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Feminist Activists On Trial in Tunisia

  • Lisa Bryant

Police officers detain an activist from the women's rights group FEMEN during a protest against the arrest of their Tunisian member named Amina Sboui, in front of Tunisia's Ministry of Justice in Tunis, May 29, 2013.

Police officers detain an activist from the women's rights group FEMEN during a protest against the arrest of their Tunisian member named Amina Sboui, in front of Tunisia's Ministry of Justice in Tunis, May 29, 2013.

Members of the body-baring feminist group Femen are on trial in Tunisia for indecency and violating public morality in their bid to launch a "feminist spring" in Muslim countries. After the trial's opening session on Wednesday, the court adjourned proceedings until June 12. The group and its tactics have stirred controversy even among feminists.

The tactic was classic Femen: Three young woman painted with graffiti staged a topless protest before being hauled away by police. But their chosen location for baring their bodies last week - in front of the Tunis courthouse - marks a new step for the Ukrainian-born feminist movement.

It takes the battle for women's rights to the Muslim world.

On Wednesday, the three Femen activists - two French and one German - went on trial at the same Tunis courthouse for debauchery - a charge that carries up to six months in prison.

The three arrived in court clad in safaris, Tunisia's traditional, body-covering white veil.

Their protest last week was on behalf of a Tunisian counterpart, Amina Sboui, who faces separate charges in the religious city of Kairouan.

Meanwhile in Paris, Femen members staged a bare-breasted display of solidarity Wednesday, in front of the Tunisian embassy.

Inna Shevchenko, head of Femen's Paris branch, said Tunisia is only the start of a larger campaign for women's rights in the Muslim world. She calls it a new 'Arab spring' for women.

"Countries of [the] Arab Spring were a big disappointment for society, but also with the changing political situation - and Islamist parties which are leading governments, in Tunisia as well - they are trying to increase the levels of oppression. We staged our topless protests saying there will be a second revolution, there will be a women's spring, there will be a women's revolution," said Shevchenko.

Tunisia has long been considered a regional leader when it comes to women's rights. But today, many Tunisian women fear Islamists are rolling back their gains.

Prominent rights activist Khadija Cherif said the judiciary's reaction to the Femen activists is another worrying indication of a clampdown on free expression.

Increasingly, Cherif said, Tunisian women are being pressured to wear the veil. While she doesn't share Femen's tactics, she says she might have also been tempted to strip off her clothes in protest, had she been younger.

Femen has attracted some Muslim supporters and members, but it remains deeply controversial.

Tunisia's Deputy National Assembly speaker Mehrezia Labidi is perhaps the most senior female member of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party. She says she comes from a feminist background.

She does not believe Femen, however, is helping the cause of Tunisian women.

"I don't think such a provocative act as those done by Femen can advance in any way ideas about women's status or freedom," she said. "I'm afraid it can only provoke conflicts and clashes."

Labidi is not Femen's only female critic. A new Facebook group, "Muslim Women Against Femen," accuses Femen of Islamophobia. And while Tunisian member Sboui has earned a certain amount of public sympathy at home, there is less tolerance for Femen's European members.

"These girls who came from Europe to protest in Tunisia... I would like someone to tell them, kindly but firmly, that they have to respect the public ethics in this country and behave decently with people," said Labidi.

As for Sboui, Labidi suggested that she is psychologically ill and needs treatment.

Femen is no stranger to controversy. Paris branch leader Shevchenko fled her native Ukraine last year after hacking down a cross with a chainsaw. She says the group is planning new campaigns in Muslim countries - and she says criticism is just one more reason to do so.

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