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Tunisia's Female Artists Fear Islamist Repression

Women walk past a poster of the play ?Made in Tunisia, 100 percent halal? by Tunisian actor, playwright Lotfi Abdeli. The play was boycotted previously by hundreds of Salafi Muslims who believed the show was offensive to Islam, (File Photo).
Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings. But on this International Women's Day, some Tunisian female artists say they feel less free than under the old regime.

Tunisia has long been considered one of the most secular nations in the Arab region. But women artists fear their North African country may succumb to hardline Muslim pressure and ban art deemed un-Islamic.

Muslim hardliners, known as Salafists, have fanned those fears. In recent months, they have protested against exhibitions and performances they say violate Islamic principles, forcing more than a dozen artistic events to be cancelled.

But secular artists have no intention of giving ground, says painter Fayza M’Rabet, who last week mounted an exhibition in central Tunis featuring semi-abstract depictions of the nude female form. “It is the right moment to draw these nude women. It is dangerous. It is an engagement," said M’Rabet. "Engagement art.”

The role of Islam in government and society has emerged as a divisive issue in Tunisia as it struggles to find its way in the wake of the popular uprising that toppled secular strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The country’s ruling Islamist party, Ennadha, which dominates the constituent assembly, says a balance needs to be struck between freedom of expression and protecting religious beliefs.

Painter M’Rabet is undeterred by the argument. “We are in a revolution so we must show who we are, we are women and we are proud to be women and we must show our bodies without any restrictions. This is our revolution,” she stated.

Secular artists believe that Ennahda is linked with Salifists who have been agitating against art exhibitions and plays.

But party spokesmen deny this. They say some artists are being purposefully provocative and they want a provision in a future constitution that would make it a criminal offense to insult religious beliefs.

Artist Mona Lakdhar says she hasn’t felt direct pressure when it comes to her art and also doesn’t feel she is engaged in a subversive act. She’s an engraver and scores evocative outlines of naked women on wood. “I think that’s it not yet a political act because we used to paint women and it was not a problem. We are not afraid. We are not saying it is a political, not yet,” she noted.

But she says she can’t ignore the acrimonious political debates beyond her studio and they are affecting her work. “I am influenced because when I work I work in the studio alone, I do my work, but with the revolution I can say the street came in my studio and pushed me to do engraving on wood of women who are screaming,,” Lakdhar explained.

Islamist leaders say Tunisia’s religious identity was denied under ousted autocrat Ben Ali and that now to be corrected. But secular women artists say they have an identity, too, and it shouldn’t be denied either.