How ironic, and sad, that two female activists should face a potentially fatal beating at a Muslim conference supposedly discussing the need for non-violence towards women

It is not a complete misnomer to think that the provocative feminist group FEMEN and the punk rock group The Clash (the band behind songs like Rock the Casbah) would find themselves kindred spirits, in the manner of cocking a snook at the existing order.  There are no sacred cows or rituals for the group, who often brandish topless torsos and, with a main base in France, the targets are as diverse as disgraced World Bank chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the far-right Front National.

On Saturday the 12th of September, in the north-western suburbs of Paris, a Muslim conference featuring controversial speakers had the FEMEN experience.  With their protesters well-chosen, one of Tunisian origin, the other with Algerian roots, both from Muslim families according to Inna Shevchenko, FEMEN’s head, their activists took to the stage with slogans daubed across their chests, one in English, the other in French.  The messages read: ‘I am my own prophet. Nobody submits me’, alluding to the Muslim saying of ‘submission to the will of Allah’.

The actual moment whereupon the 25-year-old and 31-year-old shouted feminist ideas in Arabic and French is open to dispute but essentially tells the same story, Rashomon-style.  Shevchenko says the two imams sharing the stage were in the process of debating whether it was just to beat one’s wife, whereas the infuriated organisers claim the speakers were concluding that because the Prophet Muhammad was not recorded as beating his wives, nor should good Muslims.  If we take the latter version, that this should have to be stated at all, is not just startling but makes a grim parody of an event meant to be discussing the role of women in Islam.  That the two FEMEN activists were the only women at the conference reinforces that.

The event had already attracted thousands of signatures to ban it from even taking place. One of the speakers is set to be Nader Abou Anas, who is alleged to have previously tried to legitimise rape in marriage (has he met Donald Trump?).  Certainly, women were among the roster to appear on stage.

What is not in doubt is the reaction the two FEMEN members provoked.  To cries of ‘dirty whores’ and ‘kill them’, a group of around 15 men from the audience rushed the stage, jostling with security guards to lay their hands on the women, who disappeared under the welter of bodies.  Slaps and kicks were directed by some of the men before the scuffle transferred behind a screen, out of sight of the cameras.  BuzzFeed France confirmed that one of the activists had been punched several times.  Given the subject of the interrupted talk, the imams have some way to go to convince their audience members of the wrongfulness of using violence towards women.

The organisers of the conference (grandly called a ‘salon’ in French, though a far cry from the usual social sets associated with the word) said they will press charges against the two young women, presumably for gross indecency and trespassing, while giving no comments on the melee that followed.  Shevchenko, who was outside the event later, tweeted in French that ‘Femmophobia is illegal’.  The fists and feet of fury that rained down upon the defenceless women arguable entitles the injured activists to go to the law themselves.  As it was, they were taken into custody and, after questioning, released without charge, with an investigation pending.

This is not the first time FEMEN have taken on Islamic authorities.  On the 4th of April 2013, they proclaimed an ‘International Day of Topless Jihad’, in response to official threats to a Tunisian woman, Amina Tyler, who had posted naked pictures of herself online, having written on her chest, ‘I own my body, it’s not the source of anyone’s honour’.  A religious commission said she should be stoned to death to prevent her example becoming an epidemic.  A month later Tyler was on trial for possessing a can of pepper spray and, though acquitted, was not released from detention until August, whereupon she left FEMEN saying their actions towards the Muslim world were disrespectful.

Since the Charlie Hebdo and Jewish supermarket massacres, the French state’s attitude to Islam has been febrile, though one could trace this back further to the 2005 banlieue riots and the later banning of Muslim headscarves in public.  The thwarted attack on a high-speed train has merely heightened that.  But there exists a problem of non-violent extremism or toleration of it, just as some Nationalist and Unionist communities in Northern Ireland tolerated the terrorists among their kind (and to an extent still do so).

You can see this in evidence where Muslim neighbours of those who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq for Daesh give interviews to mainstream news’ channels with their backs to the camera (if on screen at all), for fear of being ostracised by their peers, instead of garnering rightful praise for speaking out.

The majority of Muslims in the West are law-abiding but there are some who wield power and who loath their home country.  This conference in Paris completely misses the point that the best way to beat extremism is not to find a rationale for it in the first place when seeking to obviate it.