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Woman Risked Death to Go Topless

April 14 2013




I won’t bare my breasts in public, but no one should be stoned to death if she does. In countries and states where public nudity is unacceptable a fine, at maximum, should suffice.

But a fine, we worried, was not what a 19-year-old woman, named Amina Tyler, who lives in Tunisia, would receive after she exposed her breasts in a photo she posted online, scribbling the words on her torso — “my body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone’s honour,” in Arabic.

Tyler’s photo spread like a virus on the Internet, particularly after a Tunisian cleric demanded that she should be stoned. Petitions circulated demanding leniency on the part of the Tunisian government after Tyler was charged with public nudity.

One group stood out in demanding the right for Tyler to bare her breasts.

Known as Femen, the group states that “feminism and religion cannot co-exist,” and posts photos of its topless activists holding demonstrations.

Femen spoke out against the cleric who demanded Tyler be stoned and raged against Islamism for what the group regards as anti-feminist rules of modesty. To support Amina Tyler it made yesterday Topless Jihad Day in several cities, including Montreal.

Tyler is now safe. But Femen leader Inna Shevchenko, as of March 26, 2013, stated she did not know of any lawyer assisting Tyler and so it is unclear as to whether Femen helped Tyler in the legal charges that ensued or helped pay the legal fees of her lawyer, Bouchra Bel Haj Hmida, a well-known woman’s rights activist in Tunisia.

Here in Canada, naked activism is nothing new.

Female protesters have exposed their bodies in demonstrations either topless, like the Raelians in Toronto last summer, or naked, in a calendar, promoted in 2001 by Salt Spring Island activists in British Columbia, (who demanded the protection of the region from logging companies).

Can women challenge notions of patriarchy by exposing their bodies?

That depends.

Canadian activists who exposed their bodies in Toronto and B.C. came in a variety of shapes, sizes and ages.

Though personally I would never follow suit, what may be acknowledged is that as a result of their physical diversity, the activism in Toronto and B.C. was as much about freedom on the part of women to expose their bodies as it was to have a body, whose shape and age lies outside the unrealistic ideal promoted by the western fashion industry.

In Muslim countries patriarchy is disguised as modesty. Patriarchy there demands that we cover ourselves to take on the burden of ensuring our own protection, and it removes the responsibility of men to govern themselves respectfully. It creates gender apartheid and all the injustice that follows it.

On the other hand, in the western world, the permissibility of exposure does not always challenge patriarchy because where sex sells, female bodies that do not comply with the fashion industry ideal undergo brutal criticism which women and girls receive readily.

It leads to self-hatred. It encourages a distorted body image, called body dysmorphic disorder. It can result in excessive dieting, plastic surgery and at worst anorexia, drug abuse and suicide.

It sends a message to society that the way a woman looks is more important that her intellect, her achievements, her character and her well-being. It excludes women from the notion that with age comes wisdom, since it mourns so darkly the loss of a woman’s youth.

It is patriarchy wrapped in capitalism with a pink bow.

Photos of Femen activists online show that the vast majority look nothing like many of the female clothed protesters who joined me in demonstrations at the Iranian and Saudi embassies here in Ottawa.

Nor do they encompass the generous, physical diversity of the topless Canadian activists of Toronto or B.C.

No — the vast majority of online photos of Femen appear largely similar to the beauty industry ideal.

What’s more, can we eliminate patriarchy with bigotry?

For Femen bigotry appears to be part of the platform. For Femen there seems to be only one way to be a feminist and that is to discard modesty and expose oneself.

Femen does not appear to acknowledge the work of feminists in Muslim communities, for example, who do not expose their bodies but still fight for equality and could face harm from extremists as a result.

Femen did not help us at MPV oppose the male guardianship system of Saudi Arabia in 2010 or speak out to help us release Canadian Nazia Quazi from that country.

Femen did not help The Canadian Council of Muslim Women end shariah law in Ontario in 2005.

Femen did not speak out against domestic violence after the murder of the Shafia women in Kingston alongside a number of Muslim community groups, including CAIR .

In fact, I didn’t know Femen existed in Canada or even cared about the rights of women in the Muslim world until recently when photos of Femen in Montreal were released showing young, topless, fit, white women with strategically painted bodies, walking down a busy street.

Femen is right that patriarchy must end.

And Tyler definitely should not be stoned to death.

But that doesn’t mean that she and Femen are feminists.

Because upholding someone else’s vision of patriarchy and claiming superiority to the rest of us already fighting it on the ground is definitely not going to get rid of it.

Originally published by The Huffington Post Canada


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