FEMEN Told Me to "Take Off My Headscarf" Before Standing Up For Women

It was with an indelible sense of amusement that I first read about the recent “outing” of the true leader of radical feminist organization FEMEN — and that leader’s gender. Interesting that the organization purporting to save "oppressed" women from men, was in fact controlled by one.

Need a quick refresher? FEMEN shot to notoriety earlier this year with their campaign to raise awareness about Islamism (snappily titled "titslamism") staging topless protests in front of Islamic centers around the world; protests that were met with anger and outcry from the very women the organization was hoping to "save." In response, statements of "freedom for all!" were issued by members, including Inna Shevchenko, public leader of the organization.

In one of the many responses to the statements and actions of the organization, I wrote a rebuttal that gave me the opportunity to then debate the founder of FEMEN herself, although the way the debate was handled was very odd.

As a Muslim American woman, I choose to don a headscarf. The choice came after a period of reflection, time that should not even be referenced in conversation with a stranger — yet it is something I find myself addressing again and again. 

Nevertheless, it was still jarring to be told by Inna, a fellow feminist working towards the supposed-freedom of "oppressed" Muslim women during the FEMEN debate, that in order for me to be considered a feminist, I first had to take off my headscarf.

Upon hearing Inna’s statement, I realized her words encapsulated the mission of FEMEN, the understanding that there was only one way to be free, defined only by their organization. It touched upon a systemic issue that has been foisted upon myself and women deemed as "other" or "different" in our attempts to fulfill our roles as feminists working towards a more equal future. It also made me a tired; tired of the struggle to find a feminist organization truly accepting and inclusive of diversity.

In the months that followed, FEMEN found itself being abandoned by the very person for whom they had originally crafted their "titslamism" campaign around: Amina Tyler, who told the Huffington Post in August that she didn’t "want her name to be associated with an Islamophobic organization."

The recent news of the male mastermind, unveiled by 28-year-old Australian filmmaker Kitty Green in her documentary Ukraine is Not a Brothel, only serves to further underscore the hollowness with which the organization operates. Yet questions have arisen, questions yet to be answered by those speaking out:

Why don’t we ever talk about the saving of those that once so forcibly pretended to be a supposedly oppressed group of women’s saviors? 

What makes it so possible to ignore the conversation on intersectional feminism, savior complex, and the true state of allyship? 

Throughout the years, seemingly mainstream feminists have failed to create an inclusionary environment, one that accepts and fights for the rights of all women, even those of us with differences that cannot be neatly packaged into a singular agenda. Throughout the hubbub of the "titslamism" campaign, Western mainstream feminists remained conspicuously silent on the ironic juxtaposition of offensive protests by FEMEN to save Muslim/Eastern women. Those Muslim/Eastern women were already speaking out, but we were ignored because we were not saying (or wearing) the "appropriate" things.

If you were going to save a group of women, why would you ignore the words they say?


We need to talk about the true effectiveness of such savior campaigns that neatly package the plights of a few people into a convenient blanket statement and then create distance between themselves and the women they are trying to save(and potentially viable allies and resources). 

We have to talk about intersectionality and understanding because without it, the example of FEMEN is only that: an example. It can't stop there. It must be the impetus for change, because without a move forward, we go nowhere at all.

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Laila Alawa

Laila Alawa is the CEO and founder of The Tempest, a leading media company by diverse millennial women, for the world. With more than half a million monthly visitors, the site covers everything from life to humor, entertainment to news. She is also the host for The Expose, a weekly podcast tackling tough topics with snark and wit. Her work has been mentioned in The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, Mashable, Color Lines, Bustle, Feministing, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. She's also appeared on Al-Jazeera America, BBC World News, NPR, and Huffington Post Live. In 2015, Laila was named an Ariane de Rothschild Fellow.

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