The naked truth about Tunisia’s topless protester

Tunisian feminist Amina Tyler says that she set out to highlight the issue of women’s rights when she posted topless pictures of herself on the Femen website. Since you can see topless girls on Page 3 in Britain’s largest selling newspaper and similar full frontals across other European print media, it wasn’t really such a shocking act.

However, her audience wasn’t European; it was aimed at a specific group of conservative men in Tunisia. To make sure that they got the message, she wrote, “My body is mine, not somebody’s honor” in Arabic across her breasts and stomach. The reality, though, is that she could have just shown her shoulder blade with the same Arabic writing on her flesh and it would have had a greater impact and drawn wider support for the point she was trying to make.

The images went global on March 8, International Women’s Day. To make it easy for English-speaking commentators who might not quite have grasped what she was trying to say, the avidly secular Femen also published a picture of Amina across its masthead with “Fuck your morals” scrawled across her naked torso in English. To cap it, on her own Facebook page, she published lots of similar photographs of other topless women from around the globe who wanted to show their solidarity.

As a lifelong feminist, I was slightly underwhelmed by it all; it was hardly an Emily Wilding Davison moment. The martyred suffragette’s act of defiance in support of women’s rights continues to shock today, 100 years after she stepped in front of the King’s horse as it thundered along the Epsom racecourse. She didn’t strip to make her point; she sacrificed herself.

Emily, a committed Christian, was arrested several time and jailed for her protests. In prison, she was force fed in hunger strikes and other jail house protests. She even threw stones at senior politicians including the Prime Minister of the day. The stones were sometimes wrapped in paper penned with her favorite words: “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.”

Now I don’t really want to dismiss Amina’s act as juvenile and pretty pointless, but it was. Without doubt it took a great deal of courage for her to bare all for women’s rights, but I get the feeling that this was more about attacking Islam than anything else.

Some of the Salafis in Tunisia need to stop being so misogynistic and un-Islamic, while some of the spineless politicians in the moderate Al-Nahda ruling party also need to stand up for and empower their wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters.

Tunisian women, especially those who wore the hijab, were treated in an appalling way during Zinedine Ben Ali’s brutal regime; neither their honor nor their faith was respected. That some are now encountering difficulties because of their gender in the new Tunisia is an outrage. There would be no new Tunisia without the unstinting support and courage of women who some men are now trying to sideline and airbrush out of politics, the workplace and education.

As I often say, we women are half of the global Muslim Ummah, and we gave birth to the other half. To try and dismiss us as irrelevant or incapable is foolish and wholly un-Islamic.

Before becoming a Muslim, I was a Christian feminist; my change of faith was prompted by the universal women’s rights woven into the tapestry of the much-maligned, much-misunderstood religion of Islam. I have to say that much of the ignorance about the faith comes from within the Muslim world, promoted by misogynistic men who have hijacked Islam and abuse it in order to control women.

Such men play into the hands of the secularists who despise all religion. The great irony is that both groups are still reeling from shock that the majority of those who took part in the Arab Spring opted for an Islamic-flavored democracy; it angered those who wanted to create an Islamic state and dismayed those who never imagined that Islamic parties would not only stand for election but actually win.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction to Amina Tyler’s photographs has been fairly predictable, with Salafists calling for her to be stoned to death, rumors that she is in an asylum, and claims that she has been “disappeared” by her family. The secularists at Femen HQ in the Ukraine must be rubbing their hands in delight.

The struggle against radical secularism has not been helped by Adel Almi, the head of the Moderate Association for Awareness and Reform; it speaks volumes that until a few weeks ago this organization was called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. “The young lady should be punished according to shari’ah, with 80 to 100 lashes, but [because of] the severity of the act she has committed, she deserves be stoned to death,” he told Tunisia’s Kapitalis newspaper. “Her act could bring about an epidemic. It could be contagious and give ideas to other women. It is therefore necessary to isolate [the incident]. I wish her to be healed.”

In fact, if there is an epidemic, it is because of short-sighted men like Mr. Almi who have a long-range relationship with the true role of women in the Muslim world. Has he forgotten—did he ever know?—that the early Muslim women fought on the battlefields, ran international businesses, used their wealth to promote Islam and their knowledge to educate men as well as women? A third of the collected sayings of the Prophet, peace be upon him, comes from the chain of wisdom recounted by his wife Aisha. When he sought comfort and advice after receiving the first revelation from God, it was a woman to whom he turned, his beloved first wife Khadija, who was the first to embrace the new faith of Islam. I could go on, and if Adel Almi ever crosses my path, I will, at length. Suffice to say that I did not embrace Islam to become a second-class citizen, and I will make this point to any man or woman who tries to make it so.

It was only in recent generations that the significant role of Muslim women was diminished and now there are Islamic feminists who want to reclaim their rights; and they will. Sadly, Ms. Tyler has been forced to take desperate measures most likely because she is unaware of the rights she has been given within Islam; probably as unaware as the men who now say that she should be stoned to death.

I don’t doubt Amina’s determination to be treated equally as a woman in the new Tunisia. Nor do I doubt her ambitions or her courage. What I do doubt is the sincerity of those who advised and encouraged her to protest in such a way in a country where even the educated, secular, and liberal elite are shocked and largely unimpressed by her actions.

There are many ways to make political gestures in Tunisia, but a bare chest is not one of them; it will not win the hearts and minds of the very people whose support you need to make the changes you want. If you look at the various websites that have used Amina’s images the comments, even from people in the supposedly “enlightened” West, revolve around size, shape, and content. The messages from some men are crude and vulgar and completely undermine her feminist credentials. She’s scored an own goal by turning herself into an object to be stared at by such men.

Redress Information and Analysis editor Nureddin Sabir captures the mood perfectly by summing up Amina’s act thus: “Sexual shock tactics are controversial in most societies, even in the relatively permissive Anglo-Saxon world. In our Arab societies they will not only annoy, aggravate and provoke conservatives and reactionaries, but they will also shock and numb everyone.”

I genuinely hope that Amina emerges from this whole experience intact and is allowed to continue with her education and develop her skills as a communicator. She is a young woman with plenty to say, and when she makes her next statement, I hope everyone, including the men, will sit up and listen not because they are shocked but because they are moved and inspired by the words she speaks and writes. That would be a truly feminist act and one which will move the debate about gender roles in conservative societies forward for all the right reasons.

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Yvonne Ridley

British journalist Yvonne Ridley is the West European Asst. Director-General of the International Muslim Women's Union. 

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  • User

    Shame on you, a betrayer of the very secular system which allowed you to choose the religion anf lifestyle you wanted. Under muslim or christian or any fundamentalism you wouldn’t have such a right.

  • User

    Long Live FEMEN!

  • Je suis mines charmantes! Je pensais les lignes des

  • Stella

    Well said! I agree that this sort of protest doesn’t do much to promote feminism, equality of the sexes, or the rights of Muslim women. Painting “F$%# Islam” across their bare bodies makes these femen girls appear hateful towards the very oppressed groups they are trying to ‘save’: women and Muslim women. Further, this type of shock-protest is degrading to those women who have spent years making social and political inroads, connecting to communities of women, and working tirelessly to promote real change on gender, cultural, social and political issues. It is a shame that so much zeal is wasted on such a one-dimensional circus of self-aggrandizement with this shock-campaign. The real goal of feminism has and always will be equality and CHOICE for women–not oppression from our very own sisters.

  • sander

    People are always responsible for the way they think of people, not the other way around.
    If I wear a pink shirt and people hit me because they hate something harmless as pink it’s their fault, if Amina postsw pictures of her breast and everybody thinks it is allowed to say you should stone her to death or if the reactions undermine her feminist credentials it is not her fault.

    You should think about this. A woman does not become an object by showing her breasts and because the reactions were predictable does not make them right.

    Femen women are human like you and me, they make mistakes are often misunderstood and sometimes you here just hear agression. Nevertheless they inspired me to look further then just the ‘omg breast’ reaction far to many people have.

    It is a good thing you try to explain why many people do feel comfortable in the way tunesian muslims treat each other, but don’t claim everybody should conform. Just let them do their stuff and try not the focus to much on the outside.
    In the end it never is the outside wich really counts, just like with muslims.