My writing is generally centered around economic and military Imperialism and its excesses. Given the misunderstandings and ignorance abound about the anti-Imperialist anti-authoritarian tendency and criticism of the United States, you may be surprised to know that I consider the struggle against Imperialism waged in the colonial countries a women’s struggle just as much as it is an anti-Imperialist one. That, to divorce the struggle against Imperialism as capital’s principle manifestation from the women’s question, is to negate the ABC’s of basic leftist thought-form. Anti-Imperialist struggle is relegated to Islamic fundamentalist chauvinism by the media.
“They hate us because we allow women in the workplace.”
That is what we hear. But we never hear of the women and girls who suffer and die in Afghanistan from drone strikes; nor do we hear of, as the book Feminism and War: Confronting US Imperialism reports, the up to 25,000 women and girls who have been trafficked into brothels in Kabul since the onset of the invasion and military occupation of Afghanistan in 2001. (1)
That women are allowed to be exploited not just at home, but in our factories and places of work here in America too, is sufficient. They “hate us” hundreds of thousands of miles away, never to see us, all because we allow women to work. Nevermind the power-structure at play that has women making less than men in the workplace, and never getting so much as a “thank you” let alone a wage for the work they do in the household.
Muslims in the United States are a persecuted minority. And so, the Left has a priority in America to defend the rights of this group of people. But in Tunisia, where these topless protests originated, Islam is the overwhelming majority, ranging 98% of the population. Tunisia is also an ally to U.S. militarism.
This is where the American Left has confused its priorities.
As a writer on the blog Eagainst wrote:
“To claim that Islam is not political, or only political in a certain framework, does not force women to become unquestionably and brutally subordinated to their husbands, is not just wrong but also ahistorical, unless one is referring to a secularized, modernized sect, which either attempts to rationalize Islamic ethics or even adopts a less religious-centric approach, by embracing other values and norms.” (5)
Simply because Muslims can play a role against economic and, specifically, in more cases, military Imperialism in the Third-world, does not mean that we should simply consider Islam an ally at every turn. If the Left’s goal is anti-Imperialist realism, than realist it should be. The Left would find itself almost uncritical of Islamic theocracy, even if that Islamic theocracy is backed up by US Imperialism, simply because it is Islamic, and that our immediate goal is not to stifle the interests of US Imperialism in the Arab regions, but rather, to “humanize” and adapt, in a sense, Islam for Euro-Christian eyes. So the Left likens Islam to Christianity, or Judaism. Therein lies the mistake. We have no interest in the doctrines and dogmas of Christianity, or Judaism, and neither Islam for that matter. Its members we may take an interest in, but a proportionate amount of Leftist thought and theory comes down to criticism of religion and metaphysical dogmas.
Why the Topless Protests Started
This “obscene” photograph is a picture of Amina. Amina posted a topless picture of herself on the internet. Amina is a Tunisian Feminist activist. It is being reported that Amina has:
“..been effectively detained incommunicado by her family with the help of the police, and the latest reports say she has been drugged and beaten.” (2)
In Tunisia, Islam is followed by nearly 99% of the entire population. The state is not only conservative and, in a number of ways theocratic, but that because of this, oppression of the nuclear family, and with that the systematized oppression of women are exacerbated.
Amina challenged a conservative, backwards society, and its patriarchal values; and rightfully so. But instead of feedback, positive or negative, she was imprisoned, not just by the state, but by her family; all because she showed her chest on the internet.
The Guardian reports that Amina “fears for her life”:
“I’m afraid for my life and the lives of my family,” she said, adding that she doesn’t think it possible to return to school in Tunisia and wants to study journalism abroad.” (3)
You must understand that women are not your property. You have no right to tell women they ought to cover up, simply because you’re insecure about your breast fetishism. There is nothing inherently sexual about the female breast. Because our society retains a sexual dialectic of sexual conservatism/sexual liberalism, men in this society and the establishment itself feels both uncomfortable and aroused seeing female breasts in public. But simply because the male in western society views breasts as a sexual object does not mean that breasts are a sexual object, that they should be “covered up.”
A fetish is defined by merriam-webster as:
“..an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression” (4)
The object’s inherent sexual character to the fetishist is not itself inherent; rather, it is projected onto the object by the individual with the fetish. So the object that is fetishized is not itself the character projected on it, merely symbolic of that character. What does the female breast represent? It represents the half-covered/half-naked on-the-TV female body. It represents, for the American male, the mother, the wife, the sex-object.
Of course, toplessness does not entail liberation of the female. In the words of Germaine Greer, “As long as men think of women’s bodies as commodities offered only and solely for their consumption, there is no liberation to be had either in taking clothes off, or keeping them covered.”
The oppression of the female is both economic and socio-political; cultural as it is capitalistic, going back to feudalism and feudal property relations. As Ulrike Meinhof wrote in her column for Konkret titled False Consciousness (1968) it is impossible to pursue equal pay for men and women without also pursuing a redistribution of social wealth; impossible to liberate women without displacing capital, capitalism, and from that the capitalist who is engaged in and benefits from that system.
But to say that women cannot take off their tops in the streets is a reduction of the female to her breasts, and what her breasts psychologically and politically symbolize in the eyes of the American male. It is to, as Greer says, restrict women’s actions on the basis of man’s thinking of women’s bodies “as commodities” offered “only and solely for their consumption.”
Topless Solidarity and Politics
So far, the criticisms of Femen made by the Left have been cataclysmic. Femen is either entirely black and without virtue, or the greatest thing since the 1960’s for women’s liberation. The truth is, it is neither.
Any criticism of Femen must be a dialectical one. It has to view Femen as a movement sprouting from a bourgeois society, and view it as a movement that lacks any serious class analysis of the women’s question, gender oppression and women’s relationship with society in light of capitalism and the ownership of women. It needs to remember that Femen is not perfect, nor is it utterly evil and chauvinistic. Femen is women, angry with the current order, striking out at the oppression they experience, and, as was said before, rightfully so.
There is nothing inherently wrong with toplessness, for either men or women. Because we exist within patriarchal social-relations, women are told that their breasts must be hidden, that they are something so powerful that if they were to reveal them everywhere, their power as a woman would be reduced to nothingness; because the female breast represented to them the female, and therefore female sexuality; they had found that something hidden, yet representative of their blooming sexual interest in the female.
Pornography, and the reproduction of a functioning rape culture are not liberatory, by any stretch; but it is not that the west experiences “softer” oppression, and that the middle-east experiences “harsher” oppression in regards to the female, but rather that this oppression manifests itself in different forms, through different social and cultural variants; that the basis, that of the ownership and subjugation of women, stands intact. To say that the woman in the west is “better off” than the woman in the middle-east, is to say that the African slave was “better off” than the Greek slave. Oppression is oppression, and so the goal of resistance to oppression is not simply to settle for proverbial crumbs. Not concessions, but power. Proletarian revolution is but a women’s revolution, it is but a shift of power dynamic, between those on the bottom, and those on top.
So to say that the middle-east should adopt strip clubs and start filming porn, that middle-eastern women are “dimwitted” to not throw away the hijab and put on the bikini, is to ignore the larger, economic aspect of women’s oppression, and, more importantly, the strategic implications of female emancipatory action.
But that is not the point of Femen – surely, among Femen’s members, these false mentalities may be adopted; but that is beyond the point. The point is not that we will “liberate women overnight by taking off our shirts collectively,” but that a message of broad solidarity is echoed from the west to the east, a message of solidarity to Amina, and to all the women and girls living under conservative patriarchy in the Arab world.
(1) Feminism and War: Confronting US Imperialism, p. 169