She’s topless. She’s angry. And she is, literally, taking liberties. The activist in this picture took part in a protest in Paris in support of Amina Tyler, a young Tunisian woman who has been targeted by Islamists after she put a bare-breasted picture of herself on her Facebook page in March with the words “Fuck Your Morals” and “My Body Belongs To Me, And Is Not The Source Of Anyone’s Honour” painted across her chest.
Both Tyler and this activist are members of Femen, the radical feminist group that originated in the Ukraine and specialises in topless politics. Hackers attacked Femen’s Tunisian Facebook page replacing pictures with texts from the Qur’an, while a prominent cleric has suggested Tyler might be stoned.
So here is a picture of Femen’s response – it declared 4 April to be International Topless Jihad Day, and protesters duly took their clothes off in Paris.
And you thought this stuff was complicated. Religious traditions, respect for cultural difference, fear of legitimating Islamophobia … You’d think twice about declaring a jihad on Islamic attitudes to women and their bodies, right?
Not Femen. This picture is gloriously crude. At a time of tight-lipped liberal relativism when even the president of the United States is damned careful what he says about Islam, here is a woman bearing her body, quoting Tyler’s anti-religious slogan, wearing a pseudo-jihadist black scarf over her face. Clearly, the protest is provocative – even in Paris, where this man who may be religiously offended, or just offended by women in general, appears to be kicking her.
Already, the New Statesman has weighed in with a critique of Femen’s “jihad”, arguing that it is naive to defend the rights of women in north Africa in this cheerfully secular way. But what is so wrong with stating a clear principle?
Tyler has asserted in her own words, on her own body, that she belongs to herself and is not an object of moral scrutiny or male honour. This is fair enough, no? She is claiming freedoms and rights taken for granted in most democratic countries – but which are frowned on and suppressed and violently denied by religious conservatives. If Christian conservatives ran things here, our society would be hobbled and distorted and modern freedoms denied. Femen has indeed attacked Christianity as well as Islam. But in western Europe the church has very little real power over public morals. Islam does exert such power in north Africa. Tyler objects to this moral control. Is she wrong to do so? Why does this activist for freedom not deserve the same support the Arab spring got? Or is freedom only worth supporting when there is no possible conflict with Islam implied by all the romantic Arabist rhetoric?
Does this picture look to you like a foolish and ignorant attempt to intervene in Islam’s private concerns? Please explain why. Because to me it looks like a blast of honesty in a dishonest age. As the artist Gustav Klimt put it, nakedness is truth.