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