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Tunisian feminist arrested for alleged provocation

May 20, 2013

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A Tunisian feminist who scandalized her country by posting topless photos of herself online has been arrested after allegedly sneaking into Tunisia’s holiest city disguised in a veil, then trying to get undressed during a protest.

On Sunday, Amina Tyler — a 19-year-old member of the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN, which uses nudity in its protests — passed through heavy security and checkpoints to enter the city of Kairouan, where police were preventing hardline conservative Islamists from holding an annual conference.

There she unveiled her bleach blonde hair and cutoff jeans, scrawled “FEMEN” on the wall of a cemetery near the city’s main mosque, and attempted to take off her clothes, her lawyer Radhia Nasraoui quoted police as saying.

The protest enraged local residents who converged on her, and police took her into custody.

In a video of the incident shown on the Tunisian news website Nawaat, people yell “get out” at her as police usher her into a waiting van.

“She is dishonoring us. We will protect our town, but a dirty girl like her shouldn’t come among us,” one resident screams at the camera.

“We are all Muslims,” Tyler says to one man, who replies: “You are no Muslim. Don’t come to Kairouan.”

The Interior Ministry said Monday she may be charged with conducting “provocative acts” when she appears in court on Tuesday.

“It is an act of provocation and it is against the morals and traditions of Tunisian society, which is a Muslim society,” Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Aroui told journalists, without elaborating on what those acts were.

Her mother, Wafa, told The Associated Press her daughter needed help and was being treated by a psychiatrist.

“She suffers from psychological problems,” she said on the phone, tearfully. “I am very worried for my daughter. I’m afraid she will be condemned by the court.”

Tunisia is the birthplace of the pro-democracy uprisings known as the Arab Spring. Its transition to democracy and how it deals with the questions of Islam, politics and social movements such as feminism are being closely watched around the region.

Tyler has become the latest episode in the battle over the country’s identity after the overthrow of a suffocating dictatorship in January 2011 opened the way for competing religious and secular groups.

By choosing Kairouan, Tunisia’s main religious site, Tyler stepped into an extremely sensitive situation as the government was moving to confront the rising power of ultraconservative groups.

Ansar al-Shariah, a group whose members have been implicated in violent attacks on art galleries and cinemas, as well as the U.S. embassy, had announced it would hold their annual conference in Kairouan but refused to apply for permission.

The government, which is run by moderate Islamists and had been long accused by the opposition of coddling the extremists, announced that the conference was banned and backed up their decision with 11,000 police and soldiers to stop the conservatives, known as salafis, from gathering in the city.

Shortly before Tyler attempted her protest, there were clashes between police and salafis in the center of Kairouan that had to be dispersed with tear gas.

In Tunis, hundreds of salafis also clashed with police, leaving one protester dead.

Authorities said 274 people were arrested for their involvement in the violence in both cities.

The government’s conflict with the salafis also comes as the army has been hunting al-Qaida linked militants in the mountainous Jebel Chambi region near the Algerian border for the last month.

So far 40 people have been arrested in sweeps through the area, said Aroui, the ministry spokesman.


Associated Press reporter Paul Schemm contributed to this report from Rabat, Morocco.

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