I used to have a college professor—of women’s studies, of course—who would occasionally start class when we were particularly chatty and inattentive by saying, loudly, “SEX!” Our heads would whip around to stare at her and the room would be silent.
The professor would chuckle and then start the lesson, which almost never had anything to do with sex—or at least not sex in an interesting way. Her way of talking about sex was dry and academic, having to do with words like “hegemony” or “heteronormative.”
I thought about that professor a few weeks ago when I read about “International Topless Jihad Day,” sponsored by FEMEN in support of Amina Tyler, who had sparked a global controversy by posting a topless pictures of herself on Facebook with “my body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honor,” scrawled on her naked chest in Arabic. Tyler’s life—and the lives of her family—were threatened after the pictures were posted; she has since left Tunisia, where she lived.
The topless jihadists claimed that their actions showed solidarity with Amina and sent a message to the world that women’s bodies belong to no one but themselves. And yet it seems a bit like my professor yelling SEX! FEMEN is yelling BOOBS–and the topless jihad did, it’s true, get a lot of press coverage. The coverage drew attention to Amina’s plight but also gave respected media outlets a chance to run pictures of boobs and more boobs: Huffington Post ran a whole slideshow of revolutionary boobs.
Many Muslim women, however, did not find FEMEN’s actions liberating: one group, Muslim Women Against Femen posted a picture of a woman wearing hijab and holding a sign that says “Nudity does NOT liberate me, and I do NOT need saving.” In their eyes, Amina’s actions and FEMEN’s follow-up were disrespectful not only of Islam but of their own choice to wear hijab.
When I moved to Abu Dhabi two years ago, the clearest indication that I’d left Manhattan behind—besides the searing heat—were the adhan and the abaya-clad women: religion and covered bodies. I found the abayas more unsettling than the five-times daily call. As I’ve gotten to know women who wear hijab—either just the headscarf, or an abaya and headscarf, or what I think of as the full-court press of abaya, headscarf, and face-veil—I’m coming to understand that hijab is not, automatically, a symbol of oppression or subjugation or second-class citizenry. For many women, hijab is a choice; in the UAE as in many other Muslim countries, it is not mandatory.
The boobs protest, however, seemed based on the idea that all Muslim women feel like Amina Tyler. And while it seems like a statement of the obvious to say that a woman shouldn’t receive death threats for posting pictures of her naked torso, it also seems like we shouldn’t have to point out that all but the most radical of Muslims are horrified by the violence being done in the name of their religion.
Here’s a radical thought, perhaps even more radical than writing “fuck your morals” on a set of boobs: what if women—veiled or naked, wearing stilettos or birkenstocks, married or single, with or without children, WAHMs or SAHMs—what if we all got together and insisted to the world that we be allowed to make our own choices. My proposition is a series of simple prepositions: we choose what goes on our bodies, we choose what goes in our bodies, we choose what comes out of our bodies, we choose what (if anything) gets done to our bodies.
Covered or uncovered, our bodies are still our own. That’s a cause for which I’d be willing to take off my shirt.
What was your reaction to the FEMEN movement? Do you think public nudity is a demonstration of liberation or an affront or just silly?
This is an original post for the World Mom’s Blog by Deborah Quinn.