FEMEN Strikes Tunisia with Harder Consequences

Three activists from international feminist group FEMEN have been arrested since May 29th in Tunisia after holding topless demonstrations outside the Justice Ministry in Tunis.  Two of the jailed women are French nationals, Pauline Hillier and Marguerite Stern, and the other is German Josephine Markmann. According to FEMEN, their protests were born from the spirit of the ‘Topless Jihad Day’ and ‘Women’s Spring,’ a movement against Islamic oppression of women. All of the women were sentenced to four months and one day in prison for public indecency, undermining public morals, and disturbing the peace.

FEMEN calls itself a “sextremist” feminist group, staging topless protests. The group was founded in Ukraine “to defend sexual and social equality in the world,” according to FEMEN’s website. Inna Shevchenko, a high-profile activist who escaped to France after sawing a cross in half in central Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, explained FEMEN’s tactics in last month’s New York Times article. “We understood that this society, this country, is not ready to listen to women. But everyone wants to look at them, especially if they are naked. Okay, if we are not able to talk, we will show.” Across Europe, FEMEN has protested against sex trafficking and dictatorship and for gay rights.

In recent months, the group has branched out to protest almost any other hot-topic issue all over the world, hitting places like France, Germany, Sweden, Belarus, and now Tunisia. There are nine chapters in total in nine different countries. However, in Tunisia, it is the group’s tactics rather than its messages that have been the main topic of conversation and now a heated debate.

Tunisia caught FEMEN’s attention when 18 year-old Amina Tyler posted topless photos of herself on Facebook with the words “My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honor” written across her chest. On May 19th, Amina held a one-man protest at the Salafists congress in FEMEN’s style, and sprayed “FEMEN” on a cemetery wall of the Great Mosque of Kairouan and was then promptly arrested.

Tyler was fined 150 euros for being in possession of pepper spray. Later, she was charged with public indecency and cemetery desecration. The court is currently considering adding a conspiracy gang charge, sending Tyler away for several years in prison.

FEMEN activists’ response was almost immediate, and the protest on May 29th was, like all effective demonstrations, carefully staged ahead of time. For FEMEN to garner media attention, one bare-chested woman is enough, an impressive departure from traditional protest tactics of displaying large numbers. The three French and German activists were specifically chosen because FEMEN expected that they would receive the best diplomatic assistance after arrest. The women came topless and written all over, and as usual, they were photographed kicking and screaming in the hands of the police.  The French women’s lawyers say that their four-month imprisonment is “a very heavy sentence” adding “this is a serious infringement of freedom of expression, not just for the girls but for freedom of expression in general.”

Many responses from the French, Americans, and now the Muslim women’s counter-movement reveal problematic aspects of FEMEN’s strategy and ideology. A multi-media article from Aljazeera titled “Who Speaks for Muslim Women?” puts the Muslim women who argue against FEMEN on display. FEMEN’s belief that the hijab is a sign of female oppression has received the most criticism, as arguments for the right of a woman to choose her style of dress is based on cultural, economic, or political grounds.  The consensus among observers is that FEMEN’s particular brand of feminism excludes a plurality of voices, which is counter-productive to the women’s cause.

Although the “sextremist” movement may be flawed in some ways, the three activists’ imprisonment in Tunisia is uncovering other issues surrounding freedom of expression. After the recent arrests, a Tunisian rapper, Weld El 15 was charged with a two-year jail sentence for likening police to dogs in one of his YouTube raps.

The French activists’ lawyers have warned they will work to mobilize the international community in support of FEMEN on the eve of President François Hollande’s visit to Tunisia in early July. Najat Belkacem-Vallaud, spokesperson for the French government on women’s rights, expressed concern for the fate of the French nationals.  She claimed, “France is closely following the evolution of the situation in conjunction with the Tunisian authorities.”

Meanwhile, the authorities acting under speculation of another staged protest, as Ukrainian FEMEN activist Alexandra Shevchenko was detained at a Tunisian airport and deported to Ukraine only days after the arrests.

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  1. […] FEMEN Strikes Tunisia with Harder Consequences […]

  2. […] Three activists from international feminist group FEMEN have been arrested in Tunisia since May 29, after holding topless demonstrations outside the Justice Ministry in Tunis.  Two of the jailed women are French nationals, Pauline Hillier and Marguerite Stern, and the other is German national Josephine Markmann. All of the women were sentenced to four months and one day in prison for public indecency, undermining public morals, and disturbing the peace. […]

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