Freshman Mariam Jalloul penned a well received, but flawed editorial in The Crimson last Thursday. In it, she attacked FEMEN, a feminist organization based in Kiev, for having promoted a “Topless Jihad Day,” in which women the world over bared their breasts and wrote messages like “Arab Women Against Islamism” and “Freedom to All Women” across their torsos. According to Jalloul, Western women in their “almost imperialist” “ignorance” are forgetting that “definitions of feminism” vary among different cultures. Here’s an excerpt that effectively sums up this claim:
There are varying definitions of feminism, and not all urge a woman to flaunt her body because it is her right. … Just as some women feel strong and confident showing a little skin, veiled Muslim women feel strong and confident covering their skin—and there is nothing wrong with either. The West may see oppression in Muslim women covering their bodies at the will of a male-dominated society in the same way Muslim women may see oppression in the objectification of Western women’s bodies at the hands of a male-dominated society.
Jalloul, falling victim to extreme cultural relativism, misses a crucial distinction: Western women have the freedom to choose how they present their own bodies. They have dominion over their being, in an intellectual and corporal sense. Many Muslim women, however—from Kabul to Sana’a, from Tehran to Riyadh—do not. Should they choose to defy the social standards of “male dominated society,” whether this be through their clothing or their actions, they are often subjected to stoning, imprisonment, public flagellation, and a host of other medieval punishments.
As few Muslim women, (Jalloul insists,) have any desire to “show a little skin,” the freedom to be nude may not be relevant in of itself. However, the right to dictate the fate of one’s own body certainly is. The right to choose not to have one’s genitals cut upon marriage, nor to bear a child at a dangerously young age, nor to be subjected to humiliating “virginity tests,” nor to tolerate the blows of an abusive husband, are all universal rights, superseding any culturally grounded values. Jalloul accurately claims that most Muslim women are not subjected to these degradations, but we cannot simply ignore the millions in the minority who are.
Many, having perverted Islam, are objectifying women in the starkest terms; few would deny that. And it is this forced objectification of the female body that FEMEN was protesting. They weren’t telling Muslim women to get naked; they were merely suggesting that those living in the conservative corners of the Muslim world, should be—both intellectually and bodily—their own subjects, rather than objects of male honor.
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