In recent months this blog has said little about Tunisian politics. Actually, due to how depressing the subject had become, especially with the assassination of the secularist politician Chokri Belaid in February, I’d started to think that if I stopped following it, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
I guess my logic was like the phenomenon of observation in quantum mechanics. Scientific experiments have suggested that the behaviour of a beam of electrons is affected by the very fact of their being observed, and the more they are watched the greater an influence there seems to be on their behaviour. So perhaps if I didn’t observe Tunisian politics, expecting bad stuff to happen, then bad stuff wouldn’t happen in Tunisian politics.
But needless to say, my hands-off approach hasn’t worked. Bad stuff has continued to happen even though I’ve done my best lately to ignore what’s been going on in this country. Back in April there was the episode in the Mount Chaambi area, on the border with Algeria, where Tunisian soldiers were badly injured – some lost limbs or were blinded – by mines planted by Jihadists believed to include members of the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia. And last month there was trouble in the town of Kairouan when the government banned Ansar al-Sharia from holding its annual congress there. A rally held in support of Ansar al-Sharia in the Tunis suburb of Ettadhamen ended in more violence and a protestor’s death (http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/tunisias-moderates-lose-patience-with-ansar-al-sharia#full).
On top of everything else there’s been the affair of Amina Sboui, a Tunisian woman associated with the Ukrainian feminist group Femen, who first came to prominence when she posted pictures of herself on Facebook in which she was topless and had painted across her skin the declaration, ‘My body belongs to me and not to the honour of others’. She then turned up in Kairouan on the day that Ansar al-Sharia was banned from holding its congress and graffiti-ed a cemetery wall near the Great Mosque (which coincidentally is part of a UN World Heritage site) with the word ‘Femen’.
Ms Sboui was subsequently arrested and put on trial in Kairouan, charged initially with carrying an ‘incendiary object’, which turned out to be a can of pepper spray that a foreigner had given her for her own protection. A can of pepper spray, it should be said, would have been little use against the horde of religious protestors who were soon demonstrating outside the Kairouan courthouse and venting their ire against her (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22714130). She now faces more serious charges of offending public decency and desecrating a cemetery.
Meanwhile, non-Tunisian members of Femen have hurried into the country to express their solidarity with Ms Sboui. Two German women and a French woman have just gone on trial inside Tunis’s Palace of Justice, charged with offending public decency a week ago by staging a topless protest outside the building. And it seems that a founding member of Femen, Aleksandro Shevchenko, was arrested in Tunis yesterday and deported to Ukraine, presumably before she could offend Tunisian public decency with a bare-breasted protest of her own (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/06/05/two-femen-trials-underway-femen-leader-reportedly-deported/).
Well, there’s certainly an argument to be made that flashing a few naked boobs on the street and scrawling a word on a wall are far less harmful than the things that the religious extremists who’ve emerged from the woodwork in the last two-and-a-bit years in Tunisia have done. They’ve attacked TV stations, galleries, campuses, Sufi shrines, bars, embassies and schools and generally made life miserable for a lot of people who’d naively assumed that after they’d chased Ben Ali out of the country in January 2011 they’d be able live their lives with rather less interference and intimidation from sociopathic thugs. However, while there’s a struggle going on in Tunisia between those who want their society to be secular and liberal and those who want it to be restrictive and pious, I imagine most liberal Tunisians would prefer it if Femen took their provocations elsewhere.
Having representatives of a particular brand of feminism piling in from Europe and trying to antagonise the more sanctimonious sections of Tunisian society by waving their boobs at them isn’t helping those liberals who’d like to win the debate in a sober and reasonable manner. Rather, it’s playing into the hands of those bearded, gimlet-eyed extremists who’d like to convince the more swayable members of the population that tolerating even a little bit of liberalism and feminism in Tunisia is the thin edge of the wedge – which will finally lead to a hellish situation where all your daughters are running amok, topless. Also, it’s worth remembering that Tunisia, for all that the Salafists have tried to change it, is still probably the most liberal country in the Arab world. As one commentator said on the Internet recently, women get treated an awful lot worse in Saudi Arabia – why don’t Femen go and protest there? (http://www.democraticunderground.com/10022925795.)
It also perplexes me that Femen should be using topless protests to highlight the supposed oppressiveness of Tunisia when, in fact, if a lady whipped off her blouse and bra on a street in a Western European city, it wouldn’t be long before she attracted the censorious attention of the police there too. Indeed, not so long ago, if a woman had done such a thing in Ireland, she’d probably have ended up incarcerated in a Magdalene Laundry.
Still, when you see some of the religious specimens ranting against Ms Sboui, it’s difficult not to feel a spasm of anger at the underlying injustice of it. Organised religion has created a huge amount of human suffering over the centuries, by propagating ignorance, encouraging bigotry and – witness the recent revelations about the Catholic Church – quietly permitting child abuse on an industrial scale. Furthermore, religion has inspired wars and mass persecutions (e.g. the Crusades, the Inquisition) that have resulted in vast numbers of deaths.
On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever been killed by a tit.
(c) The Daily Telegraph
Oh, hold on. I take that back.