Bare Breasts or Prayer Shawls: Which Women’s Protest Poses More of a Threat?

The 'sextremist' group FEMEN is waging a provocative global campaign against dictatorship, homophobia, and theocracy, while the Women of the Wall threaten the status quo in a different way.

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The spring season of political demonstrations has officially made its debut, and it seems that this year’s big protest fashion trend is ... going topless.

The female members of the “sextremist” group based in the Ukraine called FEMEN, which states it is committed to fighting ‘dictatorship, homophobia, and theocracy,’ has been grabbing international headlines on a consistent basis by showing up without their shirts. On April 4, they declared a “Topless Jihad Day” calling on activists to show up bare-breasted at Tunisian embassies around the world.

They did this in protest of Islamist oppression of women in general, and specifically in support of Amina Tyler, the Tunisian woman who has been subject to death threats for posing online topless. Tyler started a chapter of FEMEN in her country, making an attention-getting debut by posting photographs of herself online with "FUCK YOUR MORALS" and "My body belongs to me," written across her bare chest.

On their Facebook page, the group wrote, "This day will mark the beginning of a new, genuine Arab Spring, after which true freedom, freedom without mullahs and caliphs, will come to Tunisia! Long live the topless jihad against infidels! Our tits are deadlier than your stones!"

Members of the group followed that up on Monday with a surprise ambush of Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to the Telegraph, here’s what happened:

“Mr. Putin was with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a trade fair in Hanover when the woman tried to push her way through to an amused-looking Mr. Putin, but was blocked by aides. Her back was painted with an obscene slogan in Cyrillic script directed against the Russian president. The activist was with two other women who also stripped to the waist and shouted slogans calling the Russian leader a “dictator”.”

This time, the group said they were protesting Putin’s oppressive policies specifically the imprisonment of members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot. FEMEN said the protest was an “anti-dictatorial attack on Putin”. The group criticized the Kremlin, Russia’s Federal Security Service and the Russian Orthodox Church, saying that FEMEN was against “dictatorship, homophobia and theocracy”.

It’s unclear whether the group would consider the action a success. On one hand, the incident was featured on nearly every television channel in the world. On the other, it didn’t appear to upset the Russian leader at all. Unsurprisingly, Putin wasn’t angered by having half-naked young women jump on him. In fact, he confessed that he rather ‘liked’ it. His only problem was that it happened so fast that he “didn’t make out whether they were blondes, chestnut-haired or brunettes.”

So what can we in Israel take away from these experiences?

I must confess: my first thought is that that some of the macho types leading the government right now who are well-known appreciators of female anatomy might be actively holding out hope that the groups protesting their economic policies adopt FEMEN tactics. I can picture them having a very Putin-esque reaction.

But more seriously - on the eve of this month’s regularly scheduled Women of the Wall prayer session on Thursday, as police threaten arrests and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky scrambles to defuse the situation, I would hope that the philosophy and behavior of the FEMEN activists might offer a little perspective.

After taking a look FEMEN, can anyone really call the ‘criminal’ behavior of the members of the Women of the Wall ‘provocative?’’

We’re talking women whose big crime is wanting to cover their chests with an additional garment - a tallit - not strip naked.

FEMEN is vehemently anti-religion - their atheist leader makes it clear that she believes all organized religion is bad for women. That is what is causing some Muslim women groups to disavow the group’s support in the media and on social networks. On Facebook, Muslim Women Against Femen was started by “Muslim women who want to expose FEMEN for the Islamophobes/Imperialists that they are. We are making our voices heard and reclaiming our agency!”

A debate about FEMEN, Islam and cultural imperialism is now raging. In her response to the criticism, FEMEN founder Inna Shevchenko made no apologies for her anti-religion stance. She’s nonsectarian in her position - she thinks all religion is bad.

“Often, before going to sleep I dream about a world with religions that are only in your houses or churches and don't appear in other places. And do you know what I see? I see the world without Serbs, Croats and Muslims being massacred, without 9/11, without witch-hunts, without 7/7, a world without suicide bombers and without the Taliban, without Israeli/Palestinian wars, without persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers', without Northern Ireland troubles, without Crusades, a world where are no public beheadings of blasphemers and no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it.”

I can’t help thinking that in many ways, it would make life a whole lot easier for the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities at the Western Wall if Israeli feminists fit the godless, anti-religion FEMEN mold. After all, wouldn’t it would be so much better for their cause if police were dragging women away from the Wall and charging them with crimes if the women were topless and shouting angry slogans, not wrapped in prayer shawls and reading from the Torah?

It is probably much more difficult and complicated for patriarchs in any religion to deal with women who aren’t hostile to their beliefs and rituals, but instead, want to be embrace them and join in on equal terms with men, to the point where they demand the right to become rabbis or priests or imams.

In this way, the Women of the Wall can be seen as more of a threat to the status quo, even more ‘sextremist,’ than the topless ladies of FEMEN.

Activists from women's rights group Femen take part in a protest in front of a mosque in Sao Paulo April 4, 2013.Credit: Reuters
FEMEN activists protest in front of the Tunisian Consulate in Milan, Thursday, April 4, 2013.Credit: AP

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