Breasts are disputed territory. While regarded by many as one of the most intimate of body parts, breasts are often held under great public scrutiny—to the point where women lose ownership over their own. Tunisian activist Amina Sboui’s radical topless protest in March set off a chain of reaction that clearly demonstrates the adverse effects of this public censorship. Sboui posted photos of herself with the words of “My bod belongs to me” and “Fuck your morals” written across her naked breasts. She was protesting in alliance with FEMEN, a radical Ukrainian-based feminist group. Conservative segments of Tunisian society violently denounced Sboui’s acts, resulting in death threats and two months in prison. However, this intolerant reaction was not confined to the Middle East. Many Western feminists, including FEMEN itself, succumbed to a similar scrutiny of breasts and bodies, revealing that women have a long way to go before possessing full governance of their bodies.
Sboui, a nineteen-year-old activist, posted multiple photos of herself online in early March in support of FEMEN, internationally known for organizing topless protests across Europe in support of a variety of women’s rights causes. Many Tunisians reacted strongly to Sboui’s posts. An Islamist activist hacked her Facebook, removing the pictures and posting religious messages like “God willing, this debauchery will disappear from Tunisia.” The head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a civil society organization promoting the implementation of Sharia law in Tunisia, declared that Sboui deserves to be stoned to death, as her act could bring about an “epidemic” among women. Sboui received other death threats over the phone and internet, and went into hiding in April. In May, Sboui came out of hiding to stage another protest, scrawling “FEMEN” on the wall of the religious center of Kairouan. She was convicted, fined for carrying pepper spray, and sentenced to two months of prison in June.
While policies in Tunisia mandate equality between the sexes, the nation continues to face disputes about advancing women’s rights. Tunisia’s progressive personal status code views men and women as equals in divorce and bans polygamy. Yet female employment remains low in Tunisia and domestic violence is common. Many extremist groups have been accused of throwing stones at women who act or dress inappropriately, helping to fuel restrictive attitudes towards female behavior. Sboui’s pepper spray conviction may be an example of these norm’s injurious consequences. Her lawyer claims that this conviction was “a case of judicial acrobatics,” noting that the charge was based on a law dating from 1894 and should not have been used in this case. Equality may be officially mandated, yet practices on the ground continue to jeopardize women’s rights to express and defend themselves.
The Naked Protest in the West
While coming from different ideological standpoints than that of conservative Tunisia, many Western feminists similarly do not support a woman’s right to use her breasts as she pleases. For example, a number of feminists have heavily criticized FEMEN’s topless tactics, claiming that exposing breasts delegitimizes their message of women’s rights. Many argue that their approach sexualizes the protesters’ bodies and only gives the media what it wants—photos of topless women.
While Inna Shevchenko, the leader of FEMEN, claims the women are using their bodies for their own reasons, Megan Murphy, founder of the blog The Feminist Current, argues to the contrary. In declaring that FEMEN does feminism “wrong,” she maintains that “It isn’t ‘using your body for your own reason[s]’ if you are only using it in order to get male attention and publicity.” However, Murphy essentially makes women responsible for the fact that their bodies attract the male gaze, and then criticizes the women for doing so. By arguing that this type of feminism is “wrong,” Murphy creates a narrow scope of approved feminist action in accordance with her particular attitudes toward public female behavior. Feminist critiques like Murphy’s can thus reach the same conclusion as the conservative Tunisian public—that women’s choices over how they use their breasts are up for public authorization and can be rejected if they use them in the “wrong” way.
Muslim Women Against FEMEN
At the same time, one must acknowledge that FEMEN itself does not carry a clean slate in upholding women’s right to freedom of expression. After Sboui’s denunciation in Tunisia, FEMEN called for “International Topless Jihad Day” on April 4th, resulting in many naked protests in front of mosques. From Paris to San Francisco, “Titslamists” dismissed the veil and chanted “nudity is freedom,” while calling Muslim women who opposed their tactics “fearful victims” and “brainwashed” on their official Facebook page.
By rejecting many Muslim women’s choice of dress, FEMEN upheld a limited view of how women should use their breasts based upon their ideals of nudity. Some Muslim women have reacted strongly to this, forming “Muslim Women Against FEMEN” to criticize the group’s intolerant message. Many insist that they do not need nudity to be liberated. Tellingly, when Sboui was released from jail in mid-August and learned of FEMEN’s actions, she denounced the group’s Islamophobia and publicly broke from them.
By maintaining that there is a “proper” amount of flesh to reveal, FEMEN succumbed to a confining discourse similar to the discourses of the Tunisian public and its own critics. These three parties similarly affirm that women’s choices of bodily expression need to comply within a certain rigid framework.
It is ironic that both FEMEN and its feminist critics, two groups fighting for the liberation of women, deny other women one key aspect of freedom—the right to use their bodies as they choose. Women should be entitled to their preferred form of expression—anything from bare chested protests to the veil—and this choice should not only be tolerated but respected by others. FEMEN and its feminist critics demonstrate the power and pervasiveness of restrictive attitudes surrounding women’s bodies; even self-proclaimed feminists may not be able to escape the need to dictate how women should use their bodies. In order to challenge these confining norms, people should not be afraid to call out feminists, while still acknowledging their shared vision to grant women freedom and ownership over their lives.
By: Julia Stoller, Contributor