On Thursday a Tunisian court fined and charged a prominent member of the feminist group Femen for carrying an “incendiary object'', on the opening day of her high-profile trial in a conservative central Tunisian city. The topless activist was remanded in custody at the end of the hearing, pending more serious charges.
Amina Sboui, known as Amina Tyler, appeared for her first hearing at Kairouan City Court dressed in a white robe and seemed calm as outside the court, hundreds of protesters chanted slogans against her, accusing the Tunisian activist of insulting Islam.
Tyler scandalised many in her home country for posting topless photos of herself with the slogan "my body is my own" written on her torso.
Femen, a Ukrainian feminist protest group with members around the world, has been receiving increasing publicity and notoriety in recent months for its trademark protests featuring topless women. Two Frenchwomen and a German are currently being held in custody in Tunisia after participating in a Femen protest earlier this week.
On Thursday, Tyler was charged with carrying a canister of pepper spray. Prosecutors, however, said they are considering bringing more serious charges against her, including desecrating a cemetery and offending public decency.
The case has sparked intense controversy in Tunisia, a country split between secularists and Islamists since the 2011 fall of former strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Outrage in Kairouan
For many of Tunisia’s Muslims, 18-year-old Tyler’s real crime is having perpetrated what they perceive as an attack on both their religion and culture. She reportedly received death threats following the incident and subsequently went into hiding.
Tyler reemerged on May 19 in Kairouan, an important religious centre, where she scrawled “Femen” on a wall near the city's main mosque, on the same day that Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia was due to hold its annual congress, which was ultimately prevented from taking place by a government ban.
Tyler was taken away by police as an angry mob was gathering and was later charged for possession of pepper spray. At Thursday’s hearing, she told the judge that she had been given the pepper spray by a foreign journalist for her own protection and had been carrying it for the last two months. The session was later adjourned to allow the judge to deliberate on the charge while Tyler was escorted out of the building by police, as protesters tried to get inside.
Opposition from feminists as well as religious conservatives
Protests designed to provoke and offend – while drawing the media's attention – are nothing new for Femen. In February this year, for example, eight members of the group flashed their breasts in the heart of Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral to celebrate Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.
However, in Tunisia, Tyler’s actions have led to a significantly fiercer backlash, and approximately 200 people gathered outside the courthouse on Thursday to express their outrage, many of them shouting religious slogans such as "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) and "The people want the application of Islamic law".
But further opposition to Femen’s actions comes from Middle East feminists, many of whom have condemned the group’s actions as alien to the region’s culture and potentially counter-productive, with public anger possibly leading to a backlash against progress in establishing greater gender equality in the Arab world.
In April, a Facebook group called “Muslim Women against Femen” was set up to denounce Femen’s tactics and their incompatibility with Islamic values. It features numerous photos of supporters holding signs with messages such as “I can support women’s rights with my clothes on” and “My modesty does not compromise my feminism”.
Femen plans 'women’s spring' for the Arab world
The protests come at a particularly sensitive time for Tunisia. Long seen as one of the most progressive Arab states, there has been a rise in religious conservatism in the country since the overthrow of the secular dictatorship in 2011, and a debate is currently raging over the role Islam should play in the Tunisia’s laws and society.
Despite all this, Femen looks intent on establishing itself in the Arab world, with Tunisia its first target. This was evidenced on Wednesday when three Femen members took part in the first ever topless protest in an Islamic country.
The women, two French and one German, disrobed in front of the country’s Justice Ministry in the capital Tunis and chanted “Free Amina” and “Women’s spring is coming”, attracting a crowd of offended locals before being taken away by police.