On Femen, action, Mia Freedman, and seeing racism
May 17, 2013 § 7 Comments
I am deeply interested in feminist action. Not just theory, but action, doing, creating, responding. Of course, theory is a form of doing too, but people’s theories don’t impact the world on their own – we have to enact them, step by painful or joyous or just-do-it step, if we’re to make a dent in the things we want to change.
The enviro movement is good at this. Just look at these guys. Feminism, in my experience, not so much. There are riot grrrls, past and present, and other feminist activists making change in a variety of movements, but overall, I often feel like I lack inspiration on the action front.
Which is what led me, I think, to make this uninspired FB status update about Femen, a Ukrainian feminist group:
I like their tactics but think their views of Muslim women (as represented in this article) are ignorant… naked, veiled, it’s all about women having the power/ environment to be able to do what they want with their bodies, right? What do others think? http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/future-feminism-0022381
If you’ve clicked on the link, you’ll see, perhaps quicker than I did, the Femen are not only ‘feminist’ in the sense of wanting gender equality, they are colonialist and Islamophobic. They want to tell a whole heap of Muslim women what to do and how to be free.
After thinking about it for more than ten minutes, I decided it wasn’t a good plan to separate praise of Femen’s tactics from their politics, and I updated my page accordingly. I’ve wondered since why I didn’t see that earlier, and I’ve concluded that the reason I saw their tactics in the first place, before I saw their racism, is that I’m just not impacted by their racism in the way a Muslim person would be. So, I think in future I’ll try to remember to prioritize the question of oppression of others (not just myself or my identity groups) first.
I don’t say this as an exercise in privilege guilt but to record something that seems useful to me, and I’ll quote here one of the things I read while I was thinking about it:
The thing is, many Muslim women are indeed oppressed, just like many non-Muslim women around the world. Patriarchy is a global problem, and I will not deny the misogyny in my culture. However, please, do not insult me, my intelligence, my color, my heritage and my body, and please don’t do it because you think you’re ‘saving’ me. There are many Muslim feminists in all Muslim countries, a feminist’s job should be solidarity, amplifying voices of local feminists, not imagining they don’t exist. Femen is simply very euro-centric, racist and colonialist. I haven’t yet seen a black Femen protester, they are racist because they amplify European ideals of beauty; white, skinny, and young. I can’t believe this isn’t more obvious to people. Personally, Femen, shut the fuck up, and don’t claim that you speak for me, or anybody else. Stop dictating women that they need to be nude to be free, that’s just as bad as men dictating them to be covered.
That was from a woman called Momina Amjad, who made the top comment on this article.
A Muslim feminist artist and activist I’ve worked with in the past made several important points too: that in the imagery in all the articles the women’s breasts are blanked out, a reminder that the global North is not exactly ‘free’; that Femen are specifically perpetuating colonialism and speaking at Muslim women like they were stupid.
In the last few days, a bunch of white boys going to a party got dressed up as the judges from TV show The Voice, including African-American singer Seal. They posted a photo to twitter and it got a lot of attention in some likely unexpected ways. Mia Freedman, an Australian media personality and prominent feminist has responded to this incident of blackface by asking everyone (from her popular feminist-lite website) to just calm down.
Sunili Govinnage has articulated the problems with Freedman’s position that a little picture of blackface is all too annoying to deal with, by noting that Freedman has used her power to end, rather than start, a conversation about racism. In doing so, she has challenged Freedman’s power rather than just letting it stand. All I can add is that I think perhaps, as with my FB status moment, Freedman is suffering from vision problems: she didn’t ‘see’ the racism because her position of privilege meant she had other concerns. She was able to deprioritise what for others is absolutely crucial, i.e. an assault on their status as fully-recognised human beings.
I’ll get back to what caught my attention about Femen in the first place: action. I think that when it comes to action, to doing something in a public way that calls for a (political, cultural) response, it’s equally if not more important than when writing, to think first about your impact and whether you’re being – to put it delicately – a racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive shithead. The point of direct action by activists, is to impact, hard. If we do action well, and we do make that impact, it’s important to make damned sure we aren’t smashing people whose struggles we just didn’t SEE.