In times where violence against women pervades the world in terrifying and shocking manners, it is easy to sometimes forget the privileges we have as Western women. While we, too, face the fear of being killed at the hand of a loved one, it’s hard to remember that, while violence against women is a global fight,as Western women we cannot completely understand the plight of women from other cultures. The fears they face on a day to day basis are vastly different from our own, and have entirely different cultural barriers for making their change happen.
While I myself have experienced violence in my own life, I cannot permit myself to be so wrapped up in the fervor of women’s liberation that I allow my privileges as a white, heterosexual, western woman shape my expectations for how we should end violence against women half away across the globe. Until recently, women in Egypt were subject to random "virginity tests," and it took a nude photo of Egyptian activist Alia Magda Elmahdy and her urging of a huge shift in body image (aimed at both men and women) to bring an end to virginity tests. This act by Elmahdy reignited a movement dedicated to the protest against sexism through controversial topless protests. Founded in the Ukraine in 2008, FEMEN is a feminist organization that works to build opportunities for women.
Another FEMEN activist in Tunisia, Amina Tyler, posted a nude photo of herself earlier this year, with bold paint across her chest reading, "My body belongs to me, and is not a source of anyone’s honor." Because of her bravery, she received death threats and even had a prominent religious figure come out and call for her public flogging. On April 4, FEMEN held a solidarity protest across Europe and dubbed it "Topless Jihad Day." The protest seemed to be a success, but a few days later Muslim women took up and created their own solidarity protest against FEMEN, calling it Muslimah Pride Day. Women posted pictures of themselves with cards reading saying such as "FEMEN does not represent me. I don’t need liberating."
In an oped piece on the Huffington Post, activist Sofia Ahmen speaks vehemently against the work of FEMEN, lambasting them and their "neo-colonist crusade to save us." Ahmen claims that the work of FEMEN activists has not been about the liberation of women, but instead has become the weight of Western values on Muslim women. Both movements have one thing in common: the safety and well being of women across the globe, an end to sexual and domestic violence against women, and providing educational and occupational opportunities for women.
Herein lies the true beauty of feminism: the reality of choice and the autonomy to choose not just what to wear, how to act in public, where to work, when to start a family, but also to choose how we care to be liberated from our bonds as women. Even as a member of a society in which sex sells and controls the market, I know that I could not feel as liberated through the actions of FEMEN, although I do not wish to demean either their work or the work and beliefs of Muslimah Pride. The basic principal of feminism is choice. Women should always have a choice.
As a Western woman, I am an outsider looking in. I cannot, and will not, know the dangers that women elsewhere face. I can support them and listen to their plight, and help where I can, but I cannot take up as a crusader in their fight and yield the sword of their arguments. This is a common problem in feminism ... the inability to remember that there are many paths to freedom and liberation, and that those paths are not perfect and will never be perfect. We saw this during the women's suffrage movement in America, with white women neglecting the fight that African-American women shared with us. We forget it when we fight for LGBT rights and immigration rights. We are not perfect, but we can make a shift.
Does the work of FEMEN help some women? Of course. Does the movement of Muslimah Pride strengthen women as well? Absolutely. Just because the work these organizations do might not work for all women, we cannot discount that they have given women across Europe and the globe strength and determination. If we want to end violence and sexism, we cannot invoke the "my way or the highway" approach. We must listen, open our ears and hearts, and respect the different cultural interpretations of the fight for women’s liberation.