Is 'naked' better for women than a veil?

Activists calling for gender equality need to recognise a middle way between nudity and the burqa

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A controversial Ukrainian feminist group called Femen has been making waves through its unconventional methods of protest against patriarchy, religion, sexual exploitation and violence. They say that their weapons in this fight are their bodies, and they protest by taking off their clothes. They have recently set up in France, saying things such as "better naked than the burqa" or "Muslims, let's get naked".

They are a marginal group, hardly worth wasting time over.

However, while attention-grabbing, shocking even, their polarising approach to feminist protest can help us to better understand the chasm between Muslim and western feminists.

Femen's approach is just an extreme expression of the kind of feminism that, in my view, will never appeal to the vast majority of Muslim women.

Feminism in the West is obsessed with the body, worshipped to the detriment of all else. But I question the assumption that if a woman wants to offer her body for glamour photography or other such professions, she is empowering herself. After all, such decisions have a backdrop of cultural and social opportunities that remain limited for women and still often pivot around their physicality. If there is no respect, dignity or job to be found elsewhere, then co-opting their bodies can sometimes be the only way women believe they can assert that they are in control.

In fact, this is no choice at all.

Related to this is the dichotomy that Femen proposes, of public nudity versus full covering. On the one hand the body is entirely public. In the latter, the two are very clearly demarcated.

But this demands the following questions: how does body exposition empower women in protest against body exploitation? How does appropriating women's bodies into the very centre of western culture assist in women's self determination? This is one of the unexpected failures of western feminism.

On the other hand when there is a clear distinction between public and private, how do you ensure that not just the body, but also a bit of that person, is not lost from the public square?

Whatever many Muslims say, I am in no doubt that women lack a full presence in public discourse. The very few steps taken so far have yielded little improvement. But focusing on female body empowerment seems to have gone side by side with a sexualisation of girls and sexual objectification of women. Women are not equally well-represented in civic, political and economic life in the West, but that inequality is less stark than in the Muslim world.

Femen's false, simplistic and polarised dichotomy overrides a true feminist approach of giving expression and agency to others. And it doesn't do justice to the actual panoply of choices facing women, either. Worst of all, it entrenches a chasm between women, making it harder to cut through cultural barriers to actually communicate.

Finally, preferring nudity to covering is the extreme yet absurd conclusion in a nation that bans covering the face in moves to "liberate" women. Face-veiled women are rejected for citizenship and are kept out of the public square.

Although France's feminism is in a quagmire at least it has consistency on its side - tabloids there stood up for the principle that naked is better by publishing private pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge.

But better naked than the burqa? I believe there is a better middle way - and the majority of the world's women know it too.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at