Tunisia: Nation Debates Feminist Tactics

18-year-old Amina Sboui provoked outrage when she posted topless photos of herself online as a protest. But are such actions necessary shock tactics or just bare-faced cheek?

Those close to 18-year-old Amina Sboui describe her as rebellious but extremely sensitive to the daily suffering and injustices incurred by women in her native Tunisia, especially those in rural areas.

“I came to know a girl of 18 who is intelligent, aware of what she’s doing and very engaged with the feminist cause”, Halim Meddeb, Amina’s lawyer, told Think Africa Press.

But to those who haven’t met her, Sboui is simply known as Tunisia’s first member of the feminist activist group FEMEN. Founded in Ukraine in 2008, FEMEN has quickly becoming notorious around the world for its topless protests. These confrontational demonstrations have proven controversial enough in the likes of Ukraine, Italy and the UK, let alone in Tunisia. And at the centre of much of controversy in Tunisia has been the young Sboui.

Naked truths

Sboui first provoked uproar in Tunisia when she posted topless photos of herself to FEMEN’s facebook page, some with the words “Fuck your morals” scrawled across her chest. Following outrage and death threats, including an alleged call from a preacher that she be stoned to death, Sboui laid low.

This May, however, she resurfaced when she went to her birthplace of Kairouan – considered by many to be one of the holiest Islamic cities – in order to protest against the planned annual congress of the Salafist organisation, Ansar al-Sharia.

The day before the proposed Salafist meeting, the Interior Ministry banned it saying it posed a threat to the public order. However, Ansar al-Sharia responded defiantly by saying it would continue with its plans and that 40,000 people were expected to turn up. Large groups of security forces, as well as protesters, assembled.

Amidst this tense environment, Sboui scrawled the name of FEMEN on a cemetery wall in protest. A group of police officers scooped her away and put her in a security van, protecting her from an approaching mob.

Later, Sboui was charged with the unauthorised possession of pepper spray and fined 300 dinars ($180). But additional charges were subsequently included such as contempt, offending public decency and desecrating a cemetery. At the start of August, Sboui was released and is now awaiting trial.

Who can speak?

While many Tunisians were against the imprisonment of Sboui, whom many saw as a young girl still growing into herself and whose battle with mental illness was well reported, most in Tunisia were nevertheless critical of FEMEN’s tactics.

Amongst these critics, Muslim women – one of the main groups FEMEN aims to help and liberate – have been especially strong in their criticism.

In an discussion on Al Jazeera’s The Stream titled Who speaks for Muslim women?, Muslim feminist Hind Makki echoed what many felt. “The problem I have with FEMEN”, she said, “is that it forces women to choose between their faith and their feminism”.

Another guest, French-Tunisian journalist Hajer Naili, concurred. “It is apparently something that FEMEN is not ready to understand”, she offered. “On one side, they want to help Muslim women, and on the other side, they are using ways of expression and tools that go against Muslim women’s understanding of Islam.”

One such example of a FEMEN protest which alienated many Muslim women was the ‘Topless Jihad’ day on 4 April in which FEMEN activists in cities across Europe protested topless in solidarity with Sboui who was then under threat for the photos she had posted to facebook.

One such protest took place outside of the Great Mosque of Paris, with the women burning Black Standards and displaying bare chests painted with slogans similar to the “Fuck your morals” message that Amina had in her photos.

“All these actions can do is create more hatred”, Tunisian blogger Marwen Ben Messaoud told Think Africa Press. “It is not by seeing this that an Islamist is going to become less radical.”

Similarly, in the Al Jazeera debate, Naili commented, “When you go and stage protests in front of a mosque, which is the place where Muslim women go and pray, and the entire Muslim community, it is insulting.”

Shock tactics

But for some, FEMEN’s tactics can be seen as having arisen from necessity. Meddeb, Sboui’s lawyer, for example, suggested that Sboui’s decision to affiliate with FEMEN could have come from a lack of alternatives. “Even before the revolution, the youth were separated from civil society and politics in Tunisia,” he explained. “Maybe she, as a young person, did not find a place in feminist organisations such as the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates.”

Similarly, FEMEN activists describe their confrontational strategies as just what is needed to shock the establishment into taking notice.

“They’ve burned historical monuments in Tunisia and they killed Chokri Belaid”, Amina said in a radio interview with France Culture, referring to the assassination of a leftist secular politician this February. “We are still organising protests and writing articles, but it will change nothing. We are in a war – shocking measures must be taken.”

Speaking to Think Africa Press, Inna Shevchenko, one of the group’s Ukrainian co-founders, echoed such feelings, saying, “There are people who can be disturbed by FEMEN, who can criticise FEMEN, but there is no-one who can ignore this kind of activity”.

“We are keeping our anti-religious, our anti-Islamist line”, she continued. “We will not stop until the moment when religion is keeping itself in the apartments of religious people or in churches, but not outside, not in the streets”.

“There will be more Aminas who will come out.”

Sarah is a freelance journalist based in Washington D.C. Follow her on twitter: @musingsdiffused.

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