Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.–Cheris Kramarae
Lately a big story in the international news has been that of Tunisian Femen protester Amina Tyler, who posted topless photos of herself on Femen Tunisia’s Facebook page. In response to the horrible backlash that Amina received from some of her countrymen, Femen protesters around the world organized what they called “International Topless Jihad Day.”
This sort of thing is nothing new. A few years ago, Egyptian blogger Aliaa Elmahdy posted nude photos of herself on her blog in the same spirit as Amina’s photos. The reaction by the super-conservative Egyptian establishment was much the same as the one displayed by their Tunisian counterparts. When I first read about Aliaa, I admit, I rolled my eyes. “Doesn’t she get what she’s doing?” I thought. “Doesn’t she get that this is part of the reason why I put on my hijab–because I don’t want to be objectified? Doesn’t she get that this stunt is doing nothing but objectifying herself?”
But then, I had a fight with my husband.
I will be the first to tell you that my husband is awesome. Every day, even on the days I want to pinch his head off, I am grateful that I met, fell in love with, and married him. I hope that we have a very long and happy marriage, and at this point I see no reason why we won’t, because above all things, we talk to each other, and we work hard to understand each other.
That being said, there remains the inescapable fact that I am American, and he is Saudi…which means we sometimes have to work harder to understand each other than most.
My husband is, relatively speaking, what most people would consider an “open-minded” Saudi man. He doesn’t fit the stereotype in a lot of ways. Whenever I tell people I am married to a Saudi, often I get this deer-in-the-headlights look, like, “Seriously? How are you still alive?” The stereotype of the Saudi man (or any Middle Eastern man, for that matter) is that they are chokingly controlling wife-beaters who imprison their wives in their homes, or, when they momentarily let their wives out of their cages, in their burqas. And I’m sure that there are some who fit that stereotype. (I’m sure there are also some American men who fit that stereotype, sans the burqa.) My husband, obviously, and thank God, does not. However, at the end of the day, he is Saudi, and there are some things about me that he has had to learn to live with, because women in his culture do not do these things.
One thing that I do that used to bother him is post pictures of myself online that show my face. If you are Facebook friends with a Saudi woman (or a conservative Muslim woman—but to be clear, these two things are not the same thing), the chances are high that you will never see a picture with her face posted anywhere. It’s rarely done. Why? Because, as my husband tried to simplistically explain it, “We’re from the desert. We have hot blood. We’re Arabic. We get jealous.”
So women are expected to keep their faces under wraps so their men don’t get jealous? I demanded further explanation, as that was just not sufficient for me, and I got it a few months before we were married, when my husband noticed that a few Saudi guys were following me on Twitter. “I don’t like it,” he said. “They’re following you just because they want female friends. I know how Saudi boys are. They are kids. I don’t like that they can see your face. Who knows what they will say about you? Maybe they will steal your picture. They will talk about you, and call you a whore. I know how Saudi boys are.”
Now, I understand (and appreciate) that my husband was trying to protect me. He was trying to save me from the wrath of the social protocol of his culture, and trying to protect himself from embarrassment, as well, just as I do the same with him when he is in the States (“You have to come with me to meet my friends–otherwise they will think you’re a jerk”), even when conforming to those rules puts one of us in something of an uncomfortable position. But man…being told that I should not show my face online just rubbed me the wrong way. And I admit, I exploded, as I am prone to do.
“This is so stupid! I will not raise my children this way, to think that a woman who shows her face is a whore and a woman who hides is a good girl! It’s stupid, and if I take down my pictures, I am giving in, and I am perpetuating these horrible ideas.” And then, I found myself saying, “My face is my face, my body is my body—and you cannot tell me what is acceptable for me to show.”
And that’s when it clicked. Suddenly, it was clear to me what made Amina and Aliaa take their clothes off. That choice is not one I would make for myself, but I now I understand the reasoning behind it. I worry for both of them–they are both so young, both only 19 when they posted their photos, and I fear they will regret their decisions as they get older. Even now, going back and reading blog entries from when I was 19 (yes, I was blogging way back in 2002), I have to smile at the naivete of some of the things I wrote and I find myself grateful that the only people who ever read those posts were my close friends…and they aren’t even about anything really significant, and there are certainly no pictures on that blog that I wouldn’t be fine with the whole world seeing. And who knows, maybe ten years from now, I will look back at this blog and read what I have written and feel the same way. But at least I have a decade of adult perspective behind me in order to inform the decisions I make about what I now post (and what I now do, for that matter). I don’t think that either Amina or Aliaa truly understand the potential long-term consequences of their exhibition. They are teenagers (well, Aliaa technically isn’t anymore, but she was when she posted her photos). Ten years ago, they were nine and ten years old; they don’t have a decade of independence to look back on and shake their heads at some of the silliest things they said or did with their newfound adulthood…things that for most people are, thank God, confined to the memories of the people who were physically present when they said or did those things, rather than committed to the internet for eternity. They don’t have the perspective to understand the potential regret inherent in their actions, as they might have if they had been, say, in their thirties when they decided to shed their clothes in feminist protest. Nor do I think they truly understand the irony of claiming attention for their ideas by displaying their bodies.
I don’t know much about Amina Tyler, but I’ve been following Aliaa Elmahdy since her story first made international headlines. I’ve read her interviews over the years, and even now, I just want to hug her and say, “Okay, sweetie, just pause…take a step back, and reexamine if this is really accomplishing anything. Give it a decade or two. Come back to this when you are in your thirties, when you’ve had a couple kids and your body is in such a state that misogynistic voyeurs in the West–or anywhere else–are going to tell you to cover that shit back up instead of applauding you and clamoring for more, when the display of your body is no longer verging on child porn.” (Because let’s be real–Aliaa was 19 when she posted her nude photo, as was Amina. If these were American girls, we would have been wringing our hands at the rashness of their decisions, about whether or not they are old enough to fully understand the long-term consequences of their actions. But when the girls come from the Middle East, posting nude photos of themselves means they are completely “women” and “revolutionaries” who have obviously thought all this through and found getting naked online to be the only way to go, and yay for them. Does this not strike anyone else as wrong? Like, if it’s Western girls flashing their boobs, to the Western media they’re whores who want attention, which we will gladly provide while tsk-tsking about how we’re grateful those aren’t our daughters. If they’re Middle Eastern girls, it’s, “Heck yeah, good for you! Way to shake off oppression!” So Middle Eastern women/girls should be free for international media consumption, but not Western girls? Isn’t that the flipped version of the same horrible idea that those angry Middle Eastern Muslim men are so often accused of perpetuating, that Western women are free for consumption but Middle Eastern women must be covered from all prying eyes lest they be shamed?) I want to tell Aliaa,”If you still find after those years that in your mind, this is still the best and most effective means to achieve your ideological goal, then by all means, have at it. But do you really know what you want yet? Go back to school. Study art or whatever else you love. Develop your philosophies and your goals. Get to know thyself.”
More than anything, Aliaa strikes me as a little girl whose complexity of ideas hasn’t caught up to the complexity of her actions. In an interview with CNN, she said she dropped out of the American University of Cairo months before she posted her nude photo because her parents “attempted to control my life by threatening to refuse to pay the fees.” She said her parents want to “support me and get closer,” but she isn’t having any of that because “they accuse Kareem”–her boyfriend–”of manipulating me.” She said she “practices safe sex” but doesn’t “take pills because I am against abortion” (I wonder if Femen knows that, by the way, or if she knows that abortion rights are a part of Femen’s platform). And in a recent Twitter exchange with a follower who questioned her decision to post a nude photo sent to her by another girl (who, apparently, was underage), the retort she snapped back at him was, “The fact is that you are jealous of us.”
I mean, this is not intellectual feminism. This is pretty standard spoiled teenage rebellion stuff. But I guess when viewed through a colonialist lens, it becomes revolutionary.
But still, I get it. I do not mean to imply that Amina and Aliaa are not actually feminists. I think they are brave young women, if youthfully rash. And I suppose I see Aliaa as something of a kindred spirit, because in that same CNN interview, when she was asked who Aliaa Elmahdy is “inside the body portrayed in the nude photo,” she said, “I like being different. I love life, art, photography and expressing my thoughts through writing more than anything.” This sounds like something I would have said at age 19, and it sounds like something I would still say today. But you know what they say…the more things change, the more they stay the same. I know that I’m a very different person than I was at age 19, yet I know that at the same time, I essentially hold the same ideals as the 19-year-old me. And I know that if I had made some of Aliaa’s same choices when I was 19, I would regret them today.
But then again, I’m sure there are many people who would ask me the same question that I would like to ask Aliaa: “Are you sure you’ve thought all this through?” And they would probably give me the same advice: “Had I made some of your same choices, I would regret them today.” Or even, “I made some of your same choices, and now I regret them.”
I was a Muslim for about six months before I started wearing hijab regularly–i.e., a scarf on my head.
Me on my first day as a public hijabi.
On my first day at work wearing the hijab, a well-meaning coworker pulled me aside and said, “You know, you don’t have to wear that for him.”
At first I thought she meant God, but then I realized she meant my husband (then fiancé). It was the first time I had faced what I would soon realize is a common assumption in the West—that if a woman covers, it must be because some domineering male relative (her husband, her father, etc.) is forcing her to. I assured her that no one was making me wear the headscarf, that it was a choice I had made totally on my own. In fact, my husband had serious reservations about me wearing hijab in the States, especially since I lived alone at the time. He actually tried to discourage me, for my own safety.
That’s right, I defied my Saudi husband in order to wear hijab in the States.
For the first couple years, I wore it everywhere in Manhattan, Kansas, where I lived. But when I went home to southern Missouri, I took it off. No one there knew me as a Muslim, I was worried about my brother’s reaction if I showed up with a scarf on my head, and my parents were concerned that I would end up a hate crime story on the evening news. Now that I’ve spent some time living in Saudi Arabia, though, I’ve reached a point where I don’t give a flip what anyone thinks. Especially since I’ve learned that anyone who would throw stones at me for wearing a scarf on my head likely has managed to hide some pretty ugly skeletons in a closet in his lovely glass house. When I go home, I will probably wear a scarf. I will probably style it in a way that looks less obviously Muslim and more “Carrie in Sex & the City 2” (even though I despise that movie), but still, enough is enough.
I mean, seriously. It’s just a scarf. Yes, it represents a lot more than that–to me, it represents that I’m a Muslim, I’m proud of my faith, and I don’t feel the need to show my body to anyone who cares to look in order to feel like I am a person of worth. My decision to wear my hijab was not based solely on my faith, although obviously that was the strongest reason. But the decision was also influenced by my feminism, by my desire to fight the notion that Western society has that a woman who covers her hair is being oppressed when those same Western women, who are raped at a rate of 78 per hour in America and beaten at a rate of one every 15 seconds in America (and most experts believe both of those estimates are on the low side), starve themselves and spend hours every day on an elliptical and pay doctors to suck out their butt fat and inject it into their lips and spend their time trolling Sephora to spend their paychecks–which, on average, are 30% smaller than those of their male counterparts who do the same job–on serums that promise to make them look younger and prettier and more appealing to men and are made to feel worthless if their bodies aren’t skeletal enough to allow for jutting hipbones ideal for hooking the strings of their practically nonexistent bikinis on.
Yeah, American non-Muslim ladies, you’re free as freakin’ birds. What really oppresses women is a scarf.
Putting on my headscarf didn’t free me from all of that, nor would I expect it to. I’m still concerned about my weight. I still can’t leave the house without at least a little makeup on my face. I certainly don’t want to imply that any Muslim woman who covers doesn’t care about how she looks, because that’s not even close to being true. But it was a step toward disentangling myself from the expectations that my culture had of me, of who my culture dictated that I should be.
In other words, part of what made me put on my hijab is the exact same catalyst that made Aliaa and Amina take their clothes off. No, I personally did not directly receive threats of bodily harm for coming out publicly as a Muslim, the way Amina and Aliaa did. But the sense of rejection, the sense of now being on the fringes of my own home culture, was palpable. I spent 26 years with my head uncovered. I know how Americans treat non-hijabis. And now, I know how Americans treat hijabis.
1. I am often spoken to very slowly and loudly by cashiers, waiters and waitresses, and other people who don’t know me, as if I must be from some foreign land. Most of the time I don’t mind this, because at least I know the person doing it is kind enough to want to make sure that I understand what he or she is saying. But it is still quite alienating.
2. Often people ask where I am from. When I reply, “Missouri,” they look perplexed for a few seconds before clarifying, “Yeah, but where are you from?” I have to insist, “Missouri.” Sometimes there is a follow-up inquiry of, “Okay, but where are your parents from?” Then, I explain that both my parents grew up in California but my dad’s family is originally from Missouri. Or sometimes the follow-up question is, “Okay, but what are you?” And then I explain that my mom is Chicana and that by blood my dad is…well, total Ozarks hillbilly, and his earliest documented ancestors came to the States from Scotland in the early 1800s. In other words, I’m 100% Heinz 57 American. It’s quite perplexing to some people. Why would any American girl choose to put that thing on her head?
3. The staring. Oh, the staring! When I first started wearing hijab, I was stunned by how brazenly my fellow Americans stare. I don’t know what they expected me to do that warranted such staring in fear that they would somehow miss it or be caught off guard, but my goodness. After awhile, I stopped noticing the staring as much, but I’ve never forgotten how it felt in those first few months, and even though I’ve grown past noticing, I’m sometimes reminded that it is still happening, because I’ll be out with a friend or colleague and they will ask me, “Doesn’t it bother you the way people stare at you like that?” I have to answer truthfully that I don’t even notice anymore. This was really good preparation for moving to Saudi Arabia; I usually don’t notice stares here, either (which happen sometimes because I don’t cover my face). But I always have to chuckle at American (or other Western) women who come here to Saudi Arabia, don’t even cover their hair, and then complain about the staring, as though such uncivilized behavior would never be on display in their home countries.
Some of the most intense staring I’ve ever encountered happens in the weirdest places…like the shampoo aisle at Walmart. I didn’t think much of this staring until I came across a meme online, which I now cannot find but would post if I could: it showed a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, shopping in the hair care aisle, and it had a caption that mocked her, like what does she need shampoo for? Suddenly, that staring made sense, but not really—I mean, why in the world would people assume hijabis don’t wash their hair? I don’t see your butt crack (if I’m lucky), but I certainly hope you try to keep it clean. I often wonder what people think we’re hiding under the scarf. Sometimes it feels like they think the scarf is actually covering up my brain.
Remember Krang, the evil disembodied brain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? There is no Krang under my scarf. It’s just hair. Seriously.
4. Walking through an airport in a headscarf is a unique experience of palpable paranoia on the part of fellow passengers. In my experience, everyone who works at the airport has mostly been quite friendly…or at least, not any less friendly than they are with any other passenger. But the other passengers…well, I freak them out. They stare, they edge away. They see me and they glance down at their boarding passes, I guess checking their seat numbers and hoping I’m not on the same flight. Once a guy in a cowboy hat literally scowled at me from the time I entered the gate area until after I passed him. I made eye contact with him and smiled at him (a tactic I frequently use to tell starers that I happen to make eye contact with that yes, I know they are staring at me, but I’m nice, really), and he continued to openly scowl at me. Like he wanted to push me out of the airplane in midair. It was unsettling.
Sometimes others’ obvious sense of suspicion, of me not belonging, of me being a threat, is really not a big deal to me, but at other times, it stings. For example, once I was walking into Walmart and there were ladies standing outside the doors, handing out red poppies for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. As each shopper approached, the lady next to the entrance doors would smile and proffer a poppy to each person who walked by her. I watched her do this for the three or so people in front of me.
As I approached her, the smile was wiped off her face. Her arm went limp and her poppy-offering hand hung by her side as she stared at me blankly. I stared right back, with a smile, of course, hoping to be offered a poppy. I mean, my dad was a paratrooper in the U.S. Army. My maternal grandfather was a decorated U.S. Army soldier during World War II. I come from a U.S. military family. There’s no reason why I wouldn’t support the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I would have happily accepted the poppy and then stopped at the table to make a donation.
But the lady wasn’t having any of it. As I walked past her, out of the corner of my eye I saw her face light up into a smile again as her hand rose to offer a poppy to the person walking behind me.
These examples may seem trivial compared to what Amina and Aliaa have endured for their choices. No, as I mentioned, I have not faced such a dire situation in which I might be called to seek political asylum in another country, as Aliaa Elmahdy did (she now lives in Sweden). But the feeling of suspicion, of being shunned, of being an Other in one’s own culture, often hangs in the air like a humidity haze when I go out in public with a scarf on my head in the States.
And in many ways, that is precisely why wearing the hijab is liberating, if difficult. For me, because of the culture that I come from, it is a feminist act. (This is not to say that wearing the hijab in a culture that is opposed to it is automatically a feminist act, nor is it to say that wearing the hijab in a culture that accepts/expects/demands it is never a feminist act.) Like Amina’s and Aliaa’s photos of themselves, my hijab, for me, aside from its primary purpose as a declaration of my faith, also serves as my middle finger to my society’s expectations of what I should be. I do not wear my hijab because I think it makes me a better, more pious Muslimah than one who does not. I wear my hijab because I am a Muslim feminist woman who embraces my faith and my freedom, who understands that my body is my own and won’t let anyone tell me what I should or should not show. Just like Amina and Aliaa.
They, however, grew up in a culture where what I perceive as my expressions of faith and freedom are societal expectations that can be uncomfortable—or dangerous—to defy. I grew up in a culture where the exposure of one’s body parts is encouraged and rewarded as an expression of beauty and freedom (although embracing those ideals for the gratification of others won’t save you from slut-shaming after the fact)…and as it turns out, defying those societal expectations can be quite uncomfortable, as well. I’ve never faced bodily harm for doing so, but my parents and my husband have expressed worry that I might at some point.
Thus, I don’t understand how taking one’s clothes off in a culture that encourages women to take their clothes off shows solidarity in any way with Amina or Aliaa. I’m sure heterosexual males in Paris got a very stimulating view as they walked to work on the morning of Femen’s “International Topless Jihad Day,” but I don’t see how their “topless jihad” did anything to further the cause of women taking ownership of their own bodies.
Feminist rebellion is culturally relative. If Femen protesters in Paris really wanted to show solidarity with Amina Tyler and Aliaa Elmahdy, what they would have done is marched the streets fully covered in abayas and niqabs, in violation of France’s niqab ban. Sure, on the surface it may seem like that would be the total opposite of what Amina and Aliaa did. And I don’t know either of them personally, obviously, so maybe they would agree with that, especially since both of them have aligned themselves with Femen. But to me, a horde of French non-Muslim women wearing niqab in the street would do a whole lot more to show support for women and their rights over their own bodies. Marching around topless in a culture that is delighted and titillated by (no pun—okay, pun totally intended), if not indifferent to, topless women is not brave, and it is not transgressive. Walking around with your face covered in a culture that is prepared to arrest you for doing so—that would have been brave and transgressive, and it would have matched the spirit of Amina and Aliaa’s defiance.
Rather than showing support for women, what Femen protesters displayed (aside from their breasts) was support of the same old orientalist tropes, the same culturally-based ideals that turned second-wave feminism, despite its critical importance in history and the great strides it made for many Western women, especially American women, into a relic of a bygone intellectual era. In truth, the Femen protesters discarded their clothes in support of nothing more than the well-worn stereotype that Muslim women are an Other who need the West to swoop in and save them, altogether helpless creatures with no agency of their own, who are chained to and restrained by their coverings, their ideals, and their men.
That’s not feminism. It’s colonialism. It’s imperialism. It’s orientalism. It’s xenophobia. It’s Islamophobia. It’s racism. But it’s not feminism.
I mean, just look at this picture (from Jezebel).
So much is wrong with this picture. This came from one of the International Topless Jihad Day protests. I have no problem with the boobs—they’re not mine, and thus I have no right to tell this woman what to do with them. And let’s set aside the fact that with the mat she is kneeling on and the position of her hands, she is mocking how Muslims, including women, pray. Not everyone is Muslim, so not everyone will hold those things sacred as I do, and that’s okay. I can shake that off and go about my day.
No, what I have a problem with is the huge fake beard, the penciled-in unibrow, the towel on the head. Could this possibly be any more racist?
It is not okay to be racist in the name of feminism…or anything else. In fact, actions like this just give feminism an even worse name, especially in cultures where it’s already a dirty word. Actions like this exclude women from feminism, especially Muslim women…women who, in all likelihood, would mostly otherwise be on board with the whole “women are people, not property, and have the right to make their own choices” thing. You know, the essence of what feminism is all about. If this is what it takes to be a feminist…well, no wonder so many women around the world either try to steer clear of anything that whiffs of feminism, or espouse their adherence to feminist ideals while prefacing their statements with, “I’m not a feminist or anything, but…”
But despite the movement’s name, Femen is not what feminism is. I know because I’m a Muslim, I’m a hijabi, I’m American…and I’m a feminist. Femen does not include me, but feminism does. And it includes Aliaa and Amina, even with their clothes on.