The Towelhead and the Feminist: FEMEN and The White Woman’s Burden

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Apparently in Arabic this is translated as “bint al-madnaka”

Femen embodies a hybid feminism, that combines Islamophobic and racist stereotypes that the Americans and Europeans have for centuries used to justify occupations and the otherizing of Arabs and Muslims and people of color all over the world.

When I was in tenth grade the Iraq war had just started. I didn’t know who the Iraqis were. I didn’t know where in the hell Afghanistan was or if that really was even a place that existed. But I did know there were towelheads in those places. By “those places” I mean an area much larger than just Iraq and Afghanistan that is in fact a collection of places and regions that was colloquially known as “over there.” “Over there” was populated by a large demographic of Arabs and Muslims and of course, Towelheads.

Now what exactly compelled my AP European history teacher to inform us in the middle of a lesson that the people we were fighting were “a bunch of towelheads” I don’t remember. But I recall quite well though the pleased smiles on my white classmates’ faces at the discovery of a new word of discrimination that was sanctioned by our class authority and seemingly society itself. I remember how excited they were to use it openly and without fear of reprimand. They left the classroom in laughter and glee. More importantly this magical word gave them the power to remove themselves from a conflict brewing in a far off land and we all found ourselves a little less concerned about what was happening over there in towelhead land.

Fast forward eight years later, then comes this lovely picture.  I admit, I had to do a double take to fathom what the hell it was I was looking at. Here is a picture of women topless with a paper beard scribbled black with a sharpie, to complement this of course, she scribbles a sharpie unibrow on forehead too, and as she bends in some sort of awkward attempt to mimic what I assume is a praying position, there sits perfectly on her head a towel. A more complete caricature of a moozlum I could not imagine.

But this picture is not the antics of some backwater racist highschool kids having some after school fun. This is from a group that calls themselves feminists. On fourth of this month Femen, a European feminist group based in Ukraine, held its “Topless Jihadi Day” ostensibly in support of Amina Tyler, a Tunisian activist who posted online pictures of herself topless and is now receiving death threats by political and religious figures in her country because of this act of defiance.

For those of us who haven’t been exposed to white supremacy, aren’t in close proximity to this phenomenon, benefit from it, or simply don’t care to read history, it is seducing to see the photo above as an act of resistance. One may even think that the above picture is one of a woman exposing herself to tell the world about a poor Tunisian girl’s plight. But all that she is really exposing is her racism. What is really being stripped naked and bare for us to see is ethnic arrogance. And this picture above all of Femen’s publicity photo shoots, confirms what more and more of us are coming to suspect: that Femen has more in common with white ethnic costume frat parties than it does with protest or solidarity with Middle Eastern women.

More people are coming to realize that Femen is just another manifestation of a broader growing trend of European anti-religious secularist nationalism which justifies racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and most egregiously war in the name of human rights, feminism, and modern development.

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Good God! He has a towel on his head! That can only mean one thing! He hates all women, the civilized world, and is the cousin of Osama bin Laden!

It’s no coincidence that the woman in the above picture chooses the towel to crown her costume of the evil Muslim man she so detests. The entire costume itself is a homage to the same racial epithet that I heard thrown around by my teacher and classmates.  The people “over there,” the “towelheads,” did not deserve an ethnicity, an identity, a humanity, thus making it far easier for us to accept the bombings and occupations our governments would soon to carry out.

It’s also no coincidence that so many of the comments bundled in support of Femen you will find across the internet are from commentators who laud Femen for “standing up” against the Muslim scourge on Europe all while  urging for immigrants to leave. The group’s activism and message are resonating with these sentiments for a reason.

This is because the message of this picture and many of Femen’s other acts tell a story they like. This picture wants the viewer to equate those who wear a long beard, those who wear head scarves or “towels” on their heads, and those who even do the simple act of Muslim prayer to those same men who persecute Amina in Tunisia. Hell this picture even implies having a uni-brow might be sufficient enough to suspect you are in league with Islamist extremists…

Meanwhile with this brilliant logic at our disposal that “towelheads” and “beards” and “uni-brows” are synonymous with being anti-women/anti-civilization, “the towelheads” and their affiliates in the West continue to be targeted. Take for instance the random murder of a Hindu man by an American woman last year who said to the police she pushed him in front of a moving train because she “hates Hindus and Muslims.” Or take the Sikh Temple massacre that took place in Wisconsin last August when a former U.S. marine opened fire indiscriminately on a group of “towelheaded” worshippers. Or take a look at the increasing membership and sympathy towards far right anti-immigrant political parties in Europe.

But it’s not just the lone crazies I’m talking about. I’m talking about entire government military policies designed on this logic, the American government’s drone policy is case and point. Mirroring the same flawed reasoning that guides Femen and other Islamophobic/racist groups that synonymize long beards and headwraps with anti-women Islamism, the U.S. government’s bombing policy implies that merely being related, living in the same region, coming from the same community, or even walking by at the same time they kill a “terrorist” makes you synonymous with a terrorist. The Obama administration’s policy that any male of military age in a strike area is equivalent to a “combatant” and therefore a legitimate target essentially codifies into American policy this abhorrent rationality that you are “guilty by association.”

To make it more understandable how crappy this form of pseudo protest and logic is, how would we react if a group of white women were to do the “chinky eyes”  hand gesture, dawn some over-sexualized kimonos and sit in Buddha style positions to show “solidarity” with exploited Asian sex worker women? How would we feel about white women painting themselves in black face and using overt stereotypes of black men while burning crosses outside black churches to show their “concern” for battered black American women? (Femen burned a Salafi flag, which contains the Islamic Shahada, a creed important to all Muslims, outside a mosque in France)

It’s absurd in all these cases but with the pervasiveness of anti-Muslim/ Arab/ Mid- Eastern sentiments makes it hard for those of us of any ideology, left or right, to pick it out.

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Miley Cyrus and friends do the “chinky eyes” to show solidarity with oppressed Asian females! Take that you awkward Asian in the middle! Stop oppressing your females!

And still many conversations about Femen that have been raised by liberals and leftists mainly revolve around the politics of nudity as a tactic, conversations that while relevant have more often than not obscured the way Femen uses blatant Islamophobia and racism as a “tactic” as well. Something that is historically not uncommon to some major white feminists when they are trying to get their way.

I try my best not to say the “r-word” a lot to white people because I know how scary it is for them. Not because I don’t believe that there are not plenty of times where I should be using it… but I am aware of how fearful many people are to be thought of as Nazis, Skinheads, or KKK members to even briefly take seriously the criticisms from Arab, Asian, Hispanic, Black and Indigenous women.

But in the case of this dreadful photo above I must call it what it is.

Femen must be condemned because this photo is not about Tunisian women. It’s not about Arab women. It’s not about Muslim women. It’s not about third world women or women of color. It’s not about solidarity. It’s not even about Amina Tyler… it’s about soothing the conscious of an increasingly xenophobic and nationalist West that would rather see it’s discrimination against and desire to occupy peoples of other countries as a campaign of human rights then for what it really is.

If it were about Tunisian women, Arab women, Muslim women or solidarity with the plights of women in color in general, these women in Europe would not have the gall to think that using the racist tropes that helped to justify war and the dehumanization of these women and their communities was a good idea.

Femen must be condemned because racism isn’t feminism. Or at least it shouldn’t be. But the fact that it’s constructed that way for many white feminists is the reason so many of us girls of color have such trouble accepting it as a legitimate form of refusal to patriarchy and why so many of us remain fearful to challenge patriarchy in our communities so as not to be confused with the bigoted ways of some feminists…

Femen must be condemned because the world must know there is no bravery in bigotry nor is there courage in demonization and there certainly isn’t solidarity in tuning out the voices of the masses. Though they would surely try to sell themselves as being daring or pushing the boundaries like many post-racial hipsters of the day, there is not a damn thing bold or daring about relying on and promoting racial/orientalist stereotypes that Europeans have used for centuries. In fact it’s perfectly normal and status quo.

Reactionary Criticism versus a New Way Forward

It must be pointed out that women from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who simply criticize white women crusaders without looking deeper into our own faults prevent the development of grassroots feminist solidarity movements.

In a globalized world where the West dominates in literature,  in our media and thus our imaginations it is hard not to imitate it, and likewise it’s hard not to crown them the originators of ways of protest and resistance that in fact has long been used by us and are shared heritage of the world.

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Women around the world have used nudity in protests. What makes Femen unique is not their use of nudity but their use of nudity and racist Islamophobia.

And when we leave the defensive posturing behind we’ll discover that we need to acknowledge that there are many pressures on women from within that tell us not to speak, stifling indigenous feminist movements. There is a strand among us that refuse to speak of sexism, racism, homophobia, or cultural imperialism with scrutiny in an internal context or to really interrogate our communities as is needed. This leads many women and other minorities who suffer from these injustices in our countries and societies to feel alienated.

Amina’s act of is a brave feat in her context. Her body is hers and she has declared it. But unlike Femen, those women and men who are interested in true solidarity with Tunisian women must go beyond Amina and her body.

Groups like Femen largely ask us to identify with one sort of “acceptable Arab woman” the one who unveils, the one who uncovers. But the histories of Arab and Muslim women show us that both unveiling and veiling were used as forms of resistance to patriarchy whether it was on the domestic front or of the imperial variety and such narrow ideas that one or the other constitutes liberation won’t fit into the different realities these women experience.

We do need a movement, a women’s movement of solidarity. But this should be a movement that looks less towards Europe and more toward the continents on which we actually live (North Africa I’m talking to you). It should be a movement that respects and takes the insights from women who practice religion as much as it does those who have no religion at all. It should be a movement that is colored in the deepest shades of black, brown and beige and not just white.  Our movements should consciously look South and East for inspiration and not just North and West. Our movements should as fluidly embrace and represent the non-English speaking women or those whose first language isn’t just a European language as it does those of us who are English speakers. It should be a movement that sees the poor women as the vanguard.

We need to be more creative than to give the West a reflection of themselves when we fight.

If we cannot do this, if we do not go further there will be no movements. There will only continue to be more unveilings like the one in the photo, an unveiling of ignorance, of naked racism, of raw Islamphobia and the stubborn defiance of the women who wear all this but claim not to see any of it.

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  • The title of this article is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden” which was both a clarion call for all of Europe to colonize, occupy, and enslave other people and their lands as it was a really really badly written poem.

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  • Writing this article i think it’s important people know that i am neither muslim nor arab but I’m a black christian girl in Cairo! Just how black am i exactly? Click here.

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  •  Other Strange and Marvelous posts in this Domain:

Translating Fatima Ali: Diary of A Black Girl in Cairo

The Backwardness of the Literate: Tales of Classism and Egypt’s Upper Class

9 comments
  1. Mark said:

    I have sympathy with this. A lot of the FEMEN activists are actually very decent people; they campaigned outside the Tunisian embassy, for example, to mock those who believe women should have a certain way of dressing, and many were of Arab and North African descent who were fed up with theocratic conservatism and standing up for themselves. The trouble is that others went too far – they began to imply that all Muslim men and women were the same. They made no distinction between the fascists (ie Islamists/Salafists) and the moderates who simply have no desire to celebrate nudity (many of whom, by the way, are white). So I personally feel that radical conservatism requires radical reaction to fight it, but that to tell all Muslim women what to wear undermines their moral authority.

  2. diasporica said:

    Hey I totally agree with you I don’t believe all the people with Femen are evil! I don’t really believe anyone is evil. I don’t believe people who supported slavery, colonialism, apartheid or the Nazis are evil. I think they were all quite decent people. But being decent people doesn’t shield us from being racist or supporting systems of discrimination and oppression. And Femen by posting pictures like this and consistently refusing to take its critics seriously shows that it doesn’t give a damn about the population they are supposedly speaking for and is following an awful Western tradition. I also believe we should emphasize that these acts by Femen are not “radical” by any means because to rely on racist stereotypes doesn’t challenge the system. Cheers and Thanks for your input!

  3. This is an important critique! I tried to discuss with Femen several times about these things (and also about their anti-sexworker-attitude and their use of Nazi-symboles) on Facebook, but they never even were willing to discuss these things. So I am not very hopeful that they will reflect any of your arguments. But nevertheless it is important to say or write that!
    I put a link to that text on my facebook site and some friends asked me about the author of that text. I would be curious about that myself. It is an imporant text. So can we know anything about the person who wrote it?
    best greetings
    Thomas

  4. Vovix said:

    You seem to miss secularism for racism. Femen does fight for secularism because only secular society can guarantee all human rights including freedom of religion and freedom from religion. That doesn’t make them “racist”. Femen is open to people of any races in the world; actually half of the protesters in “jihad” were Arab women.

    • diasporica said:

      I do indeed confuse secularism for racism as this is what Femen does. The West has been saying since the dawn of it’s empire that the rule of Europeans and their descendants through such prominent theories of “white man’s burden” and “manifest destiny” as the only ways to “develop” the world and promote “humanism” and “human rights” now referred to as “secularism” how are we then not to confuse the two? How are we then not to speak of one when speaking of the other?

      I also am tired (as many of us people of color are) of the infamous “I have a black friend so I can’t be racist” argument and its variants. The presence of some Arab women in Femen protests doesn’t mean that Femen’s paradigms about people of color isn’t racist. If simply having people of color in your organization exempts you from racism all European imperial powers can be exempted as well as Arabs, Asians, and Africans worked as administrators, instructors, and overseers to these empires. I guess there was no racism there either!

      This type of logic shows a very underdeveloped understanding of racism, as racism isn’t just about excluding people from the table but it is an entire state of mind that regards people as inferior and sets the framework for the discriminatory actions, policies, and violence on the group level and you needn’t be white to believe it or go along with it. A good example of how this paradigm and way of thinking affects people of color and how we regard ourselves is here in this post about the Egyptian elite:

      https://thedomainofthestrange.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/the-backwardness-of-the-literate/

    • diasporica said:

      I want us as westerners to truly examine and interrogate the way we think about “Third World” people. I want us to really reflect on our history and what it meant when so many of us in America and Europe took the “white man’s burden” as an unquestionable fact. I want us to look at history as something we should think about seriously and not just divorce ourselves from it because it “makes us look bad”. I want us to admit that the racist beliefs of our parents and grandfathers do affect how we see others, whether we admit or not. I want us to look and see how the West has a tradition of using the words “freedom” and “human rights” simultaneously while advocating for white supremacy. (See: Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism)

      re-read the link you sent carefully in addition to other statements by Femen leaders like the ones below and see the condescending way they talk about Muslims. think hard about the context in which they are making these statements. Like the violent incidents I mentioned above this kind of rhetoric does impact the lives of people who “look” like the people they are demonizing. Calling Muslims or Arabs “slaves” and “stupid” in a time when many western countries continue to occupy countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, they stamp their approval for these discriminatory sentiments. They are also quick as i showed above to latch on to racist caricatures to prove their point.

      Women of color do need solidarity but not through Western traditions of racism.

      Other f’d up statements by Femen:

      “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’.

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

      http://jezebel.com/5993775/muslim-women-shockingly-not-grateful-for-topless-european-ladies-trying-to-save-them

  5. Jo said:

    But in this photo the lady writes ‘Jihad’ so this would imply that she is anti-jihad not Islamophobic?

    This has nothing to do with Islam. It is about extremism. This is an anti-Shariah protest against the Shariah law or interpretation that says Amina Tyler “deserves between 80 and 100 lashes, but because of the seriousness of her actions, should be stoned to death.”

    • diasporica said:

      what is jihad? how do the over one billion muslims in existence define it? do we care to ask even one of them?
      nope lets just ask the “bearded ones with knives.”

      i agree that Femen wants to attack the extremists who threaten Amina, however in the process they latch on to racist imagery and in doing so they contribute to the atmosphere that dehumanizes and agglomerates diverse peoples.

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