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Nude Facebook photo protest exposes rift over women's rights in Tunisia

Amina Tyler's photograph is met with praise and anger, reactions that go to the heart of different ideas of freedom held by women in Tunisia two years after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Alice Fordham reports for Tunis

A Tunisian woman holds a sign reading
A Tunisian woman holds a sign reading "Together for Equality" during a protest calling for the respect of women's rights in front of the headquarters of the National Constituent Assembly last year. Fethi Belaid / AFP

TUNIS // For a country whose economy depends on sunbathers baring their flesh on its sandy beaches, Tunisia was surprisingly easily shocked by the photographs of Amina Tyler.

Last month, the 19-year-old activist posted two photographs of herself topless on a Facebook page she had created as the Tunisian voice of the radical movement, Femen.

"My body is my own, not the source of anyone's honour," was written in Arabic on her skin in one picture.

She told the Ettounisia television channel she had seen photographs of the Femen movement in July last year and liked their strong message. She contacted them and had several Skype conversations.

"If I posted a picture of myself wearing a T-shirt with that slogan, it wouldn't have any impact," she said. "I want the message to be read this way. [A woman's] body is hers - not her father's, her husband's or her brother's."

The reaction was immediate, with thousands of people in Tunisia and further afield supporting her on Facebook, posting nude pictures in solidarity and eagerly watching her appearances on television.

Conservative leaders, meanwhile, denounced her furiously, as did more traditional Tunisians.

The split in opinions goes to the heart of the different ideas of freedom held by women in Tunisia two years after the fall of the autocratic Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

After participating fervently in the uprisings that expelled the leader, many secular women are worried that the increasingly Islamist political scene will erode hard-won women's rights. But religious women who felt oppressed under the secular regime say they are delighted to embrace their Muslim identity.

Souha Ben Othman is an activist with the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, a group founded nearly 25 years ago that campaigned in particular for women in the impoverished interior of the country under Ben Ali.

Since winning independence from France in 1956 under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia has had a progressive attitude to women's rights. Bourguiba promoted secular thinking, encouraging women to participate in politics and the workplace.

Bourguiba passed the Code of Personal Status into law, outlawing marriage without consent of the woman, polygamy and summary divorce. It remains among the most progressive women's reforms in the Arab world.

And yet, said Ms Ben Othman, the work of her organisation was not always easy. After it supported women in the mining town of Gafsa in 2008, when many men who took part in industrial action were jailed, police stood outside their offices and noted everyone who came and went.

As 2011's protests gathered momentum, activists gathered in those offices before going on marches.

Ms Ben Othman had high hopes in those euphoric days that after Ben Ali's fall some lingering restrictions on women's rights - inheritance laws, for example - would be lifted and work would begin on economic empowerment of rural women.

The reality was different. "We were a little surprised that some women chose this way of life - not just the hijab, but the burqa," she said.

Since the fall of Ben Ali, the number of women covering their heads - a practice previously discouraged by police - has increased significantly, while some women have also adopted full-face veils and black abayas. Ms Ben Othman said religious television channels from outside Tunisia encouraged the more conservative forms of dress.

"What surprised us most was that the women delegated in the National Constituent Assembly, from the Ennahda party, actually work against women's rights," she said.

This is a common view of the moderate Islamist party that dominates the elected interim governing body, especially among secular women.

As successive drafts of a new constitution have been made public they are scrutinised, and last year a clause that described women as "complementary" to men prompted a protest by thousands of women. The clause was removed.

There have been other incidents that stirred debate, such as when the interior ministry was perceived as being slow to act against two policemen accused of raping a young woman last year.

"The government has a retro-Islamic view on human rights," said Essia Belhassen, a founder member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women.

After the fall of Ben Ali, she said, "I had a dream that I would get the chance to fulfil the goals of the revolution, but I am stuck fighting for rights that I accomplished in the past".

The accusations of eroding rights are denied by Farida Laabidi, a senior Ennahda member and the head of a government subcommittee on rights and freedoms.

Wearing a coloured headscarf and matching sweater, she said, the government "has not changed the rules on the rights of women".

"The woman is an essential part of the democratic transition," she said, adding that she had personally overseen a section in the new constitution guaranteeing equality of rights and responsibilities.

There are more than 40 women in the 217-seat interim ruling body, almost all of whom are from Ennahda, she said, but she wants to see more in future, especially at the top of ministries. The Code of Personal Status will, if Ennahda gets its way, remain unchanged.

But, she added, the previous regime had harassed and even jailed religious women and the new reality in Tunisia would not impose secular practices.

A presidential decree passed in 1981 by Bourguiba forbade women from covering their heads in public institutions.

The ruling was supported by his successor, Ben Ali, in a much-criticised speech in 2006. The decree is now no more.

Many Tunisian women who now cover their heads, bodies or faces tell of once being ejected from school, university or a government job because of their headscarves.

"Happy!" sang Zeidi Meriam, a 25-year-old charity worker, when asked how she felt when she could dress more modestly after the fall of Ben Ali. She wears a long dress and jacket, as well as a headscarf, and said its that it made her feel more comfortable and confident. "Women's rights are essential to Islam," she said, adding that she felt that an Islamist government could be a force for good on women's rights.

She said that Tunisians all support each other, no matter what their ideology or religion. But she had little time for the topless antics of Amina Tyler and others from the Femen movement.

"I feel like it is an empty act," she said. "I don't see the point. I think she could have expressed herself with a different method, which would have had the same impact.

"What's the difference between an animal and what she did?"

afordham@thenational.ae