FEMEN, Eastern European women and the Muslim sisters

The Western drive for “enlightenment” of other people has directly or indirectly affected millions of non-Western women.

Police detain activists from the women''s rights organization Femen during a protest in front of police headquarters in Kiev
"Female nudity has oversaturated the visual culture of our region to such an extent that the image of their breasts on the first page of newspapers cannot and does not elicit much of a reaction," writes Petkova [Reuters]

I have been following the raging online battle over the FEMEN “Topless Jihad Day” and hoped that someone would move away from the Western White versus Eastern Muslim debate and talks about Eastern European women. I read Maryna Hrushetska’s article on Al Jazeera and was disappointed, as not only the author fails to provide any context to the Eastern European women’s experience, but – based on it, I presume she grew up in Ukraine – also fails to understand why the debate has been raging for so long in the first place.

Although (unlike Maryna) I am not a “Viking descendant Slav” but rather what you can call a “Tatar descendant Slav” – shorter, darker and hairier – and happen to reside among the even “darker” Arabs, I think I can offer some insight into the debate. In particular, I can try to help Eastern Europeans like Maryna who still do not understand why Muslim women are so angry and why they reacted the way they did.

Eastern European ‘feminism’

To be honest, I laughed a little when I first read the accusations against the Ukrainian FEMEN activists of imperialist tendencies. Ukraine in my mind is a great historic example of imperialist victimisation, but that I guess is beside the point. I want to start this article by reminding my fellow Eastern Europeans the brief recent history of “our feminism”.

The single most important factor determining whatever 20th century concepts of women’s rights in Eastern Europe was communism that came to the Russian Empire with the 1917 Revolution – brought to the rest of Eastern Europe 30 years later. Unfortunately, “our part of Europe” was not exactly what Marx and Engels imagined as an industrialised and urbanised setting – instead, it was more of a patriarchal and mostly peasant society with most women playing their “traditional roles”.

Communists started implementing what they saw as policies of “liberation of women” and began with what they saw as their biggest ideological opponent: religion. In Bulgaria, Christian women were told to take off crosses and stop going to church; Muslim women were told to take off their veils and traditional dresses. There was resistance from both communities. There were even cases of Muslim women beating up party functionaries sent to their villages to distribute “modern” clothes. Forced secularisation eventually succeeded, especially in the growing urban areas.

The next step was to encourage women to join the workforce, especially in the large agricultural and industrial projects which communist governments were undertaking. Education was made mandatory, which soon shrunk the gap between boys and girls and pushed literacy rates to the high 90s. Higher education was made much more accessible and even women from the rural parts of the country were able to enroll and receive higher degrees.

In Bulgaria (and probably elsewhere in Eastern Europe), girls became so successful in getting admitted to study the “prestigious” professions such as medicine, dentistry and law that the state had to impose a quota for boys, who could enter to study these disciplines with “just above failing” grades. 

Thus, communists gave women a chance to get educated and join the workforce, but it is difficult to say if they “liberated” them. Because, in the end it was not communism from the books they practised, but rather a contorted understanding of it. The communist (mostly male) leaders of Eastern Europe did not necessarily understand the full meaning of “gender equality” – they applied their own “morally acceptable” version of it. 


Egypt – Unfinished Revolutions

When writer Slavenka Drakulic and some of her friends attempted to form their own “feminist” group in Yugoslavia in the late 1970s, they were attacked publicly for “importing foreign ideology” (read her book, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed).

‘Communist gender equality’

Communism effectively destroyed what could have been a natural grassroots feminist movement, which would have allowed gender equality to be defined by women themselves, in Eastern Europe.

It should not come as a surprise that communism did not break patriarchy in Eastern Europe, but twisted it into another perverted form which removed the traditional protection and security of women and substituted it with disrespect and public abuse of the female body. This became all too apparent after 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Eastern European women emerged from decades of “communist gender equality” not knowing what feminism really means.

Of course, we immediately looked for guidance from West because, we finally “re-joined Europe” and after all everything Western is “the best”. Not fully understanding the path that Western women had walked, we picked and chose whatever sounded good to us and adopted it as our own.

Sexual liberation was particularly popular, with both Eastern European women and men. This can be explained as a reaction to the traditionalism of communist societies where divorce, for example, was still considered shameful and any discussion on sexuality was avoided.

Some women misunderstood the idea and interpreted it as “I am free to wear whatever I want and I will express my sexuality openly!” Indeed Eastern European women started doing so, but they never gained respect for it, nor did women who were remarkably successful in their education and career. Instead our bodies are now gravely abused by everyone from advertisements and TV industries to organised crime. At the same time, our abilities, achievements and recognition abroad are mocked and underestimated publicly on a daily basis.

I do not purport to explain FEMEN activists’ motivation to bare their breasts, but I think it is clear why it is easy for them to do so and why this form of protest is not really achieving much, at least in Eastern Europe. Female nudity has oversaturated the visual culture of our region to such an extent that the image of their breasts on the first page of newspapers cannot and does not elicit much of a reaction.

To illustrate further, consider Vladimir Putin’s reaction of apparent enjoyment to FEMEN’s topless protesters and his reaction of apparent anxiety to Pussy Riot’s protest – anxiety that was serious enough for him to take the trouble of a public trial, international condemnation and mass demonstrations to jail them (just read, Yekaterina Samutsevich’s court speech and compare that to FEMEN’s rhetoric).

FEMEN’s ‘imperialism’

I think it is difficult for Maryna and others in Eastern Europe to understand the reactions that came from Muslim women towards FEMEN. All of a sudden, we in Eastern Europe became “so Western” that we forgot to first evaluate critically the ideas coming from the West before so readily adopting them.

Since 9/11, our region has taken to borrowing images from the West of who Muslims are and what Islam is about, ignoring our own Muslim communities which provide a completely different picture. Thus it only seems normal to us (the non-Muslim Eastern Europeans) that there should be a protest in support of the “repressed” Muslim women because intimidated women in black veils is all we were used to see in videos and photos from Western agencies (until the Arab Spring).

What would be abnormal is to have the opposite case where others are trying to liberate our women. Let us imagine a few moniqabat women (women who wear the niqab) walking on a beach on the Black Sea (where you can easily find plenty of topless women), handing out niqabs and calling on their sisters to be liberated by covering up. How is that for a women’s liberation protest? And if the hidden face of a moniqabat is the symbol of oppression for many in the West, why is it so difficult to understand how the face (and the torso) of a white topless woman is the symbol of oppression (to use your words) for many in the East?

Unfortunately, both sides have quite debilitating stereotypes of one another. But in recent history, it has been the West that has embarked in a variety of ways to “save” the East and not the other way around. This is the reason why a lot of the negative reactions came from countries with long histories of Western (and in some cases Russian) colonialism and imperialism meddling in their internal affairs, resulting in dictatorship and conflict which only worsened oppression against women.

The Western drive for “enlightenment” of other peoples, whether in the colonial period, the Cold War or the post-9/11 decade have sown only death, destruction and repression, which directly and indirectly has affected the lives of millions of non-Western women.

Although FEMEN are originally a Ukrainian group, to an ordinary Muslim woman from the East they just appear white and Western and as such represent the oppressive forces from the West. The problem is that FEMEN does not even try to challenge this image and only reconfirms it with the language of portrayal of Muslims borrowed from the West which appears way too often in Eastern European media. 

If the hidden face of a 'moniqabat' is the symbol of oppression for many in the West, why is it so difficult to understand how the face (and the torso) of a white topless woman is the symbol of oppression for many in the East?

by Mariya Petkova

FEMEN, for example, calls on Maghrebi women to unite with them against the “common enemy – Sharia” or else “if we do not, in the name of Allah, tomorrow they will start to hammer you with stones”. This strangely sounds similar to the rhetoric used by the US and its allies (which unfortunately included my country) to justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, where people needed “liberation”, “democratisation” and “women’s rights”.

Maryna, do you still not see why Muslim women are reacting like that?

Eastern European and Western female and male self-professed “feminists” have taken up onto themselves to define what women’s liberation means and expect the rest of the world to agree. For them (just like for FEMEN) one of the first priorities is to have women wear whatever they want… as long as it is not a burqa or niqab (or even hijab) because these are so denigrating.

Fighting off stereotypes

In other words, women are “free” to undress, but not to dress up; women are “free” to express their sexuality, but not to be modest. In fact modesty, which, Maryna decided to put in quotation marks in her article, seems to be regarded as unimportant, if not hurtful to women’s rights.

So do you see, Maryna, why when you extend your hand in solidarity with Muslim women, while mocking their values, there is no response from the other side? If you show no respect to the beliefs and cultural heritage of these women and their ideas of womanhood, why should they show any respect to yours?

The other major problem is that FEMEN (who call themselves amazons?!) along with some “concerned” Western and Eastern European citizens way too often regard Muslim women as victims. And now with the advent of Islamists to power and the constant wailing that “women’s rights are deteriorating” (as though the Arab dictators had an amazing track record of protecting women’s rights before the revolutions), victimisation of Muslim women seems absolutely inevitable.

Since you are a fan of documentaries, have you not seen any of those produced on the Arab Spring? All of them have women, all! And when the international media buzzes with yet another story of attack on women during protests, do you not see that they happen because there are women in the streets and they are not all at home being “hammered” by their fathers and husbands.

One of my most vivid memories of the Egyptian revolution is the evening of the Camel Battle, on February 2, 2011. The square was emptying out, as some chose to leave thinking it was too dangerous because there was a possibility that Tahrir could fall under the persistent attacks of the thugs. One big group of around 100 Muslim Brotherhood women was still walking around the big central circle with raised flags, calling on people to have courage and fight. They chose to remain overnight, fully aware of what could happen to them if the square fell, while others (men and women) were leaving.

Do these veiled religious women who are part of a rigid patriarchal organisation seem like victims to you? To me, they were just one of many inspiring examples of women (veiled, unveiled, Muslim, Christian, secular and religious) that I saw and continue to see in Egypt, demonstrating time and again that they are the agents of their own destiny.

I think it is not difficult to decide which is more effective as an example of women’s strength, fighting off stereotypes – women facing off with armed police, military and thugs who beat, torture, rape and kill – or a bunch of women who decide to take off their clothes for the media in a European capital.

I am, like you, Maryna, sad to see women being divided by issues like that. But unlike you, I am angry about how some women consider themselves “superior” and more “enlightened” than others, having no ability to understand values other than their own. And if you, Maryna, want to demonstrate your solidarity with Muslim women, my personal suggestion is not to tell them they are abused and powerless, but instead to learn to respect their achievements, heritage, religion, ideologies and life-style choices.

And as for FEMEN, if they indeed want to shock the Eastern European public (as they claim on their website), I suggest they recruit a bunch of men. Strip them from the waist down and give them posters saying, “I will not oppress you with this [arrow]”, and watch Eastern Europeans react to naked penis.

Mariya Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance journalist based in Cairo. She is currently completing a graduate degree at Oxford University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @mkpetkova