FEMEN Protests in Tunisia Revisited

Although they define themselves as a “wave of feminism of the third millennium,” historical continuity with earlier waves is missing in FEMEN’s mission statement.

femen-tunisia“Liberal extremists are as dreadful as religious extremists.” Statements like this have been repeated since a teenage girl, Amina, posted a photo of herself topless a few months ago after joining the (in)famous FEMEN movement, to challenge the threat of religious conservatism.

It sounds like a safe statement for moderates to make (after all, who wants to be accused of sympathizing with a bunch of female women protesting topless?) but I believe there are two points that need to be raised when discussing modes of protest previously unbeknownst to Tunisians.

First, although they define themselves as a “wave of feminism of the third millennium,” historical continuity with earlier waves is missing in FEMEN’s mission statement. The group describes its civil actions as being based on “difficulty and provocativity,” and you can’t help wondering who this provocativity targets – social norms? laws? governments?

The wreath of flowers does not seem to have a clear significance either. For example, is it borrowed from the goddess image of pagan religions? That FEMEN identifies its members as “morally and physically fit soldiers” is also confounding.

So far, the only attention the group received in Tunisia and elsewhere has been about the repercussions that the group’s choice of nudity has on the societies where they stage protests. But there seems to be no worries that nudity fails to be subversive and to show the female body in terms of diversification. I’ve always found it intriguing that that most activists who figure in protests are slim, white, and good posers.

Second, Tunisian moderates are trying to call attention to the necessity of a “local feminism” as an alternative to “alien” forms of women’s activism. I personally find the term “local feminism” disturbing, not because I think feminism cannot thrive in a local context, but because in Tunisia nobody knows for sure what a local feminism can be like, and whether it should stem out of existing waves, or re-create itself from scratch.

We can speak of two main waves of feminism in Tunisia: one early stream consisting of women’s groups that appeared in the early twentieth century to protest colonial occupation (and which was annexed to labor movements) without defining itself as “feminist,” and a second wave, more independent, that appeared toward the late seventies, but which was soon enfeebled by the system and forced to function within a very limited sphere of action.

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Whereas we don’t know much about the first wave, the second wave is in dire need to streamline its agenda. To bridge the gap between these two distant waves is a difficult task and requires documentation from feminists and academics alike, while taking into consideration that the appearance of a new wave (with influence from outside) is also possible.

Amina was arrested in May, accused of “conducting provocative acts,” but her arrest looks more as a solution to salve public fury than as enforcement of justice. Most of the educated elite remain undecided about whether to show approval or condemnation. Their inability to critically observe the issue may translate their fear of getting caught in the erratic offshoots of the transitional period, and failure to offer alternative (and more satisfactory) visions on how to cope with youth proclivity to explore untried ways of protest, and harness it in the favor of urgent challenges.

Imen Yacoubi is a Professor of English and an academic researcher teaching English literature at the University of Jendouba. She earned a BA in English language and literature and her “Agrégation” diploma from the Faculty of Letters, Humanities and Arts of La Manouba and the Ecole Normale Superieure de Tunis. From 2005 to 2009, she taught at the University of Gabes, and has been teaching at the University of Jendouba since 2009. She is member of the Young Arab Analyst Network International and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Moorings, a cultural Maghrebi magazine in English. She is an alumnus of the Civic Engagement and Leadership Fellowship, a program accommodated by Syracuse University, NY. Imen is author and contributor for HumanRightsTV.com and MideastYouth.com. Read other articles by Imen.

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  • Wissal Saidi

    dear teacher , we are really proud of you

    • Imen Yacoubi

      thank you Wissal

  • Monji

    Just to say that I enjoyed your article, especially that it comes from Tunisia.
    Amina is a brave Tunisian and her actions need to be noticed and viewed in more enlightened perspectives than what she got so far. Your article is a good step towards this recognition. Thanks.
    Hope more Tunisians would come forward with open-minded views on the issue rather than continue their undeserved condemnation.
    Just to say that I enjoyed

  • Monji

    Just to say that I enjoyed your article, especially that it comes from Tunisia.
    Amina is a brave Tunisian and her actions need to be noticed and viewed in more enlightened perspectives than what she got so far. Your article is a good step towards this recognition. Thanks.
    Hope more Tunisians would come forward with open-minded views on the issue rather than continue their undeserved condemnation.

  • mustno3 .

    First, good to see that some Tunisians are starting to write in english and, unlike 99% of Tunisians blinded by the culture of the french colonial power, waking up to the fact that french has not been relevant in the world since the beginning of the previous century.

    As for your paper, it is not clear to me which position the author has taken, but maybe it is just the way Tunisians are these days, avoiding to take positions.

    There is one thing though which I must point out, it is when you say : “appearance of a new wave (with influence from outside) is also possible.”

    I would like to remind the author that such outside influence … has never been welcome … cause it is simply a form of cultural neo-colonialism, to which the society will resist, and rightfully so. Many papers have been written over the past few months about femen and their imperialistic neo-colonialist approach to feminism and their open war against islam (they themselves define their movement as anti-islam). Sofia Ahmed wrote a beautiful peice in the Huffington post, please take a look at it.

    • Imen Yacoubi

      Thank you for visiting.

      First let me clarify that my choice of English is not conditioned by my rejection of what you call ‘the French influence,’ I write in English just because I happen to enjoy writing in English. (Otherwise, should we also rethink the use of English language as American influence -–which by the way, is true–?)

      Second, I believe I mention my position vis a vis the FEMEN movement. I don’t know what taking positions means for you, but to me, it does not have to be a loud condemnation of FEMEN because of the way they choose to protest. Deconstructing any movement should NOT ONLY be vis a vis the way our cultural norms perceive it, BUT ALSO vis a vis the whole mission and visions of global movements which it relates to (feminism in this case), and more importantly, it should be measured against whether their attained goals are in line with the good of society. To me, it fails to mirror that and that is more dangerous than the women of FEMEN being bare-breasted.

      “I would like to remind the author that such outside influence … has never been welcome … cause it is simply a form of cultural neo-colonialism, to which the society will resist, and rightfully so.”

      Author says: I believe that every great leap in the history of humanity has been caused by a sort of cross-pollination between 2 or more cultures. The Arab Islamic empire is an example, (you can see the influence of the Greeks and Persians to mention but 2 examples). The first wave of Tunisian feminists (which produced women like Chedlia Bouzgarrou and Bchira Ben Mrad ), of the early and mid-twentieth century, successfully voiced Tunisian women’s concern, and was strong hand against the yoke of colonialism, but not without an influence from Marxist movements for example. When I say outside influence, it don’t mean FEMEN necessarily, but people like Simone de Beauvoir and the way her writings has been influencing women’s groups in the Arab world that are now fighting critical issues like sexual harassment, girl’s education, etc.

      Thanks for pointing out Sophia Ahmad’s article, I’ve already read it. But to see FEMEN as part of ‘imperialistic and neo-imperialistic schemes’ will be to my thinking looking for easy answers. My humble background in colonial and post colonial studies made me learn that any colonial power (old and new) would recruit people who look exactly like you if they want to colonise you.