Two Femen protesters interrupted a conference regarding women in Islam in Paris on Sept. 13. According to The Independent, the women ran on stage while two imams were addressing the crowd and took their tops off. They had the phrases “I am my own prophet” and “Nobody makes me submit” written on their torsos in French. The two women were escorted off the stage and taken into custody for questioning. Femen is notorious for their controversial protests, not just against the Muslim community but a wide variety of people and institutions that offend them. According to the Huffington Post, they have protested against Pope Francis and the Catholic Church, the International Ice Hockey Federation, right-wing political organizations in France, the Prime Minister of Turkey, a finale episode of Germany’s Next Top Model, and many other instances. Femen’s slogan is “sextremism,” and they pledge themselves to fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations: “sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship, and religion,” according to the Femen website.
Fighting patriarchy is something people who want gender equality have to do. However, fighting patriarchy by blaming religion as an inherent and unrelenting cause of misogyny and cause for the usurpation of women’s rights is problematic. Blaming gender inequality on religion is a very decontextualized approach to the problem. Religions like Christianity and Islam, which Femen has the most issues with, have existed for approximately two thousand and fourteen hundred years respectively. Considering how religious practice and expressions of faith can change over and over again in such a vast amount of time, perceiving Islam and Christianity as static sources of patriarchy doesn’t seem like the most thorough explanation of how gender inequality exists in society today.
Gender inequality is incredibly complex and presents itself in different ways, depending on where one is in the world, where one falls on the socio-economic gradient, and gender identity. When you add the lense of race and religion to the gender inequality problem, the issue increases in complexity exponentially. Yes, there are definitely Muslim communities with patriarchal overtones, just as Christian communities with patriarchal influences exist. There are Hindu communities with existing patriarchy, and agnostic and atheistic people who unconsciously or consciously perpetuate patriarchal beliefs. This is because patriarchy exists with or without the influence of religion. Surely, quoting from religious scripture can be utilized to justify patriarchy. However, scripture can also be quoted to argue for gender equality. Religious scripture is open to interpretation and isn’t fixed law. If someone is socialized to have misogynistic views, they would apply a patriarchal lense when shaping their religious views. If someone is socialized to have feminist views, they would apply a feminist lense when shaping their religious views. When the same reasoning can be used to make opposing arguments, then are we not simply thinking in circles? The members of Femen have every right to be upset with existing patriarchy, but flashing themselves to imams and disrespecting a faith with 1.6 billion worshippers (according to Pew Research Center) is not a very effective step in dismantling a systemic problem that affects every woman on earth.
Yes, patriarchal systems exist everywhere but because different parts of the world have different problems, patriarchy also takes on different forms in different places, with people of different class, race, and gender. Because different communities have different problems, each community should be given the opportunity to address these problems on their own. How can the Muslim community organically find their own reform and progress if they constantly face opposition and blame for problems that pervasively exist in society anyway? Expressions of Muslim feminism is not the same as the feminism that Femen opts for but that does not mean it doesn’t exist.