Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sextremism: FEMEN and Women's Rights in Tunisia

On March 11, a 19-year-old Tunisian woman named Amina uploaded photos of herself on Facebook with the words “my body belongs to me, and is not the source of the honor of anyone” written across her bare torso.  This act reignited a national dialogue on women’s rights in Tunisia that has burned steadily since the dawn of the revolution, inspiring many Tunisian women to post photos of themselves with slogans written across their upper bodies on Facebook as well.

Amina.  Source:

Amina’s act was inspired by FEMEN, a Ukranian feminist group founded in 2008 that has spread worldwide advocating for women’s liberation.  The group organizes topless protests to gain attention for women’s issues.  FEMEN has invoked polarized reactions globally.  Supporters applaud its use of “shock value” to call attention to issues, but critics question their use of female sexualization as a rebranding of feminism, as well as their “one size fits all” approach to feminism in all cultures and societies.  Today, April 3, FEMEN activists burned black Islamic flags displaying the Shahada in front of a mosque in Paris.


Amina is not the first woman in the Arab World to have used her body as a medium for political expression after the 2011 uprisings.  Egyptian Aliaa Al Mahdi, at age 21, posted topless photos of herself on her blog in October 2011, sparking the “Topless Jihad” movement that spread throughout the region.  FEMEN declared that this movement will culminate on April 4, proclaimed “International Topless Jihad Day,” on which supporters are supposed to bare their breasts in front of Tunisian embassies in their countries.


Dialogue on gender equality has been contentious in Tunisia, especially due to the platform of Ennahda, the “moderate” Islamist party currently in power.  Article 28 of a draft constitution released in the summer of 2012 outlined the current government’s vision of men and women in Tunisian society as such:

"The state guarantees the protection of women and supports their achievements, considering them as men's true partners in building the nation, and their [men's and women's] roles complement one another within the family. The state guarantees equal opportunity between men and women in carrying out different responsibilities. The state guarantees the elimination of all forms of violence against women."

This article was widely interpreted to stipulate that women would be “complementary,” and therefore unequal, to men in Ennahda’s vision of Tunisian society.  This is certainly a logical vision for a government inspired by the values of Islam, but it has angered secularists who see the country as more Western-oriented.  It is unclear to exactly what extent the article would affect women’s rights in Tunisia.  The article does not appear to impact the Personal Status Code (PSC), the legislation that made Tunisia the most progressive Arab country regarding women’s rights in 1956, but it would likely make it difficult for Quranic-based laws in the PSC, such as the inheritance code, to be overturned.

Ennahda is facing strong opposition in the form of the Union for Tunisia, the opposition front comprised of Nidaa Tounes, Al Joumhouri (a merger of the Progressive Democratic Party and Afek Tounes), and smaller parties.  The Union for Tunisia represents to a much greater degree the idea of gender equality tied to Western liberal and individualistic conceptions of human rights.  Nidaa Tounes declares “Justice and equality between all social classes, between regions, and between men and women” a primary value of their party.  They are currently polling neck-and-neck with Ennahda, but they have substantial issues to overcome before the next elections due to some prominent members’ ties to former dictator Ben Ali’s Neo Destour party.

The debate over women’s rights in Tunisia is one part of a large discussion on the future of Tunisian society.  Tunisia’s relative economic success, homogeneity and continued attachment to European culture and values (in comparison with its neighboring North African countries) turn Tunisia’s post-revolutionary narrative less toward pragmatic approaches to current problems and more towards an ideological struggle between Western and Islamic values in the creation of a new vision for Tunisia.  If Amina and FEMEN achieve what they set out to do by calling mass attention to the issue of women’s rights in Tunisia, it is possible that April 4 may be seen as a turning point in the evolution of women’s rights in the country, but it is much more likely that their offensive approach will create increased resentment towards feminists within Tunisia.

Works Cited

Dreisbach, Tristan. "Femen Debate Grows as More Women Upload Topless Photos." Tunisia Live. N.p., 22 Mar. 2013. Web. 03 Apr. 2013. <>
Khlifi, Roua. "Topless Feminist Protest Comes to Tunisia." Tunisia Live. N.p., 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 03 Apr. 2013. <>
Kraidy, Marwan M. "The Revolutionary Body Politic: Preliminary Thoughts on a Neglected Medium in the Arab Uprisings." Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5 (2012): 66-74. Print.
Marks, Monica. "'Complimentary' Status for Tunisian Women." Foreign Policy. N.p., 20 Aug. 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2013. <>
Marks, Monica. "Uniting for Tunisia?" Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. N.p., 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 03 Apr. 2013. <>
Murphy, Megan. "There Is a Wrong Way to Do Feminism. And Femen Is Doing It Wrong ‹ Feminist Current." Feminist Current. N.p., 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2013. <>
"Nidaa Tounes: Notre Parti - Nos Principes." Nidaa Tounes. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2013. <>
Samti, Farah. "Feminist Group Declares April 4 “International Topless Jihad Day”." Tunisia Live. N.p., 29 Mar. 2013. Web. 03 Apr. 2013. <>


  1. I agree with the interpretation of Article 28. It mentions the word "equality" but contradicts itself that men and women will be equal in different areas. It doesn't make sense. I think that this is a great example of a nonviolent protest that has enough controversy behind it to grab attention. Its really unfortunate that gender equality is not embraced because it is thought of as a "Western ideal". A society benefits when all members can have the opportunity to utilize their skills with being constricted to gender roles.

  2. It is amazing that a feminist movement from Ukraine has spread to Tunisia. While Ukraine is fairly conservative in comparison to Western Europe, a topless woman in Ukraine is far less incendiary than a topless woman in Tunisia.
    It will be interesting to see if feminism gains any traction in the MENA region, considering the drastic cultural change that this would imply.
    While I don't think that anyone should hold their breath waiting for gender equality in North Africa, cultural change can happen incredibly quickly. Consider how attitudes towards LGBT rights have changed in the US within the past three decades. The Supreme Court only struck down state sodomy laws in 2003.
    The context of the Arab Spring is ideal for feminists to start a push for gender equality, even if the results aren't seen for years or decades.

  3. Not only is it interesting to look at how feminism and women's right is being expressed by using the body as a slate for protest but this isn't the first time the body has been used in the arab spring. Let's not forget Mohamed Bouazizi who lit his body on fire in Tunisia to spark the revolution. Not to mention the same in Egypt. If you are interested on more of this I suggest you read an article by Marwan M. Kraidy called "The Revolutionary Body Politic: Preliminary Thoughts on a Neglected Medium in the Arab Uprisings"

    1. Thanks! I did read it - it's cited in my post :)

  4. First, major props to these women for expressing themselves freely and baring all for something they wholeheartedly believe in. What's important to know is that the Tunisian woman mentioned in this article, Amina, is now living in hiding and has received numerous death threats from Islamic extremists, all for expressing herself. She has risked her life for a worthy cause, something I'm not sure all of us are willing to do. I think the "shock value", so to speak, of this movement is an incredibly effective tool in expressing their frustrations, given the enforced restrictions otherwise. But it also shows that while Tunisia has made some democratic progress, there is still incredible room for growth, with inequality in women's rights. I think that while Tunisia has been influenced by Western thought, pervasive, archaic Islamic ideology is hard to combat.