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Little sympathy in Tunisia for Femen's topless activists

Three European women who staged a topless protest in Tunisia to support a jailed Femen activist face up to a year in prison for indecency. But their plight has won little sympathy in the socially conservative country.


Three European women who bared their breasts to protest against the arrest of a Tunisian Femen activist appeared in court on Wednesday.

The women - one German and two French - were charged with indecency and attacking public morals after last week’s topless protest in support of Amina Sboui, an activist with the Ukraine-based group.

Sboui, 18, was arrested after she painted the word “Femen” on a wall in a cemetery in an act of protest against hard-line Islamists. Sboui, who has since been fined and faces further charges, has been held in detention since May 19.

The trial of three European Femen activists arrested in Tunisia was adjourned to June 12 and their bail refused, their lawyers said.

"The trial has been adjourned to June 12. The bail request for the three Femen activists was refused," defence lawyer Souheib Bahri told AFP.

But while Sboui’s case has attracted sympathy in Tunisia, the case of the three Femen “sextremists” has won little support in the socially conservative country.

“I am shocked," one outraged female lawyer told FRANCE 24 during the May 29 protest. "I have been a lawyer for fifteen years here, we don't allow this. Neither the right or the left allows anything like this to happen.”

Even Tunisia’s secular and feminist groups are shying away from supporting the three Europeans.

"What has happened to Amina, this ruthlessness, is not justified. She does not in any way represent a threat to national security," Nadia Chaabane, MP for the secular centre-left al Massar party, told reporters.

"But I don't understand the Femen reaction, which has aggravated her situation," she said. "It is an impotent and pointless provocation. This incident distracts us from the most serious problems we face today, the socio-economic problems, the drafting of the constitution, the violence.

“Frankly, the Femen [demands] are the last thing I'm worried about," Chaabane said.

Culture clash

Further opposition to Femen’s actions comes from Middle Eastern feminists, many of whom have condemned the group’s actions as alien to the region’s culture.

They also say the group’s provocative direct action is 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.”

The three women were identified by the Femen movement in Paris as French nationals Pauline Hillier and Marguerite Stern, and Josephine Markmann from Germany.

They face up to six months in jail for each of the charges, although Souheib Bahri, one of the lawyers for the three women, said he was confident that the court would not impose the maximum sentence.

Ennahda, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, has yet to comment on the Femen campaign even though it was the group's principal target.

Since the 1950s, Tunisia has had the most liberal laws in the Arab world on women's rights. And the country’s Islamists are often forced to defend themselves against accusations of wanting to roll back those rights.

The latest edition of the proposed new constitution, drafted in April, states that "all male and female citizens have the same rights and duties" and says it "guarantees equal opportunity to men and women".


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