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May 02 2013

What point would a protest have if it didn’t piss someone off?

Amina-Tyler

This well-written article in The Atlantic remarks on a familiar tactic. It’s about the Femen, the topless jihad, and Amina, and the complaints an annoying number of stodgy critics have made. You know the ones: the people who demand that all arguments be respectful, and insist that there are proper channels for debate, and protests that actually rile the establishment are inappropriate.

With its topless jihad and Femen leader Inna Shevchenko’s subsequent incendiary blog post on the event, Femen was both defending one of its own and upholding a right to freedom of expression (to say nothing of life and liberty) flagrantly violated by Amina’s own family and by an angry, largely Muslim, community from which threats against Amina and Shevchenko continue to emanate. It’s worth pointing out that Femen’s critics, several of whom professed concern for Amina’s well-being, did not speak out in Amina’s defense before the jihad, but only post-factum and in passing, all the while pummeling the group standing up for her with stale, politically correct shibboleths and demands to stay out of what they perceived to be their own business.

We saw this in all the battles over accommodationism: there’s always someone on your side who offended that you have chosen to battle antagonistically or unconventionally against oppression and foolishness. I think their favorite word must be “hush” — don’t upset the status quo, even if it’s the status quo you’re trying to upset. And most importantly, they insist that you have to follow their tactics, and they get to tell everyone how to engage, even if their history is one of largely sitting on their thumbs and getting chummy with the enemy.

Guess what is often at the root of that reluctance to actually confront? Yeah, it’s the same old boogeyman everytime, conservative traditionalism in the guise of religion.

There is a problem, however. The media has long fostered the view that religion should be de facto exempt from the logical scrutiny applied to other subjects. I am not disputing the right to practice the religion of one’s choice, but rather the prevailing cultural rectitude that puts faith beyond the pale of commonsense review, and (in Amina’s case), characterizes as “Islamophobic” criticism of the criminal mistreatment of a young woman for daring to buck her society’s norms, or of Femen for attacking the forced wearing of the hijab.

We’re seeing a lot of that lately, but it’s been going on for a long, long time. Point out that transubstantiation is ridiculous, and that Catholics don’t get to tell you to honor a cracker, and Bill Donohue raves that you’re an anti-Catholic bigot; stand aghast at ultra-orthodox Jews spitting on little girls for “immodesty” and you’re an anti-semite; critize the deeply rooted misogyny in Islam, a misogyny that harms men and women in the faith, and you’re declared an Islamophobe.

Just because it’s cloaked in the self-declared mystery of religion doesn’t mean it’s exampt from scrutiny and rejection.

36 comments

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  1. 1
    hillaryrettig

    “Go where you are least wanted, for there you are most needed”. -Abby Kelly Foster, 19th century abolitionist.

  2. 2
    Akira MacKenzie

    There seems to be a general trend in our culture to avoid any sort of “conflict” and to make compromise at all cost a virtue.* A couple of years back, I got into it with a FB friend over abortion who claimed that the pro-choice position of “abortion on demand” was just as “extreme” as the anti-choicers desire to ban the procedure outright, and that some sort of compromise should be reached to resolve the issue once and for all. “Americans are sick of hearing to extremists on ANY issue screaming at each other!” he complained. “Shut up and let the rest of us get on with our lives.”

    Don’t fight! Don’t argue! Be reasonable! You X are just as extreme as -X! can’t you find a middle ground? There HAS to be a middle ground! You’re tearing the human family apart!

    *Ugh, I’m coming close to sounding like Barry Goldwater.

  3. 3
    Tigger_the_Wing, Back home =^_^=

    It isn’t OK to stand up against the establishment when the establishment is hurting women, or little girls, or brown people.

    So when is it OK to stand up against the establishment?

    Oh. When Real People™ are oppressed, of course!

  4. 4
    David Marjanović

    Good handwriting, I have to say.

  5. 5
    hypocee

    First paragraphs:

    It is possible to have a conscientious opposition to research on animals, and every university has channels by which activists can register their dissent, and by which they can also influence ethical decisions made by institutional animal research review committees. There is a right way and a wrong way to protest.

    You know the ones: the people who demand that all arguments be respectful, and insist that there are proper channels for debate, and protests that actually rile the establishment are inappropriate.

    I don’t disagree with either position, but it’s a remarkably short hypocrisy. I’m thinking you may have been better off saying only that the particular animal rights action was stupid.

  6. 6
    hillaryrettig

    Agreed. Re “rude” activism, here is a terrific article:

    http://www.blunderbussmag.com/get-rude-in-praise-of-obnoxious-and-annoying-activism/

    Religion may be a particularly difficult area due to the unique privilege of the oppressors, but activists in a lot of fields are told to shut up and sit down. Activism is just hard, and it can take a toll. That’s why I wrote The Lifelong Activist: to support progressive and radical activists of all types. It’s got sections on self-care, self-actualization, and time management, and it’s now free online on the Web at http://www.lifelongactivist.com, so I hope people will visit it and refer it around.

    On the other hand, activism may be hard, but many activists know this intuitively: a lot worse is to have a life without meaning. The work of social change is hard, but it’s also glorious, and, let’s face it, you meet the best people.

  7. 7
    Irmin

    Yes, the only thing missing is that you “hurt the feelings” of religious people if you dare criticise any stupid statement ever muttered by any of their representatives. The logical conclusion being that “religious feelings” are very special and non-religious people just can’t feel deeply enough or something like this. This only gets better if the feel-hurting is done by people (or, dare I say, women) exercising their rights.

    @Akira, #2: Indeed, and I really wonder where that comes from. Is it just laziness? I mean, you don’t have to dive into any topic if you just take the positions perceived as the most “extreme” and average them. Even if there’s nothing behind one of the positions and/or there are more than two sides to a story.

    Or is it more of a way used by (real) extremists to get at least something out of a discussion? Of course, then you’ll state an opinion that’s even worse, just to get your real point across as a sort of “compromise”.

  8. 8
    PZ Myers

    Hypocee: Correct. There is a right way and a wrong way, but the criterion for deciding which category your protest falls under isn’t by asking whether it annoys your target, whether they are imams or scientists: it’s whether it forces change. I don’t know any scientist who isn’t immensely annoyed by IACUC and it’s byzantine protocols; I don’t have a problem with animal rights protestors standing outside a building waving signs, or refusing to do dissections or eat meat, or being vocal.

    But blowing up labs is unforgivable. I’d also say that blowing up mosques is also beyond the pale. Both are not only violent and stupid, they are ineffective.

  9. 9
    hillaryrettig

    Hypocee – AMAZING CATCH

  10. 10
    A Hermit

    I’m pretty sure that Laila Alawa and the other Muslim women upset by the protests wouldn’t be talking about Amina at all if it weren’t for Femen…

  11. 11
    Nick Gotts

    I don’t think any article that uses the term “politically correct” unironically can reasonably be described as “well-written”.

    There is a right way and a wrong way, but the criterion for deciding which category your protest falls under isn’t by asking whether it annoys your target, whether they are imams or scientists: it’s whether it forces change. – PZ

    What would be your estimate of the probability that Femen’s protest will force change?

  12. 12
    hillaryrettig

    A Hermit – there’s a theory that the radicals create a space in which the moderates can operate and create change. The radicals reset the bar; the moderates get the mainstream to that bar (or closer to it).

    I could never find out whether this is apocryphal or not, but Martin Luther King supposedly said that the only reason white people listened to him was because the alternative was Malcolm X and violent revolution.

  13. 13
    Fionnabhair

    I really have to disagree with some of the points made in the linked article (and thus this post). While I don’t necessarily think what Femen is doing is Islamophobic*, the accusations of racism are absolutely justified. Some of Femen’s members (including Shevchenko) and supporters- who are, for the most part, white Europeans- are claiming to speak on behalf of Muslim women living in the Middle East, even going as far as to invalidate the lives experiences of the women they claim to be supporting! I even saw one image of a topless woman (white, of course) wearing a tuban and a fake beard, in an obvious attempt to mock Arabic men; how is this any different than, say, wearing blackface? That’s as much an insult to the Arab ethnicity as it is to the Muslim religion.

    This post by Elle over at Shakesville goes into more detail about the racist nature of Femen’s actions. Highly recommended.

    *To be honest, I’m not 100% certain that Femen isn’t being Islamophobic. Considering their comments about Muslim women- in particular, the comment Shevchenko made on her blog about Muslim women saying they don’t need liberation but they really mean to say they need help- I think an argument could be made that they’re being Islamophobic. Criticizing Islam isn’t Islamophobic, but when you claim to speak for Muslim women and deny their lived experiences the way Shevchenko is doing, that may cross the line into Islamophobia.

  14. 14
    DLC

    There’s a limit to protest. You don’t get to break into someone else’s space and make demands. Yes, this means that Atheists aren’t allowed to barge into a Catholic Church and demand that the services cease forthwith. (even though it might be amusing to see the witch-doctor’s face when you did).
    It also means that anti-abortion activists don’t get to barge into family planning clinics and demand they shut down. Finally, your right to protest stops at the end of my nose. You don’t get to threaten me or demand my execution.

  15. 15
    Amphiox

    And you don’t get to break into a research facility and ruin experiments and get helpless animals killed.

  16. 16
    mythbri

    Pissing people off is fine. It’s not “nice,” but it’s fine.

    Causing harm or splash damage to people because your protest is violent, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or disrupts years of legitimate research, is not.

    Pissing people off is not the same as harm, but we should be really honest about tactics that do cause harm.

  17. 17
    Chaos Engineer

    Invading someone else’s space can be OK in some cases, especially if the space is normally open to the general public. I’m thinking of the Woolworth’s lunch counter protests.

    It’s a valid protest to sit down at a lunch counter and refuse to leave until you’ve been served, and it’s valid to get there early in the morning so that you can monopolize the seat all day if necessary. It wouldn’t have been valid to sneak into the kitchen and steal the order slips so that other customers couldn’t be served, so the protestors didn’t do that.

    I’ll say that the general rule is that a valid protest doesn’t violate the basic human rights of the targets. You get bonus points if you trick the targets into claiming that their privileges are basic human rights. (“I’ve got a RIGHT to eat at/sell food at this lunch counter, but I can’t because Those People are trying to buy food and eat it!”)

  18. 18
    Antares42

    Speaking of inappropriate, PZ, is there a particular reason why her nipple is blurred out in the picture you’re using?

  19. 19
    Gregory Greenwood

    Fionnabhair @ 13;

    I really have to disagree with some of the points made in the linked article (and thus this post). While I don’t necessarily think what Femen is doing is Islamophobic*, the accusations of racism are absolutely justified. Some of Femen’s members (including Shevchenko) and supporters- who are, for the most part, white Europeans- are claiming to speak on behalf of Muslim women living in the Middle East, even going as far as to invalidate the lives experiences of the women they claim to be supporting! I even saw one image of a topless woman (white, of course) wearing a tuban and a fake beard, in an obvious attempt to mock Arabic men; how is this any different than, say, wearing blackface? That’s as much an insult to the Arab ethnicity as it is to the Muslim religion.

    Some of the actions undertaken by Femen that you describe do appear to cross over the line into islamophobia, but I think that there is still an important distinction to be drawn here between what you are doing – pointing out actions by individual protesters that cross over the line of reasonable protest and assume the character of racist bigotry – and what many other critics of Femen seem to be doing in trying to claim that protest against, and criticism of, any aspect of islam automatically amounts to islamophobia, and so should be silenced, and that women criticising islam are particularly ‘offensive’ because women should ‘know their place’ or are somehow unfit to discuss matters pertaining to religious belief even where those beliefs primarily impact the lives of women.

    Protecting people from bigotry is important, but trying to use accusations of bigotry to shield (often toxic and in their own right bigoted) beliefs from any and all criticism is problematic. The difficult part is ensuring that you do the former without unintentionally giving cover and support to those who would subvert your actions in pursuit of the latter. It is heartening to see that, so far, most people on this thread seem to be striking that balance rather well.

  20. 20
    Rawnaeris, Lulu Cthulhu

    @Antares42; I would be willing to guess that it has to do with it being above the fold, so that if anyone pulls the site up at work they won’t instantly get into trouble.
    PZ, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

  21. 21
    David Marjanović

    On the other hand, activism may be hard, but many activists know this intuitively: a lot worse is to have a life without meaning.

    *eyeroll* If you’re doing activism because you get a kick out of it, I won’t hesitate to say you’re doing it wrong. How much is the actual issue worth to you???

    “Meaning”. *burp*

    I could never find out whether this is apocryphal or not, but Martin Luther King supposedly said that the only reason white people listened to him was because the alternative was Malcolm X and violent revolution.

    Regardless of whether he said it, it’s pretty clearly true!

    I would be willing to guess that it has to do with it being above the fold

    …Do firewalls in the real world (which isn’t where I work) have image-recognition programs that recognize nipples???

  22. 22
    unclefrogy

    I was going to say something along the lines of you can’t criticize religion just like anything else because religion is sacred!
    Instead I will say something else.
    All though Islam was founded in Arabia it is by no means confined to Arabic countries.
    It is the same with Catholicism. Christiamism may have come from the middle east catholicism is headquartered in Rome so Italian fashion and dress code is not identical with christian dress code or fashion.
    Arabic cultural practices are not the exact same thing as Islamic cultural practices. That at least is part of the reason for the protest.
    Some of it is protest against the attempt at cultural domination by Bearded old men from “foreign lands”. This drive by the most conservative elements to dominate everyone and control everyone to conform to their own view of the archaic practices of some half imagined golden age they want to resurrect.
    so it may look racist to an outsider and will be “framed” as racism by the targets of the rude protests
    Islam is not exclusive religion to brown people from the middle east! It is way bigger than that!
    uncle frogy

  23. 23
    mythbri

    @unclefrogy

    so it may look racist to an outsider and will be “framed” as racism by the targets of the rude protests

    What’s the line between “looking racist” and being racist, though? Of course there’s going to be all kinds of pushback and counter-accusations in the face of hard criticism – but that doesn’t mean that all of those counter-accusations are without merit.

    Islam is not exclusive religion to brown people from the middle east! It is way bigger than that!

    Exactly. So why should protesters target a specific racial subset of Islam for their protests?

    There are plenty of criticisms to be made of Islam – in Amina’s case, those criticisms can be made on the basis of feminist and secular values. That’s not Islamophobia. Why resort to something that is at best racially iffy and at worst colonialist and bigoted? That is Islamophobia.

  24. 24
    DLC

    Chaos Engineer @17 : The difference here is, while a lunch counter and a family planning clinic are indeed both open to the public, the intent of the person entering is different. The anti-abortion protestor is attempting to deny other people their rights, while the black man sitting down at the “whites only” lunch counter is trying to affirm or assert his rights. Of course there are more nuanced aspects of the topic that I’m painting with a very broad brush, but in general, I am more likely to accept a protest that is intended to expand rights rather than shrink them.

    [meta: why'm I doing this when I should be working ???]

  25. 25
    anuran

    First, let’s make one overlooked fact abundantly clear. There are LOTS of Musleema feminists in Muslim countries. What they do isn’t “post-feminist” or divided into nice distinct waves. They don’t major in Women’s Studies in their countries. Their’s is rubber-meets-the-road high-stakes feminism. Equal pay advocates in Jordan. Education-seekers in Afghanistan and Peshwar. Activists against domestic violence in Jordan and against human trafficking in Sudan. They have to have a lot of courage and conviction; they are much more likely to lose their lives or freedom than activists in America or Western Europe.

    I know a lot of you will be shocked, but these women don’t fall all over themselves thanking Femen for their help. And it’s not because they’re stupid or ignorant or brainwashed. It’s because Femen really doesn’t speak for them.

    Femen doesn’t do much except take off their shirts in public. And most of the attention they get isn’t heartfelt solidarity with the cause-of-the-week and Femen’s eloquent statement of principles. It’s much more about pointing and saying “Look! Tits!”

    The message Musleema feminists I know seem to be getting from this is pretty ugly. A bunch of Europeans are telling them “Your religion is crap. Your families are crap. We know what you need better than you do. And the way to get it is to flash your boobs. That goes against your values? Fuck your values. Ours are better.” Words like “patronizing”, “condescending”, “arrogant”, “racist” and “colonialist” keep cropping up.

    At this point a lot of readers here will start saying “But…” The “But” will be followed by
    1) If they are still Muslims they aren’t really feminists
    2) They’re ignorant
    3) They’re brainwashed
    4) Our families are better than theirs
    5) They don’t really understand the issues
    6) If they’re wearing the wrong sort of clothes we really can’t take them seriously
    7) Their priorities are wrong
    8) Look at all the bad things people who share your religion or live in your country have done. How dare you find anything good or valuable in them!

    In other words, the ignorant savages come from an inferior culture. Their salvation lies in turning into second-rate copies of us, the WEIRD. Anyone who thinks this is the right way to go about things is part of the problem.

  26. 26
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @hillaryrettig #12

    there’s a theory that the radicals create a space in which the moderates can operate and create change. The radicals reset the bar; the moderates get the mainstream to that bar (or closer to it).

    I could never find out whether this is apocryphal or not, but Martin Luther King supposedly said that the only reason white people listened to him was because the alternative was Malcolm X and violent revolution.

    I had a thought along these lines last night, it’s good to know there is already a theory regarding the idea. Your example re. MLK is a good one.

    My thoughts were that change is incremental; teh radicalz want a society vastly different to the current one and are willing to annoy people to get it, forcing everyone to recognise the problem through high-profile protests. Then moderates force a compromise closer to the ideal, most people are happy. Then the radical bar moves up a notch, the moderates pull their trick again, lather, rinse, repeat until the desired situation is eventually achieved.

  27. 27
    John Morales

    [OT]

    thumper1990, cf. “Overton Window”.

  28. 28
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @John Morales

    Thanks, that’s perfect :) So the Radicals draw attention to an idea; they shout and scream and make a lot of noise and force people to realise that some people do hold those opinions. The “unthinkable” becomes merely “radical”. Then the moderates step in with calmer, more reasoned arguments, and it becomes apparent to the public that these opinions are not held just by the radical fringe, but by “normal” people too. The radical becomes acceptable. Then the moderates continue to make arguments, the radicals continue to protest, public opinion follows, the window moves, and eventually the Government get off their collective arse and do something about it, and it becomes policy.

    Aw, that argument is so much more coherent now I can apply the proper terminology :) much better. Thanks John.

  29. 29
    Nick Gotts

    What anuran said@25.

  30. 30
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    Continuing on from Anuran and Nick Gotts line of thought, my thoughts on the matter, X-posted from Facebook. Having posted the Atlantic article above, I was asked this question:

    i[sic] agree with the sentiment…but, did they act and ask the women of the faith that they are protesting against? That was what make me feel icky to do with Femen. Also…I’m sure I saw some feminists of faith and WOC say that this made them angry,too. what do you yhink[sic]?

    I replied:

    I think that the “women of the faith” are not monolith. Some will support their actions, and indeed many do, whereas some will be offended by it and percieve it as Islamophobia. It is not possible to ask every woman who follows the Islamic faith, and even if it were you would not get a unanimous decision. I feel the best thing to do in that situation is to follow your conscience. I personally agree with Femen; the Islamic faith is horrendously misogynistic, as are all the Abrahamic faiths, and I see nothing wrong with pointing that out and protesting against it. The litmus test is really whether the protester recognises the misogyny inherent in other religions; if they are willing to condemn Islamic misogyny but ignore or even defend Christian misogyny, then it is likely that their actions are motivated less by a concern for women’s rights and more out of a hatred of Islam. However I see no evidence of such bias in Femen’s actions.

    It also has to be remembered that despite all the rhetoric surrounding it, their campaign is not against Islam as such, but is in support of Amina and in protest against the actions against her. Granted the protest has grown and generalised and many of their members have cast the net wider, but that was the original intent. Some of their actions during the campaign have been downright wrong; there have been several instances of their supporters protesting outside random mosques, for example; as if the whole of the Islamic faith were responsible for Amina’s treatment. I often wish they would excercise a bit more thought and nuance, but I agree with their aims wholly and completely.

    People raised in a certain faith or culture see that situation as normal, and often do not recognise the oppressions and prejudices which come with it. For example, see rape culture in this country. How many people are even aware of it, let alone see it for what it is? See FGM in certain African cultures. The procedure is often carried out by other women, and any woman who refuses is shunned or, more often than not, forced. This is perfectly normal to them, and many women in those cultures would defend it, even though to the rest of the world it is quite blatantly wrong. The fact that some members of an oppressed class don’t see the oppression, and would even argue in favour of oppressive practices, does not mean that said oppression does not exist nor that we should simply gloss over it or defend it as “just part of their culture”.

    It’s a difficult situation to judge; there are many angles to consider and many fine lines we have to be careful not to cross.

  31. 31
    Ichthyic

    I was going to say something along the lines of you can’t criticize religion just like anything else because religion is sacred!

    Earlier in the thread, a couple of misbetton sots tried to compare the animal research lab breakin as a “protest” to what Femen did*, I’d point out that one big difference between religion and science is that scientists WELCOME informed criticism. That’s why IACUC even exists.

    What’s more, what happened in the Italian research lab was not a protest, it was a breakin. It was destruction of someone elses property and work, and it really is in no way comparable.

    So for those trying to make the comparison between the two… you fail.

    Just stop it already. You’re wrong.

  32. 32
    vaiyt

    Yeah. That’s what I always tell to people here when they see local protests on TV and don’t understand why the protesters block traffic and annoy people. If they don’t do that, they’re as good as invisible.

  33. 33
    chigau (違う)

    vaiyt #32
    Yes.
    Every protest-with-placards needs at least one that says:
    IF WE DON’T DO THIS, WE ARE INVISIBLE.
    and those need to show on the Evening News.
    [/end fantasy world]

  34. 34
    vaiyt

    By the way, I’m seconding anuran’s words @ 25. This shit is Everybody Draw Muhammad Day all over again.

  35. 35
    Jadehawk

    no time (or brainpower) to deal with this right now, so y’all just get a link to the blog post I already wrote about this: http://jadehawks.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/intersectional-look-at-some-of-the-free-amina-protests/

    (also, nipples in a lot of the pictures of these protests are blurred out because they have been posted on Facebook, which is highly allergic to female nipples)

  36. 36
    David Marjanović

    By the way, I’m seconding anuran’s words @ 25. This shit is Everybody Draw Muhammad Day all over again.

    I fear you’re right.

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