The story of Manal Al Sharif, a 32 years old Saudi woman jailed 10 days for defying the driving ban in her country, is a perfect illustration of the extreme repression endured by Saudi women. Her act – being filmed while driving and uploading the video to promote the Women2Drive campaign – was courageous and thus inspired other women in the Kingdom to follow her example. She expressed in the video the wish that she would be only the beginning of the revolt of women like “the first drop is the beginning of the rain”.
She enhanced a movement that had repercussion far beyond Saudi Arabia: many feminist associations, many NGOs, many papers talked about the event and certainly contributed in the global awareness on the terrific situation of women rights in the Gulf. Meanwhile, Femen, a feminist association in Ukraine organized a solidarity protest protest in Kiev around the Saudi Embassy where several of the protestors showed up topless.
So what is the outcome of the Manal Al-Sharif case?
- Manal Al Sharif encouraged women (and men!) in her country to stand for their rights. Several dozen of people follow now her example to break the unfair rules. She showed that Saudi women are courageous enough to take themselves the initiative. What is interesting is that she cares more aboout driving than about, for example, wearing or not the veil: she wants to achieve men/women equality through equal rights to act (drive, express, vote, work, etc), not just through her appearance. Thus her contribution to women cause is positive.
- Femen activists exhibited their own bodies and contributed in nothing neither for Manal Al Sharif, neither for Saudi women, neither for Ukranian women. They finished doing exactly what sexists do: use women’s body as an object. What message did Femen send to the world? “We, women, we can’t do anything, we can’t draw attention unless we exhibit our breasts”. Thus, their contribution to women cause is negative.
The feminism of Manal Al Sharif is constructive because it breaks the prejudice about “women consisting only in an empty body”, while the feminism of topless Femen activists is destructive because it does nothing else than enforcing this prejudice. Manal Al-Sharif uses provocation as a tool to change the law, Femen use provocation for the sole purpose of having the feeling to exist. The sad thing is that certainly Femen wants to act to improve women’s rights: but just type “Femen” in a search engine, all you will find is hundreds of entries about the “topless protests”.
At the end of the day, Femen may be very active, the world associates Femen to nothing else than to naked women, while Manal Al Sharif became a model for women not because of how she looks, but because of how she acts. And that makes a huge difference.