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Activists calling for Sharia countries to be banned from the Olympics are doing internationalist feminism a disservice, argues Elly Badcock

A FEMEN activist is detained near Tower Bridge

French activists last week staged a protest on Tower Bridge, calling for countries that uphold Sharia law to be banned from the Olympics.

Most of us, on reading the above, would assume the protest was staged by the repellent racists of the Front Nationale, or groups even further to the right. However, in a shocking insight into how far subtle anti-Islamic rhetoric has penetrated the left in France, it was feminist group FEMEN rolling out the banner.

FEMEN have a history of 'shock-factor' protests; a cursory Google search will show them naked and body-painted at protests across the globe.

It's a tactic which has always been questionable, to say the least. Of course, the female body is nothing to be ashamed of – and the argument that if men can saunter around topless, women should be able to as well, is eminently sensible. Breasts are not distasteful – but in this context, the tactic is misplaced. The ideological statement the action ends up reinforcing is this – that showing your breasts is inherently liberating, and covering up is a necessary signifier of sexist oppression. Women's liberation cannot be reduced to measuring the amount of flesh we're permitted to show.

What is particularly negative is that the protest buys into the rhetoric, pushed by imperialists, that Islam is uniquely oppressive to women.

In Britain, the conviction rate for rape is 6%, cuts to child benefit mean many mothers skip a meal a day to feed their children, Sure Start centres are disappearing and women occupy the majority of low-paid work. In America, prohibitive healthcare costs mean women find it hard to access both contraception and abortions. And in FEMEN's own France, the government has made it illegal for women who wear the niqab to leave their house in the dress of their choice.

Why does FEMEN think these countries are worthy of their place in the Olympics? The answer can only be found with reference to the traumatic intersection between sexism, imperialism and Islamophobia.

The War on Terror – in Afghanistan, in particular – was justified in the name of protecting women's rights. Of course, society in Afghanistan is riddled with institutional sexism – as every country in the world is, North and South, East and West. What is notable is that, in order to gee up support for an intervention, American and British governments had to paint a picture of serenity and equality at home. They had to convince not only their supporters, but a sizeable proportion of the liberal West, that 'their' sexism abroad was worse than 'our' sexism in the West. That a country which only made rape within marriage illegal in the early 90s is somehow in a privileged moral position. Judging by the politics of groups like FEMEN, they have done well.

The fact is, Muslims are being vilified at home and abroad. As ever, a huge share of the burden is placed on women; on their dress and the way they bring up their children. Any decent feminist would recognise Muslim women bear a double burden of racism and sexism, and turn their focus towards supporting their struggle. They might, as a starting point, campaign against the increasing militarisation of East London, making it harder for Muslims to walk the streets without harassment. They might join Muslim women in asserting the right to wear hijab or niqab without fear of attack. Interestingly, activists in the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) have mentioned that the burqa can sometimes make it easier for them to carry out political activity, as it can disguise political leaflets and hidden cameras. FEMEN could listen to these women, the women they are patronisingly attempting to 'save'.

Instead, they reinforce a logic that permits imperialist governments to launch wars which often end up making life harder for women. In Afghanistan, the American-backed President Karzai introduced a law legalising rape within marriage. And of course, a huge proportion of the civilians killed were women – the danger and instability communities face in wartime make it the worst possible condition in which to fight for true liberation.

We could ignore this, fetishise the freedom to show skin, and get our tits out on the bridge with FEMEN. Or we could build a women's movement that opposes both conservative moralism and state-sanctioned Islamophobia, and show liberal feminists the true meaning of sisterhood. The choice lies with us.

Comments   

 
#1 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likeShreya 2012-08-11 10:45
Excellent article - completely agree with you. Thank you.
 
 
#2 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likesomewhat confused 2012-08-11 10:47
I found your article well writen and the point that it makes is quiet powerful. Ourown countries inherent sexism should not be ignored or overlooked in a 'crusade' against Islam. I did notice what I think may be an error I was under the impression that FEMEN was a Ukrainian feminist body which has in recent years begun to operate outside of their home country. I am deeply dissappointed by their latest shift in policy.
 
 
#3 overexagerationIva 2012-08-11 11:03
Well, it seems to me that they were protesting Sharia law, which is only one part of Islam, they were not protesting all Islam. Why can't they do that without being labeled as racist? Many people protest against elements of Catholicism such as it's views on gay marriage, yet you would not call them racist "catholiphobes". Why is that? Also being against Sharia law doesn't necessarily mean you are pro women being topless in public. I do not even see how that equates. To me being against Sharia law is pro human rights period. Every religion should be examined and open to criticism without those who question it being labeled as imperialist and ignorant. It's blindly supporting a religion, including its bad aspects, which is ignorant.
 
 
#4 Difference in active legal system loopholes.sachi poudyal 2012-08-11 11:44
This a terrible article. Has the author even ever read the Shariat? As a law student in India where the Shariat applies for almost all civil matters concerning Muslims I have had to extensively read it for Family law. You can in NO WAY equate what the Shariat says about woman (for example: woman can only succeed to half a share of a male heir, women are not entitled to maintenance beyond 3 months after divorce even if they are taking care of the child from the marriage, limited right to divorce while a man can end a marriage by uttering a word thrice) to the social fibers of the West. Yes societies are patriarchal and there is social engineering of discrimination against woman. But in the West formal discrimination against woman can be challenged in a court of law. under Shariat even the chance to speak up is not there as the very source of law says that women are less than equals.
Second, demanding that Islam change is not racist. I agree that Christianity and Hinduism have their share of women bashing but as a source of law these religions have way lesser power than Islam. Asking these countries to be banned from Olympics is a method to shun them.
 
 
#5 correctionIva 2012-08-11 12:06
I mean, that being against the more extreme or violent parts of Sharia law is pro human rights, not being against Sharia law in general, since many aspects of it are fair and just.
 
 
#6 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likeDeborah 2012-08-11 14:05
Quoting Iva:
Every religion should be examined and open to criticism without those who question it being labeled as imperialist and ignorant. It's blindly supporting a religion, including its bad aspects, which is ignorant.

Completely agree with you. The British left has adopted this attitude of calling anyone that says anything bad about Islam a racist. It's important to oppose Islamophobia from the state and nazi groups coming from an anti-fascist point of view, but we must also recognise that Islam is just another religion, patriarchal and oppressive like Christianity.

In defence of FEMEN, they have also staged protests against the Russian Orthodox church (Christian) in support of Pussy Riot. Obviously it can be seen as problematic with the Imperialist and liberal connotations attached to criticizing Islam, but let's just see what they do next before we throw our hands in the air and call them racist/liberal/etc.
 
 
#7 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likeNayab 2012-08-11 15:14
Sachi Poudyal, Im sorry to say but your study of Law has disappointed me. Perhaps you need to study more before sharing ur biased opinion. A woman has in Islam is actually an heir to property from three sources, her father, her brother amd her husband, whereas a man only gets it from his father. Thats actually thrice what a man gets. I hardly think that makes them 'less than equals'. Secondly, you should also have read about 'Mahr' and 'Muakhr'. The fomer is payable to the woman by th man at the time of marriage, amd the latter at the time of husband's death/divorce, amd their is a specific amount set forth, which is beyond the scope of this post. Whatever the wife possesses, on account of her own earning or feom the mahr is completely hers, amd only she has the right to it upon the dissolution of marriage. Whereas, the husband is supposed to divide his property with the wife. Also, polygamy upto 4 wives is allowed in Islam only under the condition that all the wives are dealt with justly in all ways, financial, emotional, sexual and whichever others there may be. However polyandry is forbidden to protect the children's lineage and their rights as the heirs to their father's property.
I would really encourage you to be well informed in a foreign subject before making yr views public. Islam has protected the rights of women better tham any other code of law. Here is a quick reference to these or any other questions you may have:
http://lawandpractice.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/women’s-rights-in-islam-regarding-marriage-and-divorce/
 
 
#8 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likeNayab 2012-08-11 15:16
I forgot to add that women can equally demand their right to divorce as men can , in Islam. Any other practice is purely a result of cultural differences and has nothing to do with the Shariah Law.
 
 
#9 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likePete Shield 2012-08-11 16:06
Quoting Nayab:
I forgot to add that women can equally demand their right to divorce as men can , in Islam. Any other practice is purely a result of cultural differences and has nothing to do with the Shariah Law.

If you are right, and I make no claim to know, then these women activists were not campaigning against Shariat Law but against the Governments and Olympic Committees of the respective countries that have misinterpreted Islamic law. So they weren't campaigning against Islam as the author of this article claims but patriarchal power structures.

All the more reason to support them .
 
 
#10 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likeMark T 2012-08-12 04:52
Quoting Pete Shield:
[quote name="Nayab"]these women activists were not campaigning against Shariat Law but against the Governments and Olympic Committees of the respective countries that have misinterpreted Islamic law. So they weren't campaigning against Islam .


Err no Pete, these women were protesting against the inclusion of Muslim countries in the Olympics (ie discriminating against muslims!), you can see the video here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/olympicsvideo/9447608/Femen-stage-topless-anti-Islamist-Olympic-protest-in-London.html
 
 
#11 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likeNayab 2012-08-12 06:29
And why, may I ask? Because these practices are a part of different cultural groups and societies within some countries, and not their prevailing supreme law. It would only make sense if it were a doing of the government or the its olympic committee en whole.
 
 
#12 What about the small matter of public interest?Audrey 2012-08-12 10:49
My objection to the niqab is exactly the same as it is to balaclavas: they render individuals anonymous in a society where the law is based on personal accountability which in turn is based on the ability to identify people. A woman wearing a niqab may be a victim, or perpetrator, of a crime and by virtue of the niqab will never be identified. I don't want people wearing ski masks waiting in line at my bank - and I don't think that just because someone dresses according to a "virtuous" ideal doesn't mean that they live up to it. It's not about discrimination - it's about the safety of other individuals in society. I don't want my government protecting the religious rights of others at the cost of my personal security. And for those who will scream discrimination at that - consider this: What better disguise is there for a woman who wants to commit a crime than to adopt the niqab for that purpose? It would cast suspicion on all Muslim women and effectively conceal the identity of the criminal.
 
 
#13 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likegeorgia 2012-08-12 15:02
FEMEN stage protest actions against a range of hypocritical powers, oppressive institutions and patriarchal forms, from religion institutions to governments. Their form is shock protest their targets are power, wherever they find it oppressing women. I think this is a badly researched article, lazily referring to islamaphobia and being deliberately opportunistically provocative to benefit from their profile. Bad article
 
 
#14 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likeHazzer 2012-08-13 02:12
Patriarchy is not acceptable anywhere. If one dwells on degrees of oppression, violence etc and then isolates what are considered to be the worst offenders at an international event, it means certain instances of inequality are made acceptable. It is a splendid thing to stand with our sisters in Saudi and beyond, but this sort of public action is just that and it plays perfectly into the hands of bigoted narratives that just happen to be the prevailing ones; at least in media terms. The continued power of Wahhabi zealots and their ilk is almost entirely a result of imperial interference - if we want to see the back of them, we must direct our energies to those we pay tax to or otherwise fund.
 
 
#15 Some responsesElly Badcock 2012-08-13 11:30
Hi all, just wanted to respond to a few comments, and sorry for not doing so earlier.

First, in response to Sachi - it's not my intention with the article or comments to get into a long discussion about the intricacies of sharia law. I'll freely admit I haven't sat down and read the whole thing - I'm not a lawyer. But really, the point of the article is to draw attention to e hypocrisy of certain strands of feminism. I wanted to point out that things are not rosy at home, and that focusing on Muslim countries as being uniquely institutionally sexist buys into a racist rhetoric. I'm not saying FEMEN are racist, but rather that when liberal feminists uphold these kind of ideas they legitimise the racism and war of imperialist states,

Iva - i'm not saying its ever unjustified to protest against aspects of sharia law, but much depends on who is doing the protesting. You make reference to Catholics - actually I didn't go on the anti pope protest because the organisers (followers of Dawkins and Tatchell) actually leave a lot to be desired politically, probably alienated even the Catholics who agree with them on gay marriage, contraception etc. if the protest had been supported by some prominent catholic groups I would have gone on it. I don't think religion is our worst enemy right now as socialists. With the 'white saviour' rhetoric around the war on terror, it matters especially who the protestors are when it comes to gender politics and Islam.
 
 
#16 more responsesElly Badcock 2012-08-13 11:33
Deborah, I'm not saying that anyone who criticises Islam in any way is a racist. I think all religions hold a mirror up to society - and given the society we live in, they are all conservative to a greater or lesser extent. However, it matters that when across Europe Muslims are beng vilified and racially attacked we on the left don't fall into the trap of legitimising that racism. Muslim women are capable of tackling sexism themselves and asking for support. In the black panther party, the terrible sexism women faced was hardly solved by white liberals publicly attacking it - that could contribute to the prevalent idea that all black men are sexist pigs. Women within the party had to challenge it - and I think it's much the same with Muslims today.
 
 
#17 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likePete Shield 2012-08-15 08:18
Quoting Mark T:
Quoting Pete Shield:
[quote name="Nayab"]these women activists were not campaigning against Shariat Law but against the Governments and Olympic Committees of the respective countries that have misinterpreted Islamic law. So they weren't campaigning against Islam .


Err no Pete, these women were protesting against the inclusion of Muslim countries in the Olympics (ie discriminating against muslims!), you can see the video here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/olympicsvideo/9447608/Femen-stage-topless-anti-Islamist-Olympic-protest-in-London.html

Er no mark, they were protesting against the countries who's Olympic Committee stipulated that female competitors had to wear a headscarf. If a religious person wishes to wear a cross, a headscarf bright pink hat fine, but it should be their choice and not imposed from above.
FEMON are a superb and brave crew that have courageously protested against the medieval practises of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, to attack them in such a vicious way is a symptom of why the organised Left in the UK is so isolated and ignored and bypassed by the up and coming social movements.
 
 
#18 RE: That's not what a feminist looks likeCrescent Moon Farm 2012-08-16 23:43
Just in reference to arguments over what "Sharia says" on a particular issue or whether or not a given person has read the whole thing, I'd like to point out that Sharia is not a code of law like the Code Napoleon. It's a method and tradition or jurisprudence; structurally, it's quite similar to American law. Check out www.partytilfajr.com for a detailed, erudite assessment of this and many other issues.

Peace!
 

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