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Originally published Saturday, April 13, 2013 at 4:55 PM

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Naheed Mustafa: Put your shirts back on, ladies of Femen’s Topless Jihad

Turning women’s bodies into objects will not break through female oppression, writes Foreign Policy contributor Naheed Mustafa.

Foreign Policy

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The other day, I was sitting around thinking about all the women who are trying to bring real change to the world. They wade into politics; they try to change attitudes; many fight hard to change laws and customs despite the real threat of violence — maybe even death.

These are women plainly not accepted as being equal partners in the enterprise of nation-building. Yet they persevere and insist on doing the tough work.

But it occurs to me that maybe if those women had simply taken a page from Femen’s how-to manual, they might have met their goals much sooner. I mean, years and years of house arrest for pushing democratic change? Why? Lift your blouse, Aung San Suu Kyi! Welcome to Freedom!

What’s that? You want to stop a civil war, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee? Forget working with the trauma-afflicted and building networks and doing the scary work of looking rapists in the face and shouting “enough!” Show us your boobies!

And come on, Shirin Ebadi. Do we even have to talk about this? Confronting the Iranian theocracy with your brain? We know the other b-word that would be so much more effective!

Femen — a Ukrainian group that “empowers” women through breast-focused action (Femen/feminist — get it?) — wants to save Muslim women, and they will do it without their shirts because Muslim women also have breasts and since we can’t show ours, they’ll show theirs. Or something.

And by linking Muslim women living in societies where many men are suspicious of women’s control over their own bodies to everything that is seen as depraved and debauched about Western culture (see breast-focused action), Femen will change hearts and minds!

Look how well it has worked out for the young Tunisian woman who decided a topless protest was the best way to go. She was set upon and threatened by conservatives, so Femen took up her cause and, on April 4, organized the first (and hopefully last) International Topless Jihad Day. “Amina” now not only fears for her life but for that of her family too.

Now before you get all riled up and accuse me of blaming the victim, let me say it clearly: No one — not “Amina,” not any person — should be threatened with violence or death for expressing her or his opinion even if that expression includes yanking off one’s clothes.

As a woman, my main issue is with this persistent idea that by turning our bodies into objects — even if we’re the ones choosing to do so — women will somehow break through age-old cultural taboos, customs and laws that keep us socially and legally constricted.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, Femen’s point is precisely about attracting attention — using women’s bodies as a way to sell an idea (how novel).

Maybe the women involved don’t really think they’ll directly cause actual change, but rather they — and their breasts — can get people to see the issues (I’m trying very hard not to pun). That’s all fine and well, but I can’t possibly be the first person to point out that taking your unsheathed bosoms to a mosque and using them as a way to force men to think about options for their daughters and sisters and wives seems ... screwed up (and let’s not even talk about the gross, racist under- and overtones of International Topless Jihad Day).

Look, I get it. Raging against conservative religions and sex trafficking and whatever else Femen rages against by stripping down is a stunt. But it is protest for its own sake and does a huge disservice to the difficult, persistent, long-term work in which feminists are engaged the world over.

When women’s independence becomes synonymous with nudity, then it’s a snap for people — men — to dismiss it as unserious.

Which brings me to this hilarious but telling image of Vladimir Putin being confronted by a topless Femen protester in Germany. She was protesting Russia’s anti-gay laws. See the look of sudden enlightenment on the Russian strongman’s face?

He’s thinking, “Yes, this woman’s breasts have made me see the light. I now realize my comments and attitudes about gay people have been way off the mark.” (I’m kidding. That looks more like the look of happy surprise. Putin wasn’t shaking in his boots.)

Of course regressive ideas need confronting. But change is a long, drawn-out process, and progress takes many steps back before it moves perceptibly forward. Femen, with its crude use of nudity, isn’t helping.

The assumption that conversations about Muslim women can only come about if Muslim men look at enough breasts is as stupid as it sounds. Basically, ladies, keep your breasts out of my fight. And put your shirts back on.

Mustafa is a Canadian freelance writer and broadcaster.

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