t was a bitterly cold night in New Delhi, 16th December 2012. A 23-year-old woman and her male friend were travelling on the bus, just like any other day. What followed would send shock waves reverberating in India, and throughout the world: the woman was raped by five men and a juvenile on the bus, after an hour-long ordeal. The two victims ended up being thrown out on the road, covered in blood and stripped of their clothes. Thirteen days later, the woman - a dutiful first-born who usually came top of the class - died in a Singapore hospital.
Protests erupted throughout the length and breadth of the country. Both men and women took to the streets to demand stronger laws against sexual violence. In March 2013, the Indian Parliament responded by passing a new law which criminalises stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment. It also recommends the death penalty for repeat offenders, or for rape attacks that lead to the victim's death. The law, which still awaits the President's signature, was described by women's rights lawyer Vrinda Grover as 'A significant moment. We have taken many steps forward.'
Setting aside the issue of India's law enforcement record for a moment, the protests that took place there – and the consequent change in legislation – are nothing short of remarkable. They certainly provide a striking contrast to another international protest over related issues, which became one of Tunisia's top talking points this month. Amina Tyler, a 19-year-old activist, posted on the FEMEN-Tunisian Facebook page a topless picture of herself with the words 'Fuck your morals' written across her chest. There was another photo of the woman smoking a cigarette, baring her breasts, with the Arabic written across her chest: 'My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone's honour.' Death threats followed, and (false) rumours abounded that the girl had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. FEMEN later held an 'International Topless Jihad' Day on 4th April 2013, claiming to support Muslim women.
This led to a counter-protest by Muslim women all over the world, taking pictures of themselves, fully-covered and holding placards with slogans like 'Judge me on my intellect.' These images were uploaded onto the newly-created 'Muslim Women Against FEMEN\Facebook page (which, at the time of writing, had 4,767 likes). FEMEN leader Inna Shevchenko responded: "They say they are against FEMEN, but we still say we are here for them. They write on their posters that they don't need liberation but in their eyes it's written 'help me'.”
It goes without saying that Amina Tyler's safety is the first priority, but that should not prevent people from asking broader questions about FEMEN's interventions, and whether these are effective or appropriate. I personally believe they are neither. As Sara Yasin, Editorial Assistant at Index on Censorship, stated in Muslimah Media Watch, 'I have absolutely no problem with nudity… The issue with FEMEN is that they have no point. Apart from taking off their tops, I actually have no idea what they're trying to question… It's very interesting to call them radical, because they're actually not radical. They're just going out and pushing the exact same norms that have been thrown at us for centuries. It's pretty much like looking at a billboard and having maybe the word feminism cut across it. This leads me to believe that FEMEN is just the PETA of feminism.'
When Aliaa el-Mahdy staged a similar nude protest in Egypt last year, she certainly caused a stir (as I wrote in a previous edition of Chartist). However, I am not sure what impact her protest had – if any – for ordinary Egyptian women. Thankfully, more recent initiatives, including groups like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, have sprung from the grassroots to oppose sexual assault. These efforts have been successful in starting a widespread debate on the treatment of women in post-revolutionary Egypt.
While the desire to reclaim women's bodies and sexuality is undoubtedly a worthy aim, the reality is that a 'one-size-fits-all' solution rarely works. This is particularly the case in Muslim-majority countries. I recently read an interview with a female Egyptian sex therapist, who had become popular for the advice meted out on her TV show. While she was considered quite progressive by mainstream Egyptian standards, she remained adamant that her advice was only for married heterosexual couples. How would one start constructive dialogue with such people on issues relating to women's sexuality, and role in the public sphere, when the starting point is 'Fuck your morals' scribbled on a pair of boobs? That is not to say that shock tactics don't have their place in the feminist movement; of course they do. It's just that they need to have greater consideration for context, custom and place, as well as the wider implications of women's sexualisation and objectification. I don't buy the argument that a pair of exposed breasts in the 21st century is the 'shock factor' equivalent of Hoda Shaarawi ripping off her headscarf in 1920s Cairo.
We have enough of a problem vis-a-vis women only being listened to because of what they are wearing (or not wearing), rather than the strength of their ideas. In some Muslim circles, women are only accorded respect and a public platform if they don the headscarf (I have lost count of the number of times that I, as a Muslim civil society leader, have been criticised for not wearing one). FEMEN has, in my view, taken the opposite tack by placing such a strong emphasis on public nudity. What about those of us in the middle? Isn't it time the world woke up to us, and what we have achieved?
Of course, my protestations can be silenced with the usual rhetoric on individual choice. I have three rejoinders to this. Firstly, no choice occurs in a vacuum. It is usually taken from a menu of expedient options, which could include what academics (most notably, University of Chicago law professor Martha Nussbaum) describe as 'adaptive preferences.' Jon Elster postulates an example of how this might work: the story of the fox who, when he found that he could not reach the grapes he wanted, changed his preference, declaring the grapes to be sour. It is not out of the question to suggest that adaptive preferences may involve subconscious appeasement of one's oppressors.
Secondly, I believe that we should try to make choices that will benefit not only ourselves, but other women. Getting naked for a protest creates a stronger level of expectation that other women should do the same. This creates a critical mass which, in turn, makes it much easier to dismiss anyone who disagrees as a 'prude.'
Thirdly, viewing feminism solely in terms of individual choice ignores our connectedness to the rest of the world. It makes it harder for Muslim men to support feminism as a cause. If groups like FEMEN are alienating liberal Muslim feminists like me, then what kind of effect will they have on others who align themselves with more conservative ideologies? I was thrilled to see a recent Facebook picture of several Dallas-based Muslim men protesting against domestic violence. We will only be successful when we realise that sexual and domestic violence corrodes the whole of our society, and that we have a collective stake in fighting it. India has gone some way towards applying this lesson. It's time the rest of the world did as well.