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Femen Are Brave Women - But Their Anti-Muslim Rhetoric Is Dangerous

Central to Femen's European cause is anti-Islamic sentiment. They claim that religion is evil - that Islam is morally equivalent to fascism. Last week, the group orchestrated protests in France and Germany against Islam which they called 'topless Jihad Day' and declared a 'new Arab Spring'.

It's obvious why the methods of feminist group Femen are so powerful. Femen members have staged topless protests across Europe for several years, writing political messages across their breasts before attacking church leaders and politicians in protest against the sex trade and religious oppression.

Amina Tyler, a Tunisian student and Femen member, hit headlines when she appeared topless with the words 'my body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone's honour' written on her chest in Arabic.

Femen is militant, unapologetic, and their message is clear: my body belongs to me; not the patriarchy. It doesn't belong to the sex industry, the porn industry, or the moral claims of religion - it is mine.

Central to Femen's European cause is anti-Islamic sentiment. They claim that religion is evil - that Islam is morally equivalent to fascism. Last week, the group orchestrated protests in France and Germany against Islam which they called 'topless Jihad Day' and declared a 'new Arab Spring'.

Is Femen good for the growth of feminism in Muslim countries? Muslim Women Against Femen, a group of female Muslims in Britain, claim Femen's anti-Islamic rhetoric is offensive and unhelpful for women in the Middle East. In an open letter, they stated: "Muslim women and women of colour can come with their own autonomy, and fight back as well! And speak out for themselves!..Take aim at male supremacy, not Islam."

They have a point. To equate all Islam with evil is problematic for feminism in the Middle East. Not because it offends men - but because it goes against the work of many Muslim women who have been fighting for equality before and since the Arab Spring using Islamic principles.

Many women have fought for female empowerment while attempting to retain their faith. Instead of abandoning religion, they have argued that the religious rhetoric used to subordinate women is simply based on a misinterpretation of Islam. Unlike Femen, these women see no reason why feminism and religion cannot be compatible.

One example of this is women's groups in Egypt. Last month, the UN's Commission on the Status of Women released a declaration addressing gender violence, which Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood attacked as harmful to Egyptian society. Of particular concern to the Brotherhood was the assertion of women's sexual freedom and the right of women to advocate against marital rape.

But the Brotherhood's religious claims were attacked by various women's groups. Soad Shalaby, of Egypt's National Council for Women (NCW), said their reaction was an incorrect reading of the Muslim faith, stating: "it is only a misinterpretation of Islam that creates these kinds of statements."

There are a variety of women's groups which share the same characteristics. They assert that Islam and women's rights are compatible and argue that the Brotherhood's interpretation of Islam is flawed. These women undoubtedly have a struggle on their hands. They are up against powerful men who use religious rhetoric to subordinate women. But many are determined to retain their faith while also fighting for equality.

The deeply anti-Islamic rhetoric of Femen risks alienating those women. It makes it harder for them to identify as feminists when their enemies can associate them with the topless Europeans who despise Islam and describe it as an ultimate evil.

Nor are they helped by western media representations of women in the Middle East. The Brotherhood's condemnation of the UN women's declaration was widely reported in British press. What news reports failed to mention was that the Vatican and Russia also objected to the wording of the declaration - on similar grounds to the Brotherhood. The perception that Islam is the only barrier to the UN's efforts to end violence against women doesn't quite ring true. Western media also seemed to think that Amina was incredibly rare, that her bravery was deeply unique in the fight for women's equality in Tunisia. While Amina is a courageous and compelling face of the struggle for female equality, the reality is that feminism in Tunisia and Egypt is more multi-faceted than most of us realise.

Muslim Women Against Femen are right when they say that we don't often hear about the agency of Middle Eastern women who are fighting for their own rights. One such face of feminism in Egypt is the prominent newspaper cartoonist Doaa Eladl, who has highlighted issues such as underage marriage and sexual attacks against female demonstrators during protests. One of her cartoons depicts the issue of female genital mutilation in which a man is shown climbing a ladder brandishing scissors towards a woman's genitals. In another, a man's beard masks a woman's mouth. Despite the fact that Eladl is facing blasphemy charges in Egypt, she continues to raise her voice on Islam and women's rights.

Women are also actively speaking out in Tunisia, organising mass protests against the failure of the ruling Ennahda to use the word 'equality' to describe women and men in Article 28 of the new constitution. We don't often hear about these women in media reports - but we hear a lot about Femen acting on their behalf.

In this climate, Femen are engaging in a more complex social struggle than in Europe. After the fairly secular regime of Ben Ali, which banned the niqab, some Tunisian women have embraced the chance to wear a full niqab. Other women fear the deepening conservatism of Tunisian life.

All this leaves a sense of divide among women: between those who are thankful that the new regime has increased the rights of Muslim women to express their faith; and those who fear increased conservatism.

Women's rights campaigners in Muslim countries deserve wholehearted support from western feminists. That's why Femen should take care to avoid the message that women have to choose between their religion and feminism.

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