist simultaneously accused FEMEN of a ‘shameless quest’ for media attention.

It is, therefore, in some ways understandable that Irina believes that ‘without our topless actions no one would be at all interested in what we have to say’. Yet, as British critic Elly Badcock has noted, this tactic ‘has always been questionable, to say the least. Of course, the female body is nothing to be ashamed of … but in this context, the tactic is misplaced. The ideological statement the action ends up reinforcing is this – that showing your breasts is inherently liberating, and covering up is a necessary signifier of sexist oppression. Women’s liberation cannot be reduced to measuring the amount of flesh we’re permitted to show.’

To be sure, their approach has in many cases been humorous, buoyant, and importantly, inspiring to many young women attracted by their libertarian ‘fuck-your-morals’ radicalism. Yet their methods of organisation and political statements reveal at their core a fairly pure liberalist-colonialist tendency. Acknowledging this can explain how their obsession with topless nudity and their predominant Barbie-doll image is connected to a more serious and disturbing aspect of their movement. Ultimately, they end up following a particular path of feminism that upholds racist stereotypes. Even in their early days, the FEMEN founders said they wanted to ‘build up the image of Ukraine’, and rid the country of its ‘Arab mentality towards women’. And most of their international fame has been generated not through the examples cited above, but through their repeated attacks on ‘Islam’ and their colonialist ‘defence’ of ‘Muslim women’.

Many of their actions have been explicitly racist. At the Eiffel Tower in April 2012, FEMEN staged a protest against the burqa – the garment which in 2010 had been banned by the French state and against which ban French Muslim women had organised repeated protests! – by stripping off and holding up signs saying ‘Muslim women, let’s get naked’ and ‘Nudity is freedom.’ During the Olympic Games in London in August 2012, they staged a topless ‘Islamic marathon’ to protest against ‘bloody Islamic regimes’. One activist had dressed up as a ‘Muslim man’ wearing a long white robe, with a drawn-on beard and artificially thickened and conjoined eyebrows. Other slogans linked the legal tradition of sharia to ‘speed raping’.

The greatest international attention came in April 2013, following an action in March by Tunisian feminist Amina Tyler, who posted FEMEN-inspired images of herself on the internet. Her naked chest bore the slogan ‘My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honour’, to which a Muslim cleric responded by calling for her to be stoned to death. A call by feminists from across several predominantly Muslim countries to organise a day of solidarity with Amina had the misfortune of also attracting signatures by famous Islamophobes like Richard Dawkins. As if on cue, FEMEN launched an ‘International Topless Jihad Day’ on 4 April. They encouraged women across the world practice what they called ‘Titslamism’ and protest in front of Muslim organisations and mosques, in a ‘sextremist’ show of outrage against ‘Islamic’ misogyny. This became a day of the crudest, most embarrassing examples of racist idiocy, with FEMEN activists finding the nearest mosque – oh, any old mosque will do – and stripping off, or posing in racist caricatures, or (just to turn things up a notch) burning a salafist flag in front of the great mosque of Paris.

It is hopefully, dear reader, clear to you that in a Europe increasingly full of budding Anders Breiviks, Geert Wilderses, and English Defence League members, what the implications of a so-called ‘feminist’ action of this kind might be.

Muslim women around the world reacted by accusing FEMEN of neo-colonialism, and of ridiculing ‘the millions of women who do wear hijabs and cover their bodies out of choice by making it seem like they’re too naïve to know any better’. Amina herself condemned the flag burning, saying ‘they have not insulted extremists but all Muslims, this is unacceptable’. On Twitter, the hashtag #muslimahpride created in reaction to FEMEN generated thousands of tweets; the Facebook page ‘Muslim Women Against FEMEN’, launched on 5 April, now has over 10,000 ‘likes’.

The action also prompted British student Sofia Ahmed to launch ‘Muslimah Pride Day’. Ahmed says that FEMEN’s tactics ‘reinforce Western imperialism and generate consent for the ongoing wars against Muslim countries.’ The response to her initiative indicates the ‘anger and frustration that Muslim women feel toward being perpetually infantilised … By dismissing the role of Western countries in the oppression of Muslim women and focusing solely on Muslim men, [FEMEN] are only working to demonise Islam, not liberate Muslim women.’

In a special panel on Al-Jazeera on the question ‘Who speaks for Muslim women?’, Iranian activist Leila Mouri noted the great diversity in Muslim countries, ‘influenced by their cultural, economic, political and historical background’. She suggested that the job of a movement for women’s liberation based on solidarity rather than paternalism is to ‘permit women to strategise their [own] struggle based on the … political atmosphere that they are working in’.

Yet FEMEN’s paternalism has also manifested in their actions focused on the European sex industry. The first action by FEMEN Germany was, in fact, in January in Hamburg’s Herbertstraße (known as ‘brothel street’, and legally off-limits for women since the Nazi period) in January, where they held a topless protest in front of one of the brothels, holding up burning torches and signs in which the ‘X’ in ‘Sextremism’ had been turned into a swastika. They announced that ‘In concentration camps, people were destroyed and prostitution destroys the souls of women … what’s happening here is a genocide against women’. They then proceeded to spray paint the walls with the Nazi slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei’. Not surprisingly, this enraged and alienated several groups involved in the self-organisation of sex-workers. During the action, one prostitute even came outside to tell them to piss off.

Sadly, despite much sensible criticism expressed in growing numbers of online opinion pieces, and despite the fact that one of the FEMEN leaders herself even appeared on the Al-Jazeera program in dialogue with her critics, all the critiques seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Just this week, three FEMEN activists – from France and Germany – turned up in Tunisia to up the neo-colonialist ante by stripping off in front of the Ministry of Justice in solidarity with Amina, with FEMEN founder Inna Shevchenko boasting that this was ‘the first protest of its kind to take place in the Arab world’ (a bombastic and probably untrue claim).

One thing is certain: the humour is well and truly gone, and FEMEN has come to represent a train wreck of the burgeoning feminist renewal in Europe. I hope that they do not remain the only option available for young women pissed off and ready to fight for a better world for everyone, not just for Barbie dolls.

Kate Davison

Kate Davison lives between Melbourne and Berlin and writes on the topics of racism, religion and sexuality in Europe.

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  1. A fascinating and measured discussion. I do find it surprising, however, that some objectors regard Richard Dawkins as an “Islamophobe”. To my mind, Dawkins is critical of religion. All religion. Criticism is vital and mustn’t be confused for bigotry.

  2. The problem that emerges with FEMEN is that, as gesture, as communication, the likes of breast-baring, burning barbies and burning salafist flags are too malleable, too “scriptible”: it’s too possible for difference audiences to interpret a message other than the intent – or for that matter, for propagandists to superimpose their own message.

    This is a problem with any form of protest or activism whose gestures draw attention but don’t bring its detailed and articulate ideas and demands (assuming they exist) into the public sphere.

    The lack of nuance may mean there is no adequate distinction between groups – to television reports, the EDL and anti-racist activists are equivalent or at least similar: youths causing an aggressive commotion.

  3. Yes, Dawkins is critical of all religion, but reserves special condemnation for Islam, which he claims is “the greatest force for evil today.” This, and other public statements singling out Islam as uniquely evil, is why he has been accused of Islamophobia.

    1. Not to mention his willingness to associate himself with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and endorse their views on the “clash of civilisations”.

  4. Spot on, Alison.
    Laura, there are some excellent critiques of Dawkins, Hitchens and the New Atheists which convincingly highlight the selectiveness of their critique of religion within the context of Western imperialism. Overland editor Jeff Sparrow, for example, has written on the topic, so you should check out some pieces by him.
    Tom, my problem with FEMEN is far less a tactical one and is more centrally a political problem. I agree that a central problem is a garbled political statement. However with FEMEN, this reflects garbled politics and is not merely the result of media distortion. It is certainly the case that various forms of media have their own ideological-commercial agendas and it is in their interests to distort political phenomena, for example to depoliticise both right wing violence and rioting by oppressed, unemployed youth equally as “hooliganism”. Yet FEMEN is an extremely media-savvy beast, and the core problem is really a completely unreflected European chauvinism combined with an utter lack of interest in locating the roots of women’s oppression in anything other than a vague notion of “culture”. Media misrepresentation is not their problem at all – quite the opposite!

    1. Yeah, I do agree – up to a point. I just wonder what proportion, even of the political class, has your level of awareness of FEMEN’s position. I certainly didn’t before reading your article (for which, thanks!).

      I think the recent incident with Putin convincingly demonstrated that the politics of FEMEN (chauvinist as they may be) simply don’t cut through a lot of the time.

      There’s nothing that goes beyond “anti-Putin” about FEMEN ideology in that article. Tactics (and the unconcerned response of power to them) are the only story.

      See also the neutering response of the Kremlin:

      Later, the Kremlin wasn’t nearly as relaxed about the matter, however. “This is ordinary hooliganism and unfortunately it happens all over the world, in any city. One needs to punish (them),” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

      No articulated demands, thus no requirement that they be addressed …

  5. ‘…The ideological statement the action ends up reinforcing is this – that showing your breasts is inherently liberating, and covering up is a necessary signifier of sexist oppression. Women’s liberation cannot be reduced to measuring the amount of flesh we’re permitted to show.’

    More than that, it suggests that showing your breasts (and having breasts “worth” showing) is necessary in order to be heard at all – that women who are not able or willing to perform sexual ‘attractiveness’ (which has very little to do with actually attracting partners and having good relationships) are not legitimate political actors.

    I’d say, though, that this is a recurring way that feminist generations and movements succeed each other. (Fail each other?) Whether it was riot grrrl in the US in the nineties or the various iterations of third-, fourth- and tumblr-feminism, virtually all of those movements have articulated themselves as being the “real” possessors and arbiters of beauty and sexual attractiveness, less in contrast to patriarchy than in contrast to each other. Each version attacks its opponents as sexually boring, unfashionable, joyless (and old).

    I tend to put this down to the ways that women are still very deeply socialized to believe that our worth is externally determined by our sexual attractiveness, youth and ability to follow fashion, also to the ways in which “modern” women are encouraged to hate and break with their mothers and to despise [other women’s] maternity, the maternal body, the old body.

    FEMEN is uniquely awful, true, but it is unfortunately only an intensification of the usual forms of neoliberal feminism.

  6. Wow Zoe – what a coincidence! And rubbish that you didn’t put it better yourself!

    Lark – excellent point. I also think the whole debate about having/not having breasts to show is interesting in the context of the spat that has been going on at CounterPunch about their Jolie article, here:, and the response from Sharon Smith here: – with even further fall out on Twitter and Facebook.

  7. ‘Many of their actions have been explicitly racist’ … ‘burning a Salafist flag’ … ‘Her naked chest bore the slogan ‘My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honour’, to which a Muslim cleric responded by calling for her to be stoned to death.’

    Kate, I’m amazed that you weren’t outraged by the Muslim cleric’s fatwa on Amina Tyler and are implicitly apologizing for his neanderthal worldview, much in the same vein as career lefties who ‘sympathize’ with ultra-violent left-wing guerrilla movements the world over, whose aim is to wipe out the bourgeoisie and establish a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, eg Che Guevara.
    Also, please explain how protesting against Islamofascism, extreme misogyny and inquisitorial theocracy can be construed as ‘racism’. A Muslim can be from virtually any race on earth – Black, White, Brown, Oriental and even Hispanic ..
    Lastly, Salafists do not represent all of Islam, only the lunatic fringe, and it is foolish to refer to the burning of a Salafist flag as an ‘attack against all of Islam’. You are either ignorant about Salafist ideology and what it stands for, or deliberately omitting ‘inconvenient’ data to make your point. Please brush up on your research, and try to get rid of your ideological filters before offering oversimplified observations on highly complex subjects like the above..

    1. Vik:
      I find your post troubling in several respects. First of all, you deduce that I was not “outraged” by the call to stone Amina Tyler to death. Where in my article is the evidence for this deduction? In fact, I wrote positively about a feminist response to the particular cleric’s statements, and expressed regret that their (in my view justified and necessary) response was piggybacked by Dawkins, FEMEN and others who are as “ignorant” of the “complexities” as – I am sorry to say – you accuse me of being, and as you yourself appear to be.
      As for the burning of the “Flag of Islam” as it has also been described (the terms “salafist”, “salafi”, “salafite” and “salafism” are fiercely contested and there is an enormous international debate about whether they have any meaning at all), the specific context of the action is crucial in order to understand just how deeply troubling it was.
      The location that FEMEN chose for the burning was the Grand Mosque of Paris. This mosque is currently led by Dalil Boubakeur, who has been hotly criticised by more conservative Muslim organisations in France for his liberal interpretations. He is among other things famous for saying that “neither the burqa, nor the niqab, nor any all-over veil, are religious prescriptions of Islam”. He himself is against a ban, but if this is the perspective of the leadership of the Paris Mosque, why did FEMEN choose this mosque for their action?
      Similarly, the mosque chosen by FEMEN-Berlin for their Topless Jihad Day in April was the Ahmadiyya Mosque in the sleepy, predominantly middle-class Berlin suburb of Wilmersdorf. This mosque was firebombed in 2011 by arsonists – this was the 8th in a spate of indiscriminate Islamophobic attacks on mosques around Berlin over the past three years. Last year, in 2012, the fascist “Pro-Deutschland” movement (a bit like the English Defence League) decided to hold a “day of protest” against “Islamification” in Berlin. About 200 of them bussed in from around Germany, and went on an anti-mosque tour around the city. One of the mosques they chose has been associated in the media (though on what concrete basis nobody knows) with “salafism”. The left organised counter-demonstrations and blockades, but were divided about whether they should also blockade in front of the “salafist” mosque. Thankfully, several hundred leftists still showed up at that mosque as well, otherwise we would have left the Muslims who visit that mosque to face the Nazis alone.
      German and French FEMEN members would be at least vaguely aware of these details, but they would certainly be aware of the politics of protesting in front of mosques in Europe in the current political context. In Germany, as everywhere, Muslims have been the target of the most horrific media smear campaigns, and government attacks. Terms like “Islamofascism” and “Salafism” have become propagandistic catch cries used by racist commentators ranging from the social democrats through to the fascist NPD (like the BNP but possibly worse) to tar “Islam” with a blanket brush of reaction-ism.
      But protesting against “extreme misogyny and inquisitorial theocracy” does not have to be racist. Self-determination and local context are crucial elements in any movement for freedom and liberation. The Grand Mosque of Paris should not, and must not, be equated with the Saudi ban on driving for women, which has been locally resisted by women in Saudi Arabia themselves. The Ahmadiyya Mosque in Berlin cannot be seen to represent all extreme and – it is important to point out – marginalised reactionary sects associated with Islamic religion. To collapse them all *is* racist, not to mention using the word “neanderthal”. Islam as a religion, just like Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and all other religions, can be used both as a tool of state repression and as a tool of liberation from below.

  8. The male body is never exposed and dissected the way the female body is and that keeps women everywhere in servitude. When will women recognise that there can be no real progress until class is at the forefront of feminist discourse. Highly unlikely in this culture where money rules from cradle to grave. .

  9. I was speaking about FEMEN on the radio the other day and someone mentioned to me that they found the FEMEN strategy saddled with similar problems to that of PETA. I must say the comparison hadn’t occurred to me but it could be worth thinking about. Dunno if it would throw up any new insights, but still.

    1. Stephanie, yes that is interesting and it hadn’t occurred to me either. I think there are definitely many very close parallels.

      Another thing I didn’t mention in my article is that FEMEN has gained some very rich financial backers, including US-American businessmen and one particularly rich (male) DJ from Berlin.

      It would be interesting to explore these parallels a bit more.

  10. I do not understand the backlash and campaign by women against FEMEN. While I do not think FEMEN’s tactics will be particularly effective, Muslim women and feminists generally should be more concerned with the stoning and imprisonment of women for being raped; the forced genital mutilation of 5-10 years olds; the torture and brutal killings of young girls in the name of honour; forced marriages; sexual slavery and female infanticide. As for what is culturally ‘appropriate’ it was once scandalous and even illegal for a black man or woman to sit in a classroom/bus/train etc beside a white one, indeed, even for white women to attend university. In some parts of the world it is still ‘inappropriate’ ‘against our culture’ for girls to attend primary school. As for FEMEN imposing/expressing western imperialism, it was the CIA who actively fuelled and funded Islamic fundamentalism during the Cold War to destabilise the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia and the US are very comfortable bedfellows: Sharia is a political ideology that has co-opted and silenced any secular, progressive resistance to both itself and western imperialism. It is now the normative framework through which cultural traditions are understood in places like Afghanistan, that had a rich pre-Islamic history and a relatively secular state until the 1980s. As far as I understand their message, it is that a woman’s body belongs to herself and she should not be stoned/flogged/imprisoned for exposing her breasts.

  11. Rosa, FEMEN is problematic because it never made any effort to get in touch with existing feminist movements in countries or regions where those issues are on the political agenda – they certainly are not on the agenda in most European contexts, and I would argue, even most Middle Eastern contexts.

    I strongly recommend that you watch the Al-Jazeera program and actually hear Muslim feminists from a variety of countries and contexts talk about the topical political issues for them. As I tried to point out in the article, an important point was made by the guest from Iran, who said that for feminists in Iran, the chador is a big political issue, as it is for Muslim feminists in France, whereas for feminists in Egypt, the issue of “head-covering” plays a much smaller role in their day-to-day political struggles.

    You say:
    “Muslim women and feminists generally should be more concerned with the stoning and imprisonment of women for being raped; the forced genital mutilation of 5-10 years olds; the torture and brutal killings of young girls in the name of honour; forced marriages; sexual slavery and female infanticide.”

    I ask you:
    have you spoken to any Muslim feminists lately? In which country? Under which legal system? What were the most important issues to them? Were they living in a country where genital mutilation actually occurs? Or perhaps they were living in regions where issues of Western-supported dictators and wholescale murder are a bit more important in the immediate sense? Or where they Muslim feminists from, for example, Australia, who are constantly defending themselves from racists who rip their headscarves off in the streets? Were these “Muslim feminists” even wearing headscarves? Which “Muslim feminists” do you mean?

  12. Kate, the term ‘muslim feminist’ is as loaded as ‘black republican’ – mostly due to lefty obfuscation and covert bigotry. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was demonized by people like yourself who should have pulled out all stops to defend her but instead threw her to the wolves, because she didn’t fit into your controlled narrative. When you get the time google Taslima Nasreen, Asra Nomani, Irshad Manji and see what hell they have gone through after rejecting Islam as their ingrained weltanshaung. WaPo recently did a study in which it was found that upto 65 percent of Pakistanis and Egyptians supported ‘Riddah’ – Apostasy i.e death penalty for leaving Islam. 65 percent is by no means a ‘fringe’ phenomenon. It’s important to note that Egypt and Pakistan are culturally as different as chalk and cheese. The only thing that unifies them is … you guessed it – Islam. More accurately Shariah based Islam, which was formulated centuries after the Quran. You should also familiarize yourself with ‘Taqiyya’ – Shariah sanctioned subterfuge, whereby a Muslim is permitted to lie in order to gain sympathizers and advance the spread of ‘Ummah’. These facts have been exposed by intelligent, sincere and committed Muslim activists, not ‘imperialist westerners’. Please google Tarek Fatah and Ali Rizvi – they have both written several excellent, penetrating essays on this issue.

  13. Kate, your response is condescending and disrespectful; if you are not prepared to engage in a debate then please refrain from submitting your opinions for publication. FEMEN’s tactics are naive and most likely ineffective, but at least they are protesting a death sentence on a woman who merely bared her breasts. Imprisonment and flogging for moral crimes, including being the victim of rape, is a common practice in parts of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among others. We ought to be discussing these issues and standing in solidarity with women from these communities. Instead, white women are falling over themselves to appease Muslim clerics and conservatives in an effort to avoid being racist (of course, the UNDHR applies to them but it’s ‘problematic’ for Muslim women). I’d much rather hear from the Muslim members of FEMEN, or their critics who also critique Islamism, than a white women’s objection to their tactics, which are far less egregious than the practices they are protesting.

    What infuriates me most about this tendency is that fear of being racist has made us accept and tolerate intolerable abuses – torture, oppression and effacement – against women in the name of cultural relativism. identity politics and individual choice – western intellectual and cultural frameworks – are used to explain and defend (tacitly by silence) the (mis)treatment of women. There’s a false dichotomy between brutal western imperialism on the one hand, and benign cultural practices on the other (mutually reinforcing). I recall Angela Davies recounting how black women even in the Black Panther movement would withhold criticism about their position and treatment within the movement and in their homes to avoid embarrassing black men (insert culture, religion etc here) in front of whites. 9/11 made Muslims and progressives defensive about culture and religion at the expense of the rights of women and girls. Sharia has subsumed culture in most of the Muslim world and it’s been largely unchallenged, perhaps bc there’s no secular alternative to western imperialism and liberal ideology.

    Particularly post 9/11, the interests of the US( and its allies) and fundamentalist Islam have been served by each other, even as they have tried to destroy one another, particularly post 9/11: defense spending to ensure the interests of multi-national corporations and and anti terror laws that erode some of the most basic legal and poltical rights in domestic jurisdictions; while fundamentalists claim and maintain a control of dispossessed and war ravaged populations in the name of liberation and salvation. The real question, not just for moderate Muslims, but for progressives elsewhere, should be focused on how best to address some of the deeply embedded social, economic and political problems arresting diasporic and local Islamic communities. Poverty, dispossession, exploitation and repression resulting from both fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and US/Nato economic and geo-political interests ought to be confronted, critiqued and challenged. Indeed, it is these very issues that provide the base from which control, manipulation and repression can be imposed on desperate people.

    By the way, Kate, you ask if I have spoken to any ‘Muslim feminists’ lately? You ask sarcastically if women in the Mulsim world don’t have bigger issues to deal with than the ones I mentioned. I am from Afghanistan; I come from an Islamic culture. My friends include some of the founding members of RAWA; what I could tell you from the first hand accounts of family members, friends and comrades in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran might make you understand that while bombs rain on them from above, many have also been enslaved from below, and not just by men, but by the force of religion and culture.

  14. On 6 June at 5: 31 pm Rosa briefly put her finger on the central fact that is being regally ignored in this thread, thus rendering it useless. However, Rosa wrongly restricted herself to the Cold War ending in 1991.

    That central fact is namely that NATO intelligence services acting for their governments continue to use and fund Islamist organisations as part of the Great Game of encircling China and Russia and securing oil and natgas for Western Europe and the US and their corporations, because Muslims live in or near those two big powers, both of which have seats on the UN Security Council.

    Relatively secular leaders like Gaddafi or Assad (or, in the 1950s, Nasser) stand in the way of that encirclement and must be destroyed. In Assad’s case, this is because Qatar wants to run a natgas pipeline to Europe across Syria.

    I realise (cf. the recent debate in Australia involving Razer, Rundle and Sparrow) that the foregoing is likely to be far too “material”, or perish the thought, Marxist for those on the merely cultural/symbolic post-1990 pseudo-Left who frequent this site, but those are the facts.

    That is, anybody who does not understand the relationship between MI6 and the Muslim Brotherhood, now more than 70 years old, should get up to speed.

    And unless one knows what the ethnic West Asian Sibel Edmonds (who is she??!!) means by Gladio A and Gladio B (what are these??!!) , and how and why it is that Gülen (who is he??!!) lives in the USA and runs his operation from there, one is unqualified to debate this subject of Islam and feminism at all.

    Instead, one is condemned, like Davison on this thread, to going in to bat in vain for Muslims against naive Western “islamophobe” populations who are being cleverly manipulated by their governments.

    Key writers on this long-standing “false flag” operation in English other than Sibel are Nafeez Ahmed and Peter Dale Scott:

    In the face of the enormity of what Ahmed and Scott write, Davison’s incorrect use of “racist” (see Vik’s comment) when she should, by her own yardstick, use the term “islamophobe” instead is but a minor irritant, like her throwing around the term “fascist” as well.

  15. Rosa, if you do come from an Islamic culture you should know very well that “stoning and imprisonment of women for being raped; the forced genital mutilation of 5-10 years olds; the torture and brutal killings of young girls in the name of honour; forced marriages; sexual slavery and female infanticide. As for what is culturally ‘appropriate’ it was once scandalous and even illegal for a black man or woman to sit in a classroom/bus/train etc beside a white one, indeed, even for white women to attend university. In some parts of the world it is still ‘inappropriate’ ‘against our culture’ for girls to attend primary school” all of these things go against and are condemned by Islam. Please do not associate such vile and horrible things with my religion that you, as it seems, know nothing of. It is because of people like you who throw these horrible traditions that existed way before Islam and include words like Muslim and Islam in the sentence, others have a crooked interpretation of Islam. Be very careful of what you say because it can bring unwarranted hatred and islamophobia.

  16. M, I am well aware that some of these practices pre-dated Islam, but they are practiced within Muslim communities and they must be exposed and challenged by anyone purporting to care about human rights. If this is too radical an idea; if Islam, as an ideology, is not critiqued, then what do we have but ahistorical fundamentalism. Self-critical reflection and action cannot harm a religion or community unless the darkness is hiding fundamental contradictions. Is this really something I should ‘be careful’ about saying?

  17. Hi Kate

    I took part in the Herbertstr. action.. while you are correct in saying that some groups of organised sex workers had a problem with the action, NO-ONE came out to tell us to piss off. I have no idea where you pulled that one from..

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