The case of FEMEN and ‚Arab Feminism‘: A Chance for Globalized Awareness and Globalized Political Discourse – How New Social Media and Communication Technology Influences Social Movements

Since the Battle in Seattle– anti-globalization protests in Seattle 1999, when the world saw the first ‘globalized’ mass protest occur on the surface, the gathering of people from many different backgrounds and political contexts – globalization has changed many areas of life and also the face of social movements. Recent social uprisings such as Occupy and the Arab Spring characterize a new form of global social movements: they were highly influenced by progressed communication and media technology with a large impact on information exchange and eventually lead to an increased world wide awareness of the movements and new forms of globalized solidarity.

The Arab Spring has made women of the Arab world in particular ‘visible’, in terms of Western[1] media coverage. Although the women rights struggle and diverse women rights movements exist since decades, Western media has paid little attention to these sort of struggles; which reveals the epistemological power of discourse[2] of the West in the world. Now, with progressed technology, information on women rights activism is easily spread and noticed, without dependence on mainstream media, it offers the chance of first-hand information, opportunity to spread political discourses concerning social inequality e.g. and subsequently leads to the chance of an increased international solidarity.

I want to combine the case of rising solidarity through the globalized communication network linked with the role of political discourse. My specific example will be the fairly new feminist FEMEN movement which has raised attention by its provocative topless protests. Defining solidarity actions in general I want to take a particular FEMEN action of solidarity into account, which addressed former FEMEN activist Amina Sbouï´s imprisonment in Tunisia. On the one hand I want to situate the FEMEN movement in a moment of feminist movement history and theory, linked to the political discourse that aroused around the solidarity actions. I want to pose and attempt to answer questions such as: In how far does FEMEN represent a Western model of women, in how far can they speak for other women, in how far were obviously hegemonic Western values and world views on body politics reproduced and represented? On the other hand, in how far did the solidarity actions, as much as they were criticized and dismissed, do contribute to a heightened political discourse, question positions of power and speech? – And has made many women take action and make many women ‘visible’ for the ‘Western eye’, as they spoke out in disagreement.

***

Beyond the anti-globalization movements occurring since 1990s, globalization has entered many areas of life – in certain parts of the world of course on a higher technological standard than elsewhere. Globalization has also changed the face of social movements. Social struggles profit from a world wide network, awareness raising strategies influenced by the proceeding development of technology. Even in recent years, means of communication and media technology have changed rapidly. Providers such as facebook have played a huge role in recent social struggles, for instance during the Arab Spring, considering mobilization, networking, witnessing, documentation, and has contributed to the distribution of political issues and political discussion.

Even if we have a huge variety of information, knowledge and discourse production nowadays, which makes it difficult to distinguish and verify truth, the new technology and media offers a great chance for political change in various ways. People do have the possibility, beyond the information overload but also beyond the dictate and propaganda of government influenced media, to select information and educate themselves, which offers a step towards a self-responsible, sufficient, political individual. ‘Objectively’, it would offer the chance for a wide range of political education across countries, cultures, classes, ethnic backgrounds, etc.; if, of course access to recourses do not depend on and social, cultural and material capital and position. I also argue that new forms of communication and social media lead to an increased level of awareness of happenings in the world and subsequently lead to a higher chance of international solidarity for social protests in this case. Besides the networks being built and the exchange of information, strategies and tactics of struggles, one can recognize an increased number of solidarity actions as well.

When in the 1970s people demonstrated against the Vietnam War internationally, one can consider them acting in solidarity on the same cause. Nowadays there is an increased amount of solidarity actions which are on the one hand easily spread widely and fast by the internet and offer different possibilities for political change. The strategies range from solidarity demonstrations to raise awareness in society for a cause, protests in front of embassies or state ministries to pressure governments and bilateral relations, on small scale signs of solidarity, for instance by sending videos, pictures, benefits to people involved in a struggle. All these sorts of solidarity actions are encouraged by international awareness and sympathy. In recent years the world has witnessed via the World Wide Web a high mobilization rate for social protests, watched the square occupations in Athens and Cairo via live stream and seen pictures of people holding self written signs of solidarity in effort to prevent a war between Iran and Israel on social media. The ongoing social struggle in the Arab countries, following the Arab Spring has come close to hand for us, seemingly, by internet. Of course, the self-written signs may not prevent a war or reach and pressure politicians; however, I consider these actions of solidarity nevertheless highly political, as they address society and aim for a world wide understanding and empathy for each other, beyond rivalling representative politics.

In the following I want to highlight solidarity actions on the basis of feminist and women rights struggles with two contrasting models: the rather new FEMEN movement, which claims a new form of feminism versus women rights activists who dismiss the Western term of feminism for themselves and women who do not even define themselves as activists in Arab countries. Specifically, I choose the incident of Tunisian activist Amina Sbouï, who was imprisoned, after uploading a topless picture of herself on facebook. This was followed by the “topless-jihad”- protest of FEMEN activists in various countries and in turn reaction protests especially of Muslim women followed these particular solidarity actions.

FEMEN is a feminist activists group founded in 2008 in Kiev, Ukraine. The group of activists, self-acclaimed, new radical feminist movement, promoting itself with the aim to free women from patriarchy by “sextremism”, has raised media attention by their topless-protests. They started off addressing social issues and inequalities women face in Ukraine; meanwhile their protests address several political, social and environmental issues.

One particular FEMEN action took place in April 2013 in reaction to the imprisonment of Tunisian women rights activist Amina Sboui. She posted a topless picture on the internet with “Fuck your morals” written over her chest, protesting Tunisian’s oppressive social structures towards women. Shortly after, media reports ranged from her missing, to imprisonment, to death and religious Muslim leaders were demanding Sboui’s death by stoning. FEMEN organized in several cities in Europe the “International Topless Jihad Day”, which was mainly held in front and on the steps of mosques or Tunisian embassies. The signs the women were presenting, applied to Sboui’s message “Fuck your morals” besides “Naked Freedom”, “Free Amina”, “No Masters No Slaves”, “Arab Women against Islamism”, and chanting “Amina Akbar, Femen Akbar” (applying to “Allah akbar” = “God is great”) – the protest was in the name of ‘liberating’ Muslim women. The actions had high media coverage and soon criticism was heard. In Berlin, for instance, the local FEMEN activist group had chosen one of the oldest mosques in Germany for their protest, the Ahmadiyya mosque, which represents a Muslim religious movement from Pakistan, politically prosecuted themselves and known for their highly moderate position and tolerance towards other religions and believes. In Paris the FEMEN activists even burned a black salafist Tawhid flag.

femen berlin

FEMEN has drawn critic – not only for the “topless jihad protest” – from different positions, from conservative religious view points to radical feminist scholarship. Apart from good intentions to emancipate women regarding the provocative nude protest, I argue that using the woman’s body to provoke is not a very new nor creative concept regarding its application in Western media and arts. Politics on the bodies of women is a sensitive and provocative topic, whether it is reducing the woman’s body on its sexuality, subsequently reducing women to objects, or heated discourses upon Muslim women’s veiling. In my opinion, FEMEN fails to constitute a serious feminist struggle by first and simple, choosing superficially mainstream, Western good-looking women for their naked protests, in their attempt to emancipate themselves as women beyond their bodies. Second, they represent and reproduce a white feminist “failure” which was seemingly resolved by the emerge of black and postcolonial feminism in the 1970s: Feminism had failed to address the issues, needs and circumstances of women of colour and from subaltern backgrounds, by universalizing women’s suffering under patriarchy and mainly speaking from the position of privileged, educated, white middle class women. By occupying positions of epistemological power Western feminists convinced their values and understanding of human rights would save every woman. Furthermore, FEMEN received criticism for an obviously Islamophobic attitude, addressing Islam as an utterly patriarchal, women suppressive ideology which reveals a very culturalist standpoint. The activists are certainly not the only ones with this opinion; however also represent a mainstream resentment towards Islam and Muslim societies nowadays, concerning stereotypical images of a culture and religion, to most people in position of judgement unknown. I do not want to argue at this point, that within many Muslim societies women are not suppressed and suffer under patriarchical superstructures. However, one can not essentialize the whole Muslim society or put Islam even Islamist Terrorism. Certain societies can not be perceived patriarchical and oppressive due to Islam, but have to be seen in contexts of traditional, historic dynamics and how this particular society has implemented certain (religious) values. To sum it up, FEMEN can be criticized due to their actions throwing feminist struggle and theory back in decades and showing no tolerance for other cultures or taking into account, to let Muslim women speak and fight for themselves, not needing the white women to save her from her misery, once again.

One can criticize and denunciate the FEMEN activists for several mindsets and actions but eventually their provocative demeanour has had a positive end-product. The days after the nude protests in front of mosques, social media networks were flooded with self-uploaded pictures of women, mainly from Arab contexts, portraying themselves with signs of protest: “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!”, “Nudity DOES NOT liberate me and I DO NOT need saving”.

muslimah pride1muslimah 2

This viral protest which called itself #Muslimah Pride or Muslim Women against FEMEN that followed the ‘solidarity’ action instantly represents the anger of thousands of women, fed up with part of the Western world putting them into collective categories of the Muslim woman. Obviously, not being able to see beyond the veil, the individual, the woman, that might be suppressed by a patriarchical superstructure and fed up with sexual assaults on the streets (as women in the West experience them as well), but who is a person beyond suffering and victimization. With this reaction protest, many women emancipated themselves somewhat, for the Western viewer, since there is little general recognition of their progressed emancipation, as the Muslim women are made invisible by western society and media, not only by their veils, but also by epistemological violence.

Very few people have knowledge about women right’s movements in Arab countries, although these movements are somewhat as old as European feminism, regarding political struggles and debates around gender equality already the 19th century. Historical examples like the conference in 1923 held in Alexandria which was as a founding moment of Arabian feminism from which the Egyptian Feminist Union emerged or Habib Bourguiba’s political enhancement of gender equalization after Tunisia’s independence and laws enacted concerning maternity protection, distribution of contraceptives free of charge and the possibility of abortion in hospitals – show that European countries in comparison, where considerably backward in terms of equalization of women in this period of time. Of course, the Arab women rights movement has a different history and different challenges to face than European feminism; Tunisians state feminism under the socialist rule of Bourguiba eventually symbolized a range of politics in this region trying to keep pace with Western modernity which also lead to an increased Islamisation of Arab countries in the last 20-30 years. Where young women in Egypt nowadays wear veils, however their mothers and grandmothers never did, shows how difficult the situation of Muslim women and the development of women movements is to grasp. The push for women rights started off with the anti-colonial struggle in the 1930s and 1940s, when women fought side by side with men against the French in Algeria. It was a struggle in attempt to regain identity, within colonial suppression which operated under the disguise of human rights and equality, for instance by unveiling Algerian women publicly – seemingly unveiling the backwardness and cruelty of the Algerian society – where the white man could emerge as a kind of saviour, the Algerian society felt bereft of its identity. This is one example where the veil became a sign of resistance. After independence the situation for women worsened again, and proves today an example of a nationalist feminist struggle as well as the challenges history keeps at hand. Today one can find a range of women rights movements, from atheist feminist groups financed by foreign NGOs, to Muslim feminists, to so-called Islamist Women Movements. Since 20 years and since reformative Muslim groups increasingly emerged, declaring a break between the West and the East, the situation has certainly not improved for many women living in Muslim societies. Nevertheless, one has to keep history in mind, in particular colonial histories of oppression. Up to today, societies are left in a lower position in the hegemonic world order due to a Western stigma of underdevelopment; simultaneously the West represents secular rationality, human rights, modernity and progress. This certainly did lead to an attitude of defence in various ways; let it be conserving traditions and identity, in attempt to remain autonomous in today’s dynamic, changing world.

***

As G. Spivak refers to the colonial past with the phrase “white man saving brown woman from brown man”[3], I consider fractions of white feminism and in the particular case of this essay – FEMEN’s feminist politics as a reproduction of fantasized collective identities and imperialist politics of suppression, which often work subtle and are conceived positively when (white) people advocate themselves for liberation and human rights – however perpetuate the epistemological power and hegemonic position of the West.

As I have argued before, this has changed; due to the new communication technologies we are entering an era in which this kind of epistemological power can be challenged and subsequently create a political sphere of increased exchange, political discussion, discourse and understanding. This is proven by internet activism and social movement organisation by means of new communication technology which has reached a new peak and for instance also made female bloggers appear in the political sphere of the Arab Spring uprisings – there is a chance for a widened awareness for seemingly subaltern struggles – depending on the eye of the beholder.

The first action, so much to be criticized about it, and the understandable reaction of anger and hurt, did in all its violence and anger involved, make a step forward possible towards debate with one another. Conflict seems to be necessary sometimes, like in the described case, to lift a veil, which reveals one another’s position but offers the chance for exchange and deeper understanding of each others different situations, world views and values.

References:

Articles from the magazin „iz3w – informationszentrum 3. welt.“: Yala! Yala! Arabische Frauenbewegungen. Juli/Aug. 2013. Ausgabe 337. Aktion Dritte Welt e.V. informationszentrum 3. welt: Freiburg. S.37

–         „Selbstbewusst zwischen den Welten. Über 100 Jahre arabischer Feminismus zwischen Moderne und Tradition.“ S. 18-21.

–         “Die ägyptische Kultur ist auch Frauenfeindlich”. S. 22-23.

–         „I’m not a feminist. Frauenrechtsaktivistinnen in Ägypten“. S. 24.

–         “Zähes Ringen. In Tunesien kämpfen Frauen für den Erhalt feministischer Errungenschaften”. S. 25.

–         „Ungleichheit per Gesetz. Algerische Frauen kämpfen um ein egalitäres Familienrecht“. S. 27.

–         „Mit dem Koran gegen Sexismus. Plädoyer für einen Feminismus ohne Grenzen“. 28-29.

–         „Politisch, nicht kulturell! Zur Kritik von „islamischem Feminismus“ und Kulturalismus““. 30-31.

–         „Empowerment und Ausschluss. Islamistische Frauen und die Politik der Frömmigkeit in Ägypten“. S. 32-33.

Muslim Women Against Femen: https://www.facebook.com/MuslimWomenAgainstFemen

Femen: Flower-Crowned Islamophobia: http://bitchtopia.com/2013/04/18/femen-flower-crowned-islamophobia/

Interview with Amina Sboui: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/20/amina-sboui-quits-femen_n_3785724.html

http://femen.info/about/


[1] Cursive written words apply either to the names of movements, groups etc. or to concepts for a better understanding of today’s world or how the world is perceived by a majority. The construction of binary models of the world like ‘East’ and ‘West’ lead to better understanding of  topics which are dealt with, however at the same time hide the danger of essentializing, reproducing and reducing concepts of the world to a static category.

[2] ‘Epistemology’ refers to the term ‘normative power’ mostly developed by postcolonial theory; describing today´s hegemonic world order – who has the ability to ‘speak’ and to be ‘heard’?  – which means who is represented in media and scholarship for example, in which language are academic texts are written… … …

[3] G. C. Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1993), p. 93

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