RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Bewilderment, scorn, resentment. Women's rights activists across the Middle East are reacting with everything but joy to topless demonstrations in Europe by a Ukrainian feminist group held in solidarity with a Tunisian woman who posted topless photos of herself protesting religious oppression.
They fear the bare breasts may hurt their cause more than help it, after FEMEN activists protested in front of mosques and Tunisian diplomatic missions last week to support 19-year-old Amina Tyler, who caused a scandal in her country with her Facebook postings.
Tyler herself, a high school student, said that while she was encouraged by the solidarity, the burning of the black flag bearing the Muslim profession of faith in front of the Paris mosque was a step too far, even if the banner has been championed by ultraconservatives and jihadists.
"I am against that," she told French TV Canal+ on Saturday. "They didn't insult a certain kind of Muslim, the extremists, but all Muslims."
Tyler, who has described herself as a FEMEN member, said she now fears for her life in Tunisia after ultraconservative Muslim clerics recommended she be stoned to death for posting the photos. She said she wants to move abroad. Tunisia is one of the most liberal countries in the region, but her protest has shocked even mainstream society in her homeland, still conservative about nudity.
A healthy debate about women's rights rages in Tunisia. But most women in the country feel that Tyler was out of line, even as they express concerns about the rolling back of progressive legislation on women and the rise of the conservative Salafi movement in Tunisia since the overthrow of the secular dictatorship in 2011.
When Tyler's photos were followed with the FEMEN solidarity protests, largely by European women, in Milan, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere, Tunisian women also felt as if foreigners were judging Islam.
"All organizations and all ideological currents are unanimous that this phenomenon is foreign to our society," said Imen Triqui of the Tunisian Association of Liberty and Equality, while supporting Tyler's freedom of expression.
Tyler isn't the first Arab woman to post nude protest photos and stir up scandal.
In November 2011, a young Egyptian woman, Aliaa ElMahdy, posted pictures of herself wearing only stockings on her blog to denounce a society of "violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy." At the time, Egyptian feminists and secular activists expressed fear that the move would set back secular and liberal trends ahead of legislative elections, later won in a landslide by religious conservatives.