Prosecute the Cleric, Not the Topless Woman in Tunisia

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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I am staggered by the bravery of Amina Tyler, the 19-year-old in Tunisia who posted topless photographs of herself on Facebook, including one with the words "My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone's honor" written across her torso in Arabic.

She has now been threatened with death by a prominent conservative cleric in the country, according to Tunisian media that quoted him.

Tyler first sent a picture to FEMEN, the international feminist protest organization, in February. FEMEN operates around the world and can often seem shrill to me. Whatever you think of the group, Tyler's action in Tunisia is part of a deadly serious struggle to determine what freedoms Tunisians -- in particular women -- will keep.

A second Tunisian woman has now followed suit using the same slogan, even though Tyler was disowned by members of her family. The cleric Adel Almi said that under Shariah law she should receive 80 to 100 lashes, but because of the seriousness of the act she committed, which "could give ideas to other women," she deserves to be stoned to death. The FEMEN Tunisia Facebook page has now been hacked and taken over by Islamists. They posted the following threat, as translated by FEMEN's website: "Thanks to God we have hacked this immoral page and the best is to come," adding that "God willing, these dirt will disappear from Tunisia."

Tunisia is the control test of the Arab Spring. It is an Arab North African nation with all the strands of cultural conservatism that implies, and it has a strong Europeanized middle class that drove the revolution that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. These people have no intention of letting Salafists such as Almi capture it now. Conservatives are equally determined to shape the country, by force if necessary.

The resulting confrontation came to a head with the assassination of the left-wing, secularist politician Chokri Belaid in February, but is being played out daily. Feminist activists and others, including the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins, have called for an international day of support for Tyler, on April 4. A petition at has been launched to the Tunisian government to protect her from attack. By March 22, more than 16,000 people had signed.

Tyler's nemesis, Almi, is president of the Moderate Association for Awareness and Reform. Almi changed the name of the group from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice when he registered it last year. The old name was the same as that of Saudi Arabia's religious police. The lines are pretty clearly drawn.

Under Tunisian law, it seems Tyler could face two years in jail for her actions. That's up to the courts. Surely though it is Almi who should be prosecuted for inciting violence, and potentially murder, against a young woman.

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