It's a bit sad, really... one woman goes partly naked on her own Facebook page and the world goes nuts. Mainstream culture - both “east” and “west” - seems not to know how to react when girl reveals she's naked under her clothes. Newspapers have a field day - "look, it's news but with boobs!” Facebook groups against FEMEN spring up, with photos of women holding up signs that read "My hijab is my dignity" and "Nudity doesn't liberate me". There have been accusations of cultural imperialism and racism.
But no one can shout 'imperialist' at the fact that it's been a Tunisian woman - Amina Tyler - who has founded FEMEN's branch in Tunisia, and that the timing of FEMEN's growth into North Africa and the Middle East is pretty unsurprising. The Arab Spring has been deeply inspiring but the movements that have come to the fore are now largely Islamist. What we see in in some countries is similar to the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution: secular forces are being repressed and women - as in Amina's case - are being watched by violently right wing 'morality police'. Her family have been acting in accordance with these principles and few institutions have greater power than the internal morality policing of family structures in these situations.
In a video released today (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/04/15/amina-tyler-topless-tunisian-protester-femen-beaten-kidnapped-drugged-family_n_3083803.html) Amina reveals that she was kidnapped, beaten, forced to see a doctor, sedated, and given a kind of exorcism by an imam. When asked if the police did this, she says, chillingly: 'No, not the police... my brothers, my cousins'.
This isn't 'culturally specific' oppression. The misuse of psychiatric drugs to sedate women was rampant in the UK and the US and in the 50s and 60s. Death by exorcism has been the horrible ending of various women's lives at the hands of Christian ministers, including the Pentecostal ministers in San Francisco who beat a woman to death in 1995 (they were trying to drive out her demons, apparently). FEMEN, who claim they will not stop fighting Islam as long as the stoning of women forms part of its teachings, have not singled out Islam as its main enemy and came to notoriety through its protests against the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe.
So let's look at these accusations of 'imperialism'. Many of those on Facebook (mis)using the word 'imperialism' are, it seems, Western-based Muslims who have grown up under liberal laws. They have no idea what it's like to actually live in a country where you might be forcibly silenced for your politics. In my opinion, you do have to be pretty privileged to cry out the word 'imperialism' so often and with such wild abandon. What is really and truly awful is not that some Muslim women feel upset, but how playing the victim can so effectively erase the original victim herself, in this case Amina. There where whole days of outrage and little concern for where Amina was. It turns out she was being tortured by her family, her aunts stripped her naked to force a 'virginity' test on her and she was made to recite passages from the Koran against her will.
We need to be very wary of giving political credence to those who cry wolf, screaming ‘imperialism’ to create a smoke screen every time they don't want to be challenged. You really have to ask the question 'what are you trying to hide?’ Accusations of racism are becoming a way of demolishing the confidence to show or even feel solidarity with those across national and cultural boundaries (boundaries I don't happen to believe in). It's becoming a way of making people feel guilty about caring, of making women feel like they can't say anything about human rights in another country. It's a strategy to force silence on those who have something to fight for, like Amina.
I grew up in a Muslim family in London and I believe that Islam is a religion a lot like its close relatives, Christianity and Judaism. A lot of the culture I grew up with wasn't that Islamic, it was more rural Indian than anything else. 'What the Koran says' was about as important as 'what will other people say?' in my mother's eyes, and often it seemed that what the Koran actually had to say was a bit less repressive than what Mrs Khan from Sevenoaks thought ("My daughter wears high heels and goes to office but she can't even make aloo ghobi" *tutting/ pursed lips all round*).
In the end, I got into other ideas, the way teenagers often do, and decided I was a socialist more than anything - a description of myself that still holds true. But I think there are times when some liberals and lefties (not all of course!) bend over backwards so hard to not be racist that they end up listening to the same sort of people who'd send their daughters back to the village and confiscate their passports if they declared themselves radical. It's at best a naive misjudgement, and at worst cowardly and unprincipled. Are non-white women to be considered “separate but equal”? I know how that tale ended.
Women in Muslim countries deserve at least the same rights as their western counterparts, and no one in Amina's case - not even FEMEN - thinks Islam is 'bad' without also criticising other belief systems across Europe that repress women.
I think it's important that we don't not lose sight of Amina and her safety. Whether I'd do what she did has nothing to do with it. She's been let down by her country and her family and I'm not about to do the same by turning this into a 'racism' issue. I personally don't find the hijab or nudity all that liberating, but I think Amina's protest pictures were amazingly brave. For me it was the slogans that she wrote across her body, as well as the cigarette and the book and that look of sultry defiance, that elevated ‘that image’ to the level of protest-art. Bloody well good on her!!!