Breasts are worth a thousand words

Using the female body as a symbol of protest is an ongoing debate among feminists worldwide. The controversial case of Femen, an exhibitionist feminist protest group, brings into question the impact of provoking society using topless practices. 

Ana Escaso Moreno translates Andreyna Valera’s work on this case from Spain’s La Huella Digital for Pandeia.

Femen was set up in 2008 in Ukraine. Its founder — and the leader of the movement until few months ago — is, surprisingly, a man who stated in a documentary he chose ‘the most beautiful and docile’ women to take part in this feminist movement.

Several feminist groups have criticised this practice. They argue mostly that the girls that integrate Femen and act in its performances represent the stereotype of beauty imposed by society nowadays. For centuries, the female body has been associated with some kind of sexual drive. Women were considered as objects for men’s entertainment and thus they consider these ways of protesting as unhelpful in disassociating from this sexual drive. For Femen, on the other hand, it is just a way to use women’s bodies objectified by patriarchy to spread their message.

Femen’s first appearance in Tunisia was lead by Amina in March 2013. It was the first time the movement went to a Muslim country. Amina, a local woman, was driving the protest and she became the focus of all restraints and critics of her society. She was very confident about taking her clothes off writing on her body everything she wanted to express in front of her patriarchal society. The very first words seen by the public were a direct message against women’s oppression in some Muslim countries (Not Safe For Work link), who bear the brunt of their entire family honour on their bodies: ‘A woman’s body is hers and nobody else’s’. Immediately afterwards, a woman claiming to be her aunt said in a youtube video that ‘Amina had embarrassed her family, her father can’t stop mourning and she is not longer considered one of us’. Later her father belied this statement to the press and declared to be proud of her daughter and her compromise with her ideas even if they were a little excessive in his eyes.

The importance of a picture

Tunisia and Egypt have the oldest and most active feminist groups in the Middle East. Nevertheless, women are still under men’s authority to be seen as ‘proper women’ within society. Amina’s photo showing her breasts gives her some sort of power:  there is a certain experience of freedom and vigour within it. For her it was easier to get out there and express herself in the same way the Femen followers do in the West, through social networks. This was the beginning to claim for Tunisian womens liberty.

Femen is an example of a very original way of protest. They know that their ‘renewal action repertoires and advertising tactics are required to increase efficiency’. Amina was alone in Tunisia; some other women posted topless pictures on social media but they didn’t have as much impact as Amina had. She knew that the worldwide coverage that Femen usually obtain, safeguarded her. The feeling of belonging to a large group makes people do things they would not normally do if they feel they are alone with the consequences of their actions.

A few days after her first topless photo shoot, Amina was arrested by the Tunisian authorities. Her Femen fellow organised demonstrations worldwide calling for the release of Amina. Indeed, several feminist groups declared April 4 as the “day of the hijab and topless” to show the government that if they are forced to cover their faces, they will continue showing their breasts, in support of Amina’s release. While her trial was held, a group of people demonstrated calling for an end to this wave of toplessness in Tunisia arguing that this practice did not represent Tunisian women. Once again, Femen stoked passions for and against.

It could be said that Femen use the ‘performing arts’ as a tool. Sometimes they protest wearing flower crowns on their heads as Renaissance female gods coming out from Botticelli’s paintings. Their acting repertoire is quite unconventional and there is a political and ideological background to it.

According to the book “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler, we can deduce that Femen uses the female body as a means of subversion, “the category of sex is neither unchangeable nor natural; it is a specifically political use of the category of nature that obeys the purposes of reproductive sexuality. In other words, there is no reason to classify human bodies in male and female sexes except that this classification is useful for the economic needs of heterosexuality and to provide a naturalist shine to this institution.”

Femen use femininity that has been imposed on women since they were kids to hand their message through the “female model” created by society, this makes their message more shocking.

The dark side of the story

It is important to mention how Amina’s story ended. There are many incoherencies in the story that allow people to think she succumbed to Ennahda’s regime threats.

While she was imprisoned, all cells of Femen worldwide mobilized to demand her release. One of these performances was particularly striking. It wasn’t ‘the usual’: showing bare breasts against mosques, churches or government buildings. In this case they went a little further and imitated the way of Muslim prays, who at the beginning of the prayer repeated “Allah akbar” while they repeated “Amina Akbar” again and again. The majority considered this performance as heretical.

Weeks later, Amina posted her last picture as a member of Femen in her twitter account typed on her body ‘we do not need your democracy’ (NSFW Link), in concurrence with the feminist movement’s philosophy. After her trial was held and to everyone’s surprise, Amina left Femen calling them Islamophobic in relation to some acts they committed: to repeat her name during Muslim prays; to burn a flag with the shahada (the faith profession for Muslims); and she also claimed to doubt the sources of funding used by Femen. Days later, a Tunisian newspaper published that Amina had declared via Skype she had been mistreated by her family, who thought she had a mental illness. She also accused  her family, particularly her cousin, of stealing her mobile and keeping her locked up until she criticised the organisation in public. She was forced to read the Koran despite being an atheist and when she refused to read it, her family took her in front of an Iman who, with his hand on Amina’s head, forced her to read the Koran, the act of an exorcism!

Amina’s story is not over. This young controversial activist has now given us more to talk about and will test the government of her country once again.

Image credit: Altruisto


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s