One of the pictures of Amina posted on the Femen Tunisia site.
Two weeks ago, a young Tunisian woman known only by the name “Amina” posted political self portraits to Facebook to protest the continued oppression of women in the Arab world’s first democracy.
Posing topless, one photo featured Amina smoking with the Arabic declaration “my body belongs to me, and is not the source of the honor of anyone” scrawled across her chest; the other showed Amina standing defiantly, her middle fingers raised to camera, and the English words “F--- your morals” blaring out from her body.
Today, Amina is in a psychiatric hospital, admitted there against her will by family members who’ve expressed shame over her actions. Her aunt appeared in a YouTube video to declare, “Amina does not exist anymore for me. She is responsible for her acts, and we are devastated by what she did. Our family is educated and open-minded and we did everything we could for her. Her father has been crying and has been in a miserable state.” She later added, “I hope she pays for her actions. She does not represent her country or Tunisian women.”
While Amina’s aunt may deny her niece’s actions speak for or even to Tunisian women, not everyone agrees. The Wahabi Salafi preacher Almi Adel, head of the almost comically titled Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, warned Tunisian newspaper Kapitalis, "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."
It’s tempting to mock the preacher’s words for the crude expression of fear that they are. If women begin to think for themselves and question their environments, they might then demand their own liberation from the kinds of patriarchal societies that empower men like Adel to wield control over them. Perhaps even more terrifying is the possibility that they might succeed.
Unfortunately, the consequence of men like Adel having power is that they do wield it. And his proposed solution to ‘isolating the incident’ is to execute Amina in accordance with his misreading of sharia law. “The young lady should be punished according to sharia, with 80 to 100 lashes, but [because of] the severity of the act she has committed, she deserves be stoned to death.”
It doesn’t stop there. Even if Amina escapes such barbaric treatment (and the arrogance in determining that a woman who rejects the cultural mores of her society and demands her rights ‘deserves’ to be stoned to death is nothing short of barbaric), Tunisian secular law could still punish her with up to two years in prison and a fine between 100 - 1000 dinars (around $80 to $800).
And all of this because she defied Tunisia’s moral codes to express herself politically alongside a group all too familiar with inciting the wrath of conservative governance.
The group in question was Ukrainian born feminist protest group Femen. Amina was in the process of setting up a Tunisian offshoot of the activist organisation and had posted the photos to their Facebook page. (That page has since been hacked, with the photos removed and replaced with Quranic verses).
Since its evolution, Femen’s goal has been to challenge patriarchal codes of ownership. Its Paris based director, Inna Schevchenko, achieved global notoriety after she marched to the top of a hill overlooking Kieve, stripped down to nothing but a pair of red denim shorts and work boots and proceeded to chop down a 13ft cross with a chainsaw. The protest coincided with the handing down of judgment for the three members of Russian feminist protest group Pussy Riot; on that day in Kiev, Schevchenko had scrawled “Free Riot” across her chest. The action earned Schevchenko death threats and unwanted attention from the government. After her front door was kicked in, she escaped with only $50, a mobile phone and a passport and made her way to France where she now trains more Femen activists, or warriors as they refer to themselves as. (You can read more about Femen’s activities in this Guardian profile.)
Femen’s methods are problematic for some feminists - early on in their advent, organisers realised that it was nudity that got the attention of the media and the public. Given they protest vehemently against the sex industry, likening it to fascism and even using Nazi imagery as a comparison, their reliance on flesh to translate important messages seems counter intuitive. How can a group so decidedly against the commodification of women’s bodies fall back on that titillation to protest? Schevchenko justifies the approach as a form of reclamation. "A woman's naked body has always been the instrument of the patriarchy," she says, "they use it in the sex industry, the fashion industry, advertising, always in men's hands. We realised the key was to give the naked body back to its rightful owner, to women, and give a new interpretation of nudity ... I'm proud of the fact that today naked women are not just posing on the cover of Playboy, but can be at an action, angry, and can irritate people."
This is certainly true in the case of Amina, whose experience of life as a woman in Tunisia was evidently so suffocating that she reached out to an international feminist protest group whose central thesis was the restoration of women’s bodies to their rightful owners. As yet, no one has been allowed contact with the teenager, who remains incarcerated in a psychiatric ward (which has historically been the bleak fate for many women who challenged the notions of propriety in their communities).
So what can you do to help? You can follow Maryam Namazie on Free Thought Blogs, who is updating news about Amina where she can. You can also sign this Change petition, which is looking for 150,000 signatures. You can follow and tweet at the #Amina hashtag on Twitter to show your support for women’s autonomy over their own bodies, free from fear of government or community retribution. And you might consider participating in Namazie’s International Day To Defend Amina, called for April 4. Namazie is urging groups and individuals to post topless photos of themselves and their activism on social media sites, and to remind ‘the world that the real epidemic and disaster that must be challenged is misogyny - Islamic or otherwise.”
Whatever your view on the use of breasts as a benign western political statement, nudity can be a powerful statement of protest in countries where women’s bodies are more forcefully appropriated and governed by the law. Amina’s only crime was reclaiming her body as her own, and using it to protest the patriarchal values of a society that demanded it be covered in order to preserve the honour of others. In a rational society, breasts have no more power to hurt anyone than a gentle breeze can blow down a house made of bricks. But when a fear of naked female flesh and a woman’s right to dictate what is done with her own body pervades so deeply that the wilful display of it could result in her own execution, breasts can become bombs.
Clementine Ford will be one of the panelists participating in a live discussion of Rape Culture at the All About Women Festival on April 7. For more information and to get your ticket, visit The Sydney Opera House.