“Saving” people who don’t particularly need or want saving

Ok, so.  A Tunisian woman named Amina Tyler posted topless pictures of herself to Facebook, with the words “My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone’s honor” written across her chest.  She has since received death threats and has gone into hiding.

So, kudos to her, I admire her bravery, and I wish her good luck.  I definitely think we should be supporting her, and anyone else who is insisting that their body is their own.

To support her, the Ukrainian group Femen declared April 4 to be International Topless Jihad Day, and staged topless protests in Paris.

Which… ok, I see where you’re going with that.  I think the name is, um, unfortunate, but I can definitely get behind radical attempts to normalize women’s bodies and attack the idea that our breasts need to be hidden away, that our bodies shouldn’t exist where people can see them.  I could see myself getting involved in a protest like that.  (Though, y’know, minus the inherent Islamophobia – as if body policing, shaming, and “decency” double standards were restricted to only one religion!)

So… ok, so far so good.  Sort of.  I fully agree that all women deserve the right to bare their bodies if they so choose.  I do understand that in some countries and some cultures, there are strong penalties (social and/or legal, and in some cases extending to physical threats or retribution) for women who don’t adhere to very strict standards in their dress and personal behavior, and I think that is reprehensible.  In every society, in every culture, in every country, women need to have full agency over their own bodies.

But the framing of Femen’s protest – the strong implication that this is a problem unique to, and uniform within, the Muslim world, is highly problematic.  The fact that many of their protesters were topless while simultaneously wearing a hijab, or a fake beard and turban while kneeling on a prayer rug, comes across as… well, racist, basically.  It ignores the fact that plenty of countries and cultures have problems with allowing women full agency over their own bodies.  (Hell, my own country’s no prize in that regard.)  It ignores that while some parts of the Muslim world are, yes, quite problematic in that respect, others are not.  And it ignores the fact that while some Muslim women do feel oppressed by their culture and its modesty rules, many, many others do not.

Quite a few of those others who do not have pushed  back against Femen.  Inna Shevchenko, a leader of Femen, responded to that pushback:

“They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me’.

“You know, through all history of humanity, all slaves deny that they are slaves.

“Why do they have to cover their bodies? This is beginning of the process.”

And that is where they lose me.


Look.  It’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog, or who knows me personally, that I am the world’s biggest cheerleader for nudity.


My family spends a significant amount of time going to local resorts and beaches where we can walk around in the buff.  Our apartment in college was clothing-optional, and if it weren’t for my roommate, our current house would be, too.  Even when I’m not actively being a nudist, I tend to prefer clothes that cover very little of my skin. (She says, looking down at her strapless shirt that flaps open at the belly.)  Unless the cut and the fabric is just so, I really don’t find clothes comfortable or pleasant to wear.  One of the reasons I love living in Florida is that I can get away with wearing as little as possible for a solid portion of the year.

So in my heart of hearts, I don’t grok why anyone would want to cover herself up.  I don’t understand why any woman would freely choose to wear concealing clothing and cover her head and/or face with a scarf or veil.  It makes zero sense to me.  Living that way would be, for me, a sort of hell.

However, I also cannot understand why anyone would freely choose to put banana peppers on their sub sandwich, but people do that all the damn time too.  Because I am not every woman.

I’m also painfully aware that I’ve run into the narrative before that women who dress “sexy”, i.e. skimpily or scantily, are doing so because we’ve been brainwashed by our culture to view ourselves as sexual objects and display our bodies as mere decoration.  That we’re just doing it to pander to the male gaze.  I’ve been told that wanting to wear revealing clothing, wanting to bare my breasts in public, means I’m seeking validation and approval, that I’m devaluing the worth of my body and just seeking to use it to please men.

And… y’know, in our fucked-up patriarchal culture, I’m sure there are some women for whom that’s true.  For me, however, it’s not.  I wear skimpy clothing because that’s how I feel most comfortable.  I don’t do it to please men.  Hell, some days I do it despite being unhappily aware that it won’t please men.  (There are some mornings when I look in the mirror at my bad skin and flabby arms and unshaven pits and think “Shmrr, I feel so ugly, maybe I shouldn’t wear a tank top today, nobody wants to see my bare arms.”  And then I think about the sticky heat of a Florida summer and go “Fuck it bitches, you couldn’t PAY me enough to wear sleeves today.  Deal with it, world.”)


And assuming that all women who choose to wear revealing clothing are doing it for the same reasons – especially when you ignore or contradict women who tell you that no, this is not the case – invisibles us as individuals, and disrespects our choices.

And it’s the same thing with the hijab/niqab/etc.  I’m sure there are women out there who hate wearing them, but who don’t feel like they can safely/comfortably choose not to.  Those women need and deserve all our help and support.  But many, arguably most (I don’t know how you would even begin putting together statistics on that, so I’m not even trying) women who wear them do so because they want to.  Because it’s how they feel comfortable.  In much the same way that telling me that I must cover myself up would be wrong, telling these women that in order to be “liberated” they must uncover themselves is also wrong.  Because the root problem, the core of the objection, is taking away women’s choices, making their choices for them.  You can’t fix that by doing the exact same thing.

Because “liberation” doesn’t mean making the same choices as me.  It means having the same choices as me (or more).  And being free to decide for yourself, without fear or pressure, how you want to dress and how you will feel most comfortable.

So for all the Muslim women out there who are quite happy covering themselves up, thank-you-very-much, and don’t need anyone to come in and “save” them from the hijab, I offer you Bitch-You-Don’t-Know-Me Cat.  He’s very useful for things like this.



5 thoughts on ““Saving” people who don’t particularly need or want saving

  1. CN: discussion of Islam, FEMEN, rape analogy, reference to abortion laws.

    And this is why I want to support FEMEN, but just can’t.

    For starters, they have good impulses, but they need good arguments. Let’s take that ridiculous quote that boils down to “No, I really know what they want.” Here’s a better response:

    “I have no doubt that many Muslim women are perfectly happy under the laws of their faith. We’re not fighting for them.We’re fighting for the ones that are unhappy and still have to adhere to these strictures on pain of death.”

    Similarly, I could back the “Topless Jihad Day” idea if it weren’t also chock full of Muslim stereotypes. That being said, I also disagree with you on this point in that yes, other countries and faiths are big into body policing, but official Muslim countries are unquestionably the worst of the lot. There is not a single one that doesn’t have modesty laws on the books that are targeted at women and still enforced (even “liberal” ones like Turkey and Qutar). In any country where specifically Islamist political factions come to power, the first thing they do is start implementing modesty laws (e.g. Egypt, Afghanistan, Turkey, etc.), and the ones who don’t often bow to the will of religious extremists (e.g. Bangladesh, Jordan, Gambia, etc.). And even in liberal countries like Britain, Muslim minorities often create sharia courts and Islamic counsels in order to impose extra-legal rules on Muslim communities.

    So while I agree that not every Muslim person is like this, the sad fact is that when highly religious Muslims wield power, they use it to force modesty laws on women. That’s no less true than saying that when the GOP comes to power, they immediately and unflinchingly start trying to illegally ban abortion. Since 2010 is has literally happened in every place, state level and above, where they have gained power.

    That all being said, again, FEMEN misses the point. Mocking caricatures of Muslim people is not only racist, it’s counterproductive. It’s the equivalent of saying that most rape is done by strangers in dark alleys. Laws and social customs that have Amina Taylor hiding for her life are not exclusively perpetuated by hijab-wearing women and bearded men with turbans. They are the result of a system and a tradition that has existed for hundreds of years. Mocking the people, many of whom are also victims of this system, doesn’t address the problem. FEMEN’s biggest problem is that they really haven’t thought through what they want to say and why it’s important, so like many people, they’re doing a good thing in a bad way for the wrong reasons.

    • *nods* I appreciate the correction; I probably should have said that not all Muslim communities, not countries, do this.

      Even then, I suspect the problem is not that they are Muslim theocracies , but that they are theocracies, full stop. Any country where you’ve got an established religion or ideology enforced by law is going to have problems. That’s an inherent flaw of theocracy, not of Islam.

      Ideally (and this goes back to the post on intersectionality) I think Femen and Muslim women COULD work together, finding a way to ensure that those who want to wear the hijab are free to do so, while those that don’t are also free to do so. I think the response you gave above would be a decent first step towards that.

      Of course, that would require Femen to acknowledge that yes, some women DO choose it, and to stop acting like Muslim women need a Great White Savior to rescue them from themselves.

      • Ok, that makes more sense.

        For the most part I agree, though I suspect a Quaker theocracy wouldn’t be nearly so bad. However, in general, if you put priests in charge of civil government, this kind of stuff will likely result.

        Ultimately, yes, I think that Femen needs to see that not everybody is just waiting for them to swoop in and “save” them, but I suppose a little bit of agency from a group that has largely been ignored until recently can easily convince people that they are right to try and make decisions for other people.

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