x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Topless protesters underestimated the consequences

What a woman decides to wear, or not wear, is her own business.

Women in several countries staged the first International Topless Jihad Day last week; women were seen standing or running around topless in the oddest places.

I know many men who loved this protest but completely missed the reason for it, or if they knew what it was about chose to ignore that and focus on the obvious.

"Are they protesting against bras?" sniggered one male friend.

Femen, a feminist collective, staged this event to support the Tunisian activist Amina Tyler, whose life was threatened after she posted nude photos of herself online as a political protest.

One of the messages she wrote on her torso, seen in the photos, said in Arabic: "My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone's honour."

With that profound message she took back ownership of her body, and her right to do with it as she pleases. I am not sure writing this on a bare chest was the best way to make the point, but her message did get a lot of attention in a world that seems obsessed with defining a woman based on what she wears.

Ms Tyler is not the first one to turn to "nude activism". She joined Egypt's Aliaa Elmahdy and Iran's Golshifteh Farahani in this form of feminist expression that is unusual in the Muslim and Arab world.

Each of them paid a high price. They and their families have been shunned by Islamists and conservative communities, and there have been death threats.

A Facebook group called Muslim Women Against Femen, with over 5,806 "likes", was launched in reaction to the topless protests.

"We have had enough of western feminists imposing their values on us," the page states. It has photos of covered Muslim women holding plaques with messages like "nudity does not liberate me" and "I don't need saving".

Among my friends, the more conservative thought Ms Tyler's behaviour was insulting and disrespected traditional values. But liberals didn't bat an eyelash, though they did call the women "attention seekers" and said the movement "won't amount to anything".

It may not. The women have not had much support from their fellow citizens, male or female, although many westerners hail them as feminists trying to change attitudes.

Like Ms Tyler, Ms Elmahdy won support outside her country. Dozens of Israeli women posed nude in solidarity after she received death threats for posing nude in 2011. She has since left Egypt for Germany.

It takes a lot of guts to do what these women did, as a single photo can change your entire life in the Middle East. You regularly hear of blackmailers using private photos against women, threatening to ruin their lives and reputations unless they pay up.

A friend suffered because a photo of her without her hijab circulated until it reached the eyes of one of her brothers. It was an innocent photo but left her in trouble with her family; even some friends who looked down on her.

Questions bombarded her: "Who took it? Where were you? Who saw it? Did men see it?" She was accused of ruining the family name.

So imagine the effect a nude picture would have.

I believe the three women expected consequences, but underestimated them, not expecting that this would backfire so badly that they feel they must leave their countries. Last week Ms Tyler, who is 19, said she fears for her life after Salafist threats, and must leave Tunisia.

In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring; protesters hoped for a more liberal country. It is a shame that young people can't express themselves and that everyone must adhere to set expectations. Even those who disagree with Ms Tyler's method do not have the right to threaten to behead her.

What a woman decides to wear, or not wear, is her own business. We don't seem to care much what men wear, or what their clothing says about their values and identity.



Twitter: @arabianmau