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Tunisia reacts to FEMEN's feminist challenges
7 June 2013

On 29 May, three European women from the Ukraine-based feminist movement FEMEN demonstrated topless in front of the gates of the Ministry of Justice in Tunis. During the short-lived protest they could be heard shouting ‘free Amina’. This was the first FEMEN action in an Arab country carried out in support of Amina Tyler, a young Tunisian member of FEMEN who has been imprisoned since mid-May. Such actions in a conservative society raise questions about the unforeseen effects of exogenous ideas and ideals.

FEMEN, founded in 2008 in Kiev, Ukraine, has become known for its highly publicised protests across Europe against the sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and abuse by and within religious institutions. In March this year, Tyler posted a topless picture of herself on her Facebook page. ‘My body is my own and not your honor’ was written on her torso. Following death threats against her and after weeks of hiding, she re-emerged in May in the conservative city of Kairouan, where she wrote ‘FEMEN’ on a wall near the city’s main mosque. This led to a protest by religious conservatives accusing her of attacking the city and insulting Islam. Tyler was arrested and fined US$200 for carrying an ‘incendiary object’ (a canister of pepper spray), which is illegal. She awaits another trial over the Kairouan tag.

During the era of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the government promoted Tunisia as a stable, secular state. The country was held up as an example to the entire Arab world, with Tunisian women viewed as being modern and liberated in a more conservative region. Tunisian women could not wear a hijab in universities or hold professional positions in governmental offices with their head covered.

This picture was nurtured by the country’s Western allies, like France and the United States (US). On the political front, Tunisia’s allies said little and failed to condemn the ongoing political oppression. In 2004, US President George W. Bush congratulated Ben Ali on the ‘free elections’ and the ‘freedom of the press’, and presented Tunisia as a rampart against terrorism. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy applauded Ben Ali in 2008 for the progress made in terms of freedom. Most external observers and journalists contributed to this idyllic Tunisian image. Foreign companies vying to secure lucrative contracts around Gammarth, Sidi Bou Said and Hammamet ignored the deep and alarming socio-economic disparities in Tunisian society.

However, since the fall of Ben Ali and his repressive regime in January 2011, a more conservative tendency has emerged in Tunisian society. Islamists lead the current government and Salafists are gaining ground in Tunisia. This conservative Islamist trend does not come out of nowhere, and was only forced underground in the Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali eras.

In this context, the FEMEN phenomenon, which has only recently appeared on the Tunisian socio-political scene, is likely to do more harm than good to Tunisian feminists and the secular, progress-minded population in general. FEMEN seems to overlook the fact that cultural relativism must be taken into account. In fact, its highly publicised protests could even damage the fight for the rights and freedom of women in the Arab world, especially in the so-called post-revolution countries of North Africa.

Tyler is the first Tunisian victim of the FEMEN movement, as she could be jailed for up to a year. FEMEN may hold her up as a hero and a victim, but she is very unlikely to have a positive or lasting impact on Tunisian society. While there is a belief that social media can put pressure on leaders to advance women’s emancipation, it can backfire if the debate is not intelligently constructed and channelled through local and national institutions.

The three young European members of FEMEN could be charged with attacking public morals or threatening public order, offenses that carry terms of up to a year in prison. Undoubtedly, this will lead to more protests by the feminist movement and its further alienation from the majority of Tunisian society. These arrests also have great political symbolism – FEMEN’s website has already been hacked by alleged Islamists, an indication of the growing hostility directed at it.

We can also expect to see a cultural backlash if these protests continue. In the video footage showing the FEMEN arrest, women who were not wearing hijabs supported the arrest. One young woman explained that ‘for these women to take off their clothes as part of freedom of expression is against our religion and the traditions of Arab-Muslim Tunisian society’. On a larger regional scale, most Middle Eastern feminists also condemn the FEMEN approach, as they regard its tactics as foreign to the largely conservative region, posing the risk of provoking undesirable consequences for women.

This is a particularly delicate transitional period for Tunisia, where decades of progressive legislation are being challenged by rising conservatism and a struggle over the country’s identity. The Islamic governing party, Ennahda, is under great pressure from the more radical Salafists, who would like to impose their own conservative Islamic narrative on Tunisian society. Ennahda must take into account the views of all the groups on the fringes of Tunisian society, as well as those of its external partners and allies, Western and Arab.

These feminist protests have created negative publicity for the Tunisian government, which has been criticised by several diplomatic representatives and human rights organisations. Tunisia, whose economy relies heavily on foreign tourism, cannot afford to tarnish its reputation as a Mediterranean tourist hub. Coming as this has a few weeks before the start of the summer season, the Tunisian tourist industry could suffer a serious blow. This could result in further unemployment, which is a key factor of instability.

Democracy is a long and tedious learning process. So is the fight for the progressive recognition of women’s rights. Since the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisians have been facing numerous socio-political and economic challenges. Tunisians who were forced to keep silent for many decades are justifiably thirsty for freedom and liberty. However, young Tunisians should remember that the defence of ideas and ideals, no matter how noble and respectable, requires time and tact.

A model of society where all Tunisians can live harmoniously, taking into account the demands of all the different interest groups, has yet to be found. Shock tactics such as those used by FEMEN, which do not take into account local socio-cultural specificities, may have counter-productive effects and result in the majority’s rejection of ideas considered alien to local culture.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

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