“Nudity DOES NOT liberate me -- and I DO NOT need saving,” one wrote on a sign, held up to the camera in an image posted on Twitter.
A furious debate broke out in the blogosphere after radical feminist group Femen launched its “Topless Jihad” last week for Amina Tyler, a Tunisian woman who faced threats after sharing a topless photo of herself online. Tyler, 19, had written “My body is mine, not somebody's honor" across her chest in Arabic in solidarity with Femen, a Kyiv, Ukraine-based group known for topless protests.
Her act of protest went over poorly in Tunisia, where ultraconservative Islamists have gained ground since the revolution that ousted autocratic President Zine el Abidine ben Ali. Long seen as a regional leader in gender equality, Tunisia has since become a battleground for feminists, some of whom were seen as tainted because of their ties to the Ben Ali government. Since he was toppled, feminists have struggled to regain their political footing.
Outraged by the topless photo, a Salafi cleric who heads a commission on vice reportedly said Tyler should be stoned to death. Hackers defaced the Femen Tunisia page on Facebook, denouncing it as "debauchery." Tyler later told a French television crew she wanted to leave the country.
Femen called for topless protests at Tunisian embassies and mosques around the world to “demand freedom for Amina,” billing her act as “the beginning of a global war between a woman and an Islamist theocracy.” Bare-breasted demonstrators turned out from Stockholm to San Francisco and set a black Muslim flag alight in front of a Paris mosque.
"Muslim men shroud their women in black sacks of submissiveness and fear," Femen leader Inna Shevchenko wrote on the Huffington Post UK. "Topless protests are the battle flags of women's resistance, a symbol of a woman's acquisition of rights over her own body!"
But many Muslim women -- including women who count themselves as feminists -- were turned off by the tactics and slogans of the self-described “naked shock troops of feminism.”
“Some women bared their breasts in a country where it is completely all right to bare your breasts, then they burned the symbolic flag of a religious minority, in front of the mosque of that religious minority. And then some lauded this as ‘revolutionary,’ ” British writer and photographer Sabiha Mahmoud said in an open letter to Femen. The black flag that Femen activists burned was not an exclusively extremist symbol, she wrote; it was “a generic one used by many Muslims.”
Thousands of irritated women joined the Facebook group “Muslim Women Against Femen” and declared their own “Muslimah Pride Day,” uploading photos of themselves with signs reading “Freedom of Choice” and “I can support women’s rights with my clothes on.” Muslim women could fight for themselves, they declared, behind the hijab or not.
Even the backlash became divided. “This is not a nudity vs. hijab debate,” stated one post on Facebook. “Every woman has their own way of reclaiming their bodies against the patriarchy.”
Femen was unconvinced by the outcry. "They write on their posters that they don't need liberation, but in their eyes it's written 'help me,’ ” Shevchenko told the Huffington Post UK.
As the debate raged online, it was unclear what had happened to the Tunisian woman whose bared breasts set off such an uproar. In her television interview last week, Tyler said she did not regret taking the photos but was against burning the black flag as the Femen activists had done.
"Everyone will think I encouraged them to do that," she told the French channel. "They insulted all Muslims. It's not acceptable."
Femen said Tyler was clearly cut off from communication and “not aware of how it really happened” during the protests. The young woman is “still not free,” it reiterated Friday on Facebook.