- The women of the Ukrainian group Femen are used to drawing the attention of the media with their half-naked protests. Since 2008, the mostly young women who demonstrate with their breasts covered in militant slogans have provided fodder for heated discussions. And that is intentional. Defenders of the group claim the calculated provocation serves to draw the attention of the general public to socially relevant issues such as women’s rights and gender equality.
Since early March, Femen has enjoyed more attention than ever before. For the first time an Arab woman in a Muslim-majority country joined the movement. A 19-year-old Tunisian named Amina posted a topless photo of herself on the Internet, with only the phrase “f*** your morals” written on her breasts. Her image now appears on the Facebook fanpage of Tunisian Femen and the response in media and on social networks has been enormous.
But unlike the experience of initiatives such as “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World,” which also fights for the rights of Arab women, reactions to Amina and the Femen presence in Tunisia went beyond criticism and discussion. The young activist began receiving death threats from religious extremists and well-known Salafist preacher Adel Elmi called for her stoning.
More and more activists now feel obliged to support Amina. On April 4, Femen activists in several European cities observed a day of “International Topless Jihad.” In cities like Paris and Berlin, young women protested against the oppression of Muslim women – half-naked, in front of mosques.
A group of young women, posing together with the Tunisian artist Nadia El-Fani, also showed their solidarity with Amina – topless. ”Not crazy, but free,” one woman wrote on her body in reference to Amina’s alleged admission to a psychiatric ward. The message “No to Sharia” is written on the breast of another.
In Tunisia, Amina’s story is a hot topic, and women in particular are discussing the case. Afef Redifi is one of them.
“I do not agree with using women’s bodies for any reason – even if it is their own decision,” says Redifi. The young, confident and attractive woman is one of the leading managers of Musawaat, Arabic for “equality,” the women’s rights organization of the Tunisian Workers’ Party.
Through lectures and information sessions, Redifi and her colleagues inform Tunisian women about their legal rights, assist them with labor issues, and help in cases of domestic violence.
“We focus especially on women from underprivileged neighborhoods and rural areas,” Redifi explains, “because very often it is these women who hardly know their own rights.”
The organization is also concerned with raising awareness among young men for the equality of the sexes.
“The struggle for women’s rights is not a fight against men,” Redifi says. “Gender equality is a step forward for the entire society.” In this respect, there is still much to do in Tunisia.
“There is a lot of work to do in order to overcome the stereotypes and the idea of women’s inferiority, which are so commonplace that they are unseen,” she says.
But for Redifi, the aggressive approach of Femen activists, who question traditional values and norms with militant slogans and nudity, is counterproductive.
“The focus should be on the claims and not on the body,” she continues. “This could divert and trivialize our struggle, for I don’t see how this can resolve the issues of precariousness, poverty, unemployment, underpayment, and so many others.”
Since the fall of the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians are confronted with economic insecurity more than ever. Tourism, one of the main sources of employment and income in the country, slumped after the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid in February. Inflation is a persistent problem and even prices on basic food items have gone up.
“These issues affect all Tunisians. When women participate actively in economic life, all Tunisians will benefit,” Redifi says. She wants to continues her fight for equality – together with female and male supporters.
One may accept that Amina decided to join the Femen movement; she took the risk and now she has to pay a very high price. But seeing “International Topless Jihad Day” unfold, it becomes obvious that Femen has not taken into account that certain forms of protest cannot be translated into every culture and society.
If they had, they would have known that, in the current environment in Tunisia, their actions just play right into the hands of those they want to fight. Moreover, they fight on the basis of clichés and stereotypes of the “oppressed oriental woman” and the “dominant Arab man.”
Tunisian activists such as Redifi prove that the female protagonists of Tunisia’s transition are much more diverse than Femen wants them to be.
Katharina Pfannkuch is a freelance journalist. The post reflects the opinions of the author and not those of Tunisia Live as a publication.