Why Nudity Doesn’t Work (for Islamic Feminism)

Admittedly, even as a Western woman, I still grapple with the role of nudity in the feminist movement–the only real incorporation of it that I understood entirely had been the Slutwalks, and that is because the message wasn’t, “I am free to be sexy!” but, “You can’t rape me if I am, and you can’t rape me if I’m not.” There were, after all, women who attended in burkhas, and in sweaters, and of course women who attended in lingerie, because women are raped in all those things. The purpose was to demonstrate that attire doesn’t matter, not to shed clothing as a symbolic act of liberation.

The latter might have worked (in a Western context) had the demonstration not been gendered.

Now obviously emphasizing that bodily regulations are oppressively more restrictive on women is important, but I don’t believe that any of the protests I have seen really executed this effectively–instead they have repositioned women as the sex class, and that is exactly because they have conflated “sexy” with nudity. It is not that most of the attendees are typically women, but that attention is refocused on the fact that they are. Consequently it is not only that the demonstrations have been gendered; it is that they have been sexualized. It is that getting naked is sensationalized.

And it is that attitude–that nudity is something sensational–that directly defeats the liberating aspect. Because sensationalism is a performance. And nudity, when liberating, is not. It is not a performance: it is not constraining or restrictive.

I know a lot of Islamic feminists discard the suggestion of nude liberation entirely–and with good reason–dismissing it as an affront to women’s dignity and (most understandably) as a device of neocolonialism. I am not ready to dismiss it. There are ways that it works. Natalia Antonova, for example, has written about experiencing nudism from a feminist perspective and the comfort that it provides for body image. There is a context in which it is effective. Nudity becomes a device of neocolonialism when women like FEMEN are involved. And again, note the sensationalism and sexualization.

FEMEN began with sex worker rights, an area in which conflating nudity and sexuality is pretty much inevitable (& an area w/ women I support), but its emphasis on attractive women (on women [Western] men find attractive) is what undermines its purpose of securing women’s rights. Because while it may be inevitable to coincide sexuality and nudity, what FEMEN has done is conflate sexuality with sexiness. And thus the purpose of securing women’s rights is defeated–especially religious women of color, who are perceived as victims of their religion, and thus colonialist feminist rhetoric is employed against, for example, Arab women. The nudity is not, “Everyone is whoever the hell she is–no performances,” but rather, “My Western feminism is better [read: sexier] than yours, according to my own standards of liberation / beauty to which you should abide. Perform accordingly!”

And that is precisely why nudity doesn’t work for Islamic feminism. Take note, FEMEN, and all you other feminists insisting, “Muslim women–take off your clothes!” (I am not kidding that is actually someone’s catchphrase.) There are nuances you do not understand. Believe it or not there are entirely different frames of mind other than yours! And there people who function with these frames of mind, and fashioning feminism to address these nuanced worldviews in particular are more effective, rather than throwing a generalized blanket “solution” over everything. Maybe there had been / will be some time in the past or future when nudity work[ed]/s, based on cultural attitudes and the non-sexualized approach of the protest itself, but it doesn’t now. (No doubt when it does you will all claim that you invented nudity or something and we are just following because you, white feminists, are the MOST INSPIRATIONAL. Like Muslim women didn’t vote before you, because you totes invented feminism. Or something.)

Muslim women have our own ways of protesting, OKAY. Gosh. And you know what, they involve extravagant headpieces. Which are fun. And there is a reason that works. There is a reason Muslim feminists chose that device of liberation. There are cultural and religious reasons that that works and that nudity doesn’t. There are intricacies in religious and cultural approaches that you don’t understand.

So please, please, get the hell out of my way.

19 thoughts on “Why Nudity Doesn’t Work (for Islamic Feminism)

  1. What this woman is doing by taking off her clothes is saying that her body belongs to HER. Women do not in this world belong to themselves – their bodies are commodities that are the property of their husbands and families, and of their communities, all of which dictate how and where she should be covered. That a Muslim woman is saying no, I will be the one to make this decision, is something important and it is entirely appropriate for the Muslim community most of all, because of its obsession with female sexuality AND sexiness. Examine your own attitude and really ask yourself why you feel nudity is such a bad idea for Muslim women who have something important to say. And don’t stammer, please, no “gosh,” no cowering under cultural norms as a way of avoiding the total frankness of being unclothed.


      1. I wasn’t expecting such terse response or to feel my opinion was unwelcome. Perhaps what you should be looking at is not this naked woman’s protest, but why you are so uncomfortable with it. Bear in mind that the feminists who accomplished so much in the past were the most radical in their approach. In this case it’s perhaps over the top, but what it does say is that her body is not the property of her community and that because it is hers, she has total and sole control over what happens to it, including whether it is clothed, and with what. I am not that familiar with her or this group she belongs to, but when I saw and read about her, that was my impression. Sorry I offended you, it was not my intention.


      2. Your opinion is welcome. The unprecedented degree of rudeness is not.

        That said, shedding one’s clothing is hardly “radical,” and (unrelatedly) your assumption that it makes me uncomfortable is absurd. I didn’t say a word against al-Mahdi until she became a vehicle for Femen’s brand of feminism, and the post is clearly concerned with the varying effectiveness of nudity in relation to different contexts. In Femen’s racist brand of feminism, it simply repackages the systematic oppressions erected by patriarchal society–in this case racism and Islamophobia.

        Are you aware al-Mahdi is not a Muslim woman? It doesn’t matter to me, but I am mentioning it because you referred to her as one. In fact she wrote the word “Koran” on her crotch with paint, in case you hadn’t read the cited article.

        Al-Mahdi may very well believe that she is demonstrating her right to her own bodily autonomy, but she is quite frankly a fool to believe so. (I can say that now, because it seems she has abandoned her Arab identity and adopted a Western one, which is a context I am qualified to criticize.) She has not retaken what is hers–she’s simply transferred the perceived ownership to someone else, to Femen’s reestablishment of patriarcal oppressions against Arab women and their “mentality” as Femen has so graciously indicated.


  2. Great post. I’d like to focus a little bit on the naked body as ‘sexy’, whose naked body is doing the protesting, and the sexualised media and mass culture (I’m writing from the UK) we live in. I do notice that FEMEN gets attention not just because they are naked female protesters but because many are quite attractive women. I wonder whether media’s pervasive use of conventionally attractive, slim bodies of women makes such bodies ‘neutral’ blank canvases upon which whatever messages can be imprinted. If the women were not physically attractive, were not slim, were not white, would their non-“neutral”-often-sexualised bodies become a kind of distraction? The way ‘sexualised’ is defined in western media is certainly cis, white, young, and slim. What FEMEN is perhaps trying to do subvert a specific kind of sexualisation that women, like myself, can’t be part of.


    1. Exactly. I mean I resent having to allege that anyone “gets attention because they are quite attractive” but I also grudgingly understand that to ignore the political dynamics implied by the attention FEMEN receives would be naive: Western media and the men in it are quick to defend feminists when they are attractive women who have thrown off their clothes, even while simultaneously women’s rights are actively suppressed by men in the West. When it’s about sex workers, or sexy women, suddenly the male response is remarkably enthusiastic. (Hello? You hate feminists remember?) Because of course what it really is about is masturbation material for the malestream media.


  3. nmr

    Sigh. I’m old enough to remember the days of streaking, and streakers were men and women.

    I don’t think Muslim men would feel very comfortable getting nude, either, as a form of protest. However, I could see the men donning some impressive headgear in solidarity with their female counterparts.


  4. Not even “white” feminists – non-whites too, and ex-muslims of South Asian/Arab/African/Persian descent. Though this doesn’t change the whole “my liberation is hotter than yours” mentality, which is irritating to see and read about.

    Nahida, I also belive that you put into words everything that annoyed me with “Boobquake” a few years back, when every woman on the internet boasted about how they were being “immodest” to mock the Iranian cleric who blamed women for natural disasters. This was done at the expense of Muslim women who believe modesty to be an important part of their faith, in that the perceived indulgense in “immodesty” was mocking such a key value for them (even if unintentionally). That’s how I saw it, at least.

    It just grinds my gears as a feminist and a Muslim woman in a headscarf that there are women who insist on shoving their own values of sexual liberation through nudity onto other women (and vice versa). I wish female nudity was practiced without ANY sensationalism attached to it, whatsoever!


    1. Ooh yes, I remember Boobquake. It seems as far as some feminists are concerned, only men are true representatives of Islam, and so it is impossible to insult Muslim women because they are just victims who have no feelings. (That is why they must be told how to feel!)

      I thought Bookquake was so freakin… weird. I mean I wasn’t as offended with it as I am with Femen… it was just plain weird to me. And it was weird because while it would have been an appropriate thing for Muslim women to mock the cleric with comparatively “immodest” clothing as a challenge, for women who are not faced with the same degree of oppressions to assume that position is just misdirected and even HOSTILE.

      Hostile to Muslim women, I mean. It is not even that they are showing solidarity with Muslim women, it is that they are attempting to demonstrate how supposedly much more free they are and therefore better than the perceived subservience of the Muslim woman (who should just abandon her religion already and whatnot). Yeah, that’s really easy to be that ‘ballsy’ when you’re not facing nearly the same kind of violence.


      1. “it is that they are attempting to demonstrate how supposedly much more free they are and therefore better than the perceived subservience of the Muslim woman (who should just abandon her religion already and whatnot)”

        Precisely. I actually thought that the Brainquake thing in response was a good idea, but then that got flack from people who accused them of self-projecting their own values onto other women. My, my, my.


  5. d

    great piece; not sure i agree nudity can ever be non-performative, or that some kinds of performative nudity can’t be counter-hegemonic/anti-patriarchal.

    i highly recommend, if you haven’t seen them, radtransfem.tumblr.com & the accompanying wordpress, specifically the ethical prude (still from western/white perspective, but against the idea that sexualization = liberatory no questions asked); and also LIES vol 1, materialist feminist journal and its first article: Undoing Sex: Against Sex Optimism.

    I think that this idea that either taking off a veil or being naked (or doing anything really about how we represent/perform our bodies) necessarily implies an actual material change in our lives under patriarchy is part of the same impulse, which ultimately confines liberation to the mind of the individual and prevents a potential for real solidarity and collective action.

    I’m wondering if a more materialist/less representation focused feminism falls into similar issues with racist and neocolonialist practices — if we’re not fighting over the ‘right’ way to present ourselves according to imperialist & white supremacist standards…?


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  7. Adele

    I personally have a lot of concerns with nudity in western feminism, too, but your points are well-made and ones only and Islamic woman can make. In the Western world, women’s bodies are so chronically sexualized that exposing one’s body cannot reasonably be “read” as anything BUT sexual. The “performance” as you put it, necessarily drowns out the actual message or issue. In Islam it does precisely the same, but for different reasons. Spectacle is one thing. Nudity has too much “visceral” meaning attached to it to be an effective political tool. Thank you for writing this. Very thought-provoking. :)


  8. Tori

    Nahida- I have to spend a lot of time before you popped up under one of the 13 feminist facebook pages I subscribe to. I am glad you did.

    I am a western woman-but I don’t think naked sensationalism is liberation.I think what Amina did was brave- but I shook my head at slutwalk.

    I think you handled the topic gracefully and took on a task few do willingly- questioning something offensive a white person does that happens to make them feel rebellious and sex(ualized)y.

    I happen to adhere to a more traditional, morality too. I just want you to know, as an American, Feminist of faith- I appreciate you very much and I value your perspective. Very often secular, feminist women of all backgrounds seem more intent on converting other women to be more “enlightened” like them, than learning and sharing perspectives.

    I am preparing to enter an ethnic studies program and I am worried about how to address that colonial mental run-off where ever I go.


  9. Your Gal

    Wow I cannot believe someone would encourage Muslim women to take their clothing off! Those nuances of which you speak can be dangerous. As an outsider, I wouldn’t dream of telling Muslim woman to take off her clothing, women are harassed or beaten for not covering their heads for goodness sake. Stripping of ones clothing would surely result in an public flogging, stoning or even an honor killing. I think we have so much freedom in the west we sometimes forget about the “nuances” of which you speak. Good luck and do try to be safe.


  10. It is strange how Islamic feminism figures in the title and Islam does not figure anywhere else. This piece dismissed the ‘Islamicness’ of feminists of moslem heritage for whom nudity may work. Essentialisms galore.


  11. Nancy Van de Siouri

    “So please, please, get the hell out of my way.” ?????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Every person has their own answer to oppression and their own path to walk and people, especially people who want to call themselves feminists should respect this. I percieve this article as an attack on feminists who view things in differentely and any attack on feminism is an attack against all women. Such a conservative piece of work, it ‘s as if we are back in the ’50s. I ‘m really sorry I read this.


  12. Jenn

    Loves your take and perception on feminism. There is an assumption that all some want to be just like western (white) women and that to be a feminist is to assert a sexuality. I am feminist, I am a human, a sexual being, but that does not man that I believe that my body needs to be created into an object of sex. Nor does I mean that I must be nude or barely clothed to do it. However please know this…I’m a white western feminist. I don’t think anyone should be walking around naked or recommending nudity (male or female). Feminism is about choice and equality. We are all united in this, I should not privileged because of my sex, gender, religion, ethnicity or the colour of my skin. Equality, the right to choose, and the ability to live a life that transcends the physical, while idealist, is my dream. Wearing a burka or hijab, or any type of veil (or not) should not be the subject of shame but a representation of faith. Some may say veiling is not a choice, but regardless I don’t live my life within a Islamic paradigm and I’m not going to say to anyone that they need to be naaakkeeed. P



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