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Why Feminist Activists Defecated and Menstruated on the Islamic State Flag

We spoke with the founder of feminist group FEMEN about the group's response to the video of the murder of James Foley.
Image via Twitter/femeninna

Egyptian activist and blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdi uploaded a picture to her Facebook account this Saturday showing her and another unnamed activist shitting and menstruating on an Islamic State flag while naked. Elmahdi is seen facing the camera and fixing viewers with an unrelenting stare, her blood smeared vulva just inches above the stained flag. The other woman is turning her back to the viewers and wearing a hijab, while raising a middle finger. Two machines guns are laid out on the ground behind them.


The picture posted by the 23-year-old activist was on the same day retweeted by Inna Shevchenko, founder of the controversial feminist group FEMEN, which is known for its topless protests against prostitution and religious oppression of women. The FEMEN logo — two circles with a dividing line between them, intended to symbolize stylized naked breasts — is painted on the hijabi clad activist's back, right above the letters IS. Today, Shevchenko confirmed in a statement to Paris Match that the action is indeed a concerted protest under the roof of FEMEN.

Shevchenko, a Ukrainian activist living in Paris, told Paris Match she considers it "hypocritical" to call the image violent as compared to the violent actions of the Islamic State.

"We are not afraid of being criticized for the way we responded," she said. "We are not threatening to kill. We just wanted to say: This is how ideas are treated."

Elmahdi, who has been living in Swedish exile since March 2012, is best known for posting a nude image of herself in her blog back in 2011 — intended to protest the rampant misogyny and sexism in post-Mubarak Egypt after the Arab Spring. The image shows her wearing nothing but stockings, red ballerina shoes, and a bow in her hair. It has caused an unprecedented scandal in Egypt.

In the weeks that followed Elmahdi, branded "The naked blogger," has received a wave of international media attention as well as death threats and harsh criticism — both from religious conservatives and from secular leaning liberals in the country, who feared it would hurt their cause in the upcoming post-Mubarak elections.


So Elmahdi should be accustomed to hateful comments and violent threats by now. She joined FEMEN in 2012, and has since participated in several other protests. In 2012 she posed naked with Shevchenko and another FEMEN activist in front of the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm, an Egyptian flag behind her and the letters "Sharia is not a Constitution" written on her naked body. However it can be expected that the waves of fury at her most recent action will surpass everything that has happened so far.

Elmahdi refuses to talk to the media, so we asked Shevchenko to answer a few questions regarding the image.

VICE News: Why did you choose to post the picture online instead of taking your protest to the streets as is typical for most FEMEN actions?
Shevchenko: We did this action in the format of photo message as a reply to latest Islamic State video message showing the execution of the journalist [James Foley]. With our photo message we propose our own "way of execution" of Islamic State ideas. Our caption to the photo reads: "Animals, our execution of your ideas looks like that! Watch it well! We don't demand ransoms, we don't threaten you with new killings, we just SHIT ON YOU, ISIS!"

What was your intention in posting the image?
With the picture we want to criticize the killings, rapes, and public executions by Islamic fascists, who are breaking news.. This is what the Islamic State wants. They want the world to obey their ideas. Spreading their video messages of executions and sharing their speeches, we do a good job for them, we serve the Islamic State. Instead we should spread our message to them. Enough of tolerance! Don't be scared to offend. Let's hit them back with our answers, instead of giving them more space. The world is in fear, exactly as the Islamic State wants. We call not to fear them, but to resist them.


How is Aliaa Elmahdi involved in FEMEN?
Aliaa has been involved in FEMEN activity since 2012. We act together to spell out our message on issues in the Arab world, and specifically on Islam, as she is very concerned about this. This time we decided to react together.

You mean she suggested this?
We have considered reacting to the Islamic State for some time, and discussed this within FEMEN. In the end, it was obvious that we would do so together with Aliaa, as she also wanted to react. We made the decision right after we saw the video of James Foley's execution. One of our members and Aliaa immediately met, a photographer was organized, and the picture was taken.

Why the menstrual blood in addition to the feces?
That was Aliaas' idea. For us, it was about showing that we are not afraid to offend the Islamic State. Killers should be offended, violent ideology has to be criticized.

Arab media avoided publishing the photo, because the words "there is no God but Allah" are printed on the flag. Is the picture intended to show your disrespect for Islam as a whole?
I can't believe how much hypocrisy we observe, especially talking about religion. The Islamic State, as many other terrorist groups, is killing "infidels," or those who believe in another god. They threaten the world with their religious revenge. There are Muslims who say the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam, but that is just ridiculous. Jihad is clearly explained in the Quran and it's obviously what is at the source of their "mission." We don't mind if you think that we don't respect Islam or any other religion that is so oppressive especially towards women, that is denying them human rights, and that is a source of terrorists groups like the Islamic State. We don't mind, because we don't respect it.

After your call for an "International Topless Jihad Day" in the spring of 2013, Muslim women around the world have criticized your approach, saying it was condescending and Islamophobic. They claim you lump all of Islamic culture together and condemn it as misogynist and oppressive, and that they are not in need of any "liberation" by white western feminists. What do you say to that?
All of our campaigns in Muslim countries are initiated by Arab women, like Aliaa. International FEMEN teams are just joining their initiatives. And honestly, I don't think that being a white woman gives me less of a rights to talk about women's rights and patriarchal ideas of religion. I don't think we try to save anybody. First of all, we want to save ourselves from those violent religions that are taking so much space and eating so many of our rights.

Watch the entire VICE News documentary The Islamic State here.

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Follow Chris Köver on Twitter: @ckoever