By Sharifah Norashikin S S A

(April 2012) – On the 31st of March, Ukrainian women’s group, FEMEN, took to the streets in Paris and took off their clothes to protest against Syariah law. That’s right – naked Ukrainian women bearing placards and the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop were demonstrating against the “barbarianism” of Islam.

I think it is ridiculous that non-Muslim women are “speaking out” for Muslim women. Even more ridiculous was the theme of the protest – “Allah made me naked”. True, we were born naked. But we were also born without any teeth – so break them all.

Reeking of Islamophobia, such protests are not uncommon. One of the reasons behind the Afghani and Iraqi wars were to help civilize these societies because their women were oppressed. The white men were killing the Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq for no other reason than that they were trying to protect the women from oppression. How noble indeed, the white man’s burden.

The FEMEN protest addressed the way women are treated in Islam – the stoning, acid burning, honour killing. While these sadly do happen in some Muslim societies, they are not part of Islamic teachings. Such practices stem from the pre-Islamic Pagan times, and were never abolished even with the advent of Islam. If they were indeed part of Syariah laws, then, Muslims elsewhere who do not practice such atrocities must surely be deemed untruthful.

The subject of oppression of Muslim women has been discussed to death in the West; like it’s any of their problem. Before making derogatory remarks and imposing bans on Islamic laws and practices, they should learn the true meaning of Islam. Au contraire, before they protest AGAINST Syariah laws, they should advocate the teachings of the Syariah to these Muslim men who abuse their women. Understanding Islam and Syariah laws will help them see that Islam mandates that men are to treat women kindly.

Funny how it is always the West that claims Muslim women are oppressed. According to FEMEN, “Nudity is freedom” and “I am a woman not an object”. Why is nudity freedom? I think these naked women are the ones who are oppressed and manipulated. The men from their societies have twisted social norms to their advantage; making these women believe that being naked is a form of liberation, that it is normal to be clothes-less. Who benefits from these beautiful young women showing their bodies? The men, of course! Ironic to FEMEN’s stance (and that of many in the West), nudity only serves to further objectify women. With nudity, women are merely objects whose beautiful forms serve to please men. You only need to flip the glossy pages of a men’s magazine to see what I mean. Women from Western societies have been manipulated by men to have an unhealthy notion of what a woman should look like. The obsession with skinniness and an unrealistic Barbie-like vital statistics have made it normal for young teenage girls to go under the knife to attain eerily-disproportionate bodies and to have a fashionable eating disorder or two.

In truth, how much clothes one wears and perceptions of modesty is very much subjective to cultures. The Kung San tribal women from the Kalahari Desert in Africa, who tend to not cover their upper bodies, might think the bikini-clad women of the West are oppressed by the men who can go around topless while the women largely cannot. Similarly, the West think Muslim women are oppressed by the men because generally, women in Muslim societies wear more clothes than those in non-Muslim societies. By telling Muslim women that they are oppressed for wearing more clothes and should shed them, is imposing their Western ideologies and cultures upon others; that their Western culture of dressing is superior to the Islamic one and that the latter should ape the former.

I believe that there is more to a woman than the way she looks and that a woman can contribute more to society than just parading around in her birthday suit. The West thinks that we Muslim women are oppressed because we wear the veil and cover ourselves up. While some Muslim women live lives as dictated by their men, many veiled Muslim women these days face equal opportunities in life: they attain high levels of education, get to choose their own life partners, their husbands help out with the chores at home and they are able and allowed to hold important positions at the workplace.

Muslim women cover themselves up for many reasons. While some do so because of familial obligations or merely adhering to religious requirements, others do so because they truly believe that women should cover and protect their modesty. Some do so in a bid to affirm pride in Muslim identity, yet others do it as a way to get society to realize the level of sexism that exist in our societies that pressure women to conform to certain body shape/size ideals. Wearing a veil is not oppression, banning the veil is oppression!

Besides, if the Jews are free to wear a yarmulke, the Sikhs to wear turbans, Muslim women should similarly be entitled to the same freedom to wear whatever is mandated by the religion. If one chooses to parade naked in the name of freedom, so be it but please leave us Muslim women out of that crusade. While I too believe a Muslim woman should be allowed to make her own choices to wear a bikini or a burqa or anything in between, it should be up to us to decide, not the women of FEMEN or anyone else. As long as we do no impinge on anyone’s freedom, we should be free to dress the way we wish to.

So what I have to say to such protests, bans and wars that are purported to save Muslim women from oppression is “Thanks, but no thanks”. We Muslim women can stand up for ourselves. For the majority of us Muslim women who are fortunate enough to not be embroiled in the violence and domination of women by men, we definitely do not need help from the West in standing up for our rights. For the rest, I do feel for them and condemn the inhumane way that they are treated. The onus should be on other Muslim societies and organizations to help them, and not on non-Muslims to “help” us or tell us how to practice our religion.

All the FEMEN protest achieved was a lot of exposure (pun intended). Muslim women in most parts of the world are not likely to tear our clothes out and parade in the streets. I, for one, will still leave home with my veil (and my dignity) intact.

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Sharifah Norashikin S S A is a Research Associate with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The opinions expressed in this article are her own.