Tunisia's Revolution: Between Breasts and Beards

Article Summary
Three recent cases illustrate Tunisia’s struggle with freedom of expression following the Jasmine Revolution.

Abdellatif Kechiche won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his film, “The Life of Adele,” a love story between two teenagers. Kechiche is considered French (or a “fake Tunisian”) by some and a full-fledged Tunisian by others. His film will be controversial, especially if it gets banned in Tunisia, which is possible.

Some will accuse the film of encouraging moral decay and undermining the “noble values ​​of Islam” with depraved images that the West wants to impose. Kechiche expects it to be censored and he has already indicated his willingness to delete controversial scenes. Such self-censorship is reprehensible.

Tunisian Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk faces a dilemma. If he bans the film, he will be attacked by freedom of expression advocates and accused of playing Ennahda’s game. If he doesn’t ban it, he will be attacked for encouraging depravity and the West’s “Zionist project.”

Knowing Mabrouk, I am convinced that if he weren’t minister, he would have been at the forefront of those who applaud the film. But since he is where he is, he must ignore his values and apply those of his masters.

Pending the outcome of this issue, there are two undeniable facts: Kechiche is Tunisian whether or not we like it. His film is not about a current issue in Tunisia, but is about a marriage-related issue in France.

Amina, from the Femen movement, sits in prison. The official reason: She was in possession of a gas bomb, which is normally used for self-defense. The governor of Kairouan falsely accused Amina of planning to show her breasts in public, contradicting proper behavior and harming Arab-Muslim traditions.

What are they accusing this 19-year-old girl of? They are accusing her of showing her breasts (with the nipples hidden) on a photograph, which then went viral on social networking sites in accordance with the tactics of the Femen movement, to which she belongs. This movement tries to be heard and criticize social norms by using provocation. It is not only Tunisia that is “embarrassed” by the sight of bare breasts on the street, it’s almost the same everywhere in the world.

With today’s media, this type of provocation is an excellent means to make one’s voice heard. Both Femen and Amina succeeded in their missions. Is that wrong? Maybe … but should they be jailed?

Pending the outcome of the trial, there are two undeniable facts. Amina is Tunisian whether or not we like it. She used a weapon that is common to all those her age: provocation. Her act may be offensive to some but jailing her is even more offensive to society and to justice.

What Kairouan’s governor, representing the president, said is even more offensive because he only took into consideration the moral standards of a portion of society (albeit an overwhelming majority) and ignored the reality that the country is undergoing a revolution and that we cannot put in jail a kid who is acting out the revolution in her own way, especially since she was not naked in public, as the governor falsely claimed.

Seifeddine Raies, from the radical Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia, was arrested for defying the state and speaking at a press conference that he organized in a mosque. He was released after three days and his statements were considered an opinion.

He, too, is Tunisian. He, too, was trying to be provocative by offending the morals of part of society.

Here again, there was a double standard: Amina’s provocations were intolerable. Those of Raies were forgivable.

Tunisian society is not represented by these extremes. But Tunisian society must accept them as long as they have not broken the law and as long as their actions did not harm any citizen.

Raies has the right to preach whatever he wants and society has the right to follow him or not, as long as he is not breaking any laws. And if he does break the law, he must be punished fairly: Not by imprisoning him for 20 years, as they used to do in the past, nor by releasing him after three days, as they have just done.

Amina has the right to express herself (with or without provocation) and society has the right to either look at her or not. If she breaks the law, she must be punished fairly. But we cannot accuse her of something she hadn’t done.

Similarly, Kechiche has the right to show his film (regardless of whether it won any awards) and society has the right to decide whether to watch it. If a film breaks the law, it is forbidden. But if this is not the case, we cannot punish the filmmaker for upsetting the established order.

There has been a revolution in this country precisely to stand against these injustices. Society and our leaders have no right to ignore this revolution and perpetuate dictatorial practices where we dictate to others what religion to follow or what movie to watch.

Amina’s case, the Salafist controversy and the controversy caused by Kechiche’s film have moral significance. They raise questions about what liberties were gained after the revolution and the imposed limits. Aren’t we trying to impose a new order, a new way of thinking and a new form of repression in the name of morality?

If some things can be banned, let’s ban other things. Tunisians have the right to reject being forced into a social mold or to think the same way. But the state must treat citizens equally, be they Salafists, nudists, secularists, Islamists, Muslims or atheists. The state must respect the people’s right to be different.

Found in: women, tunisia, salafists, salafist, media, islamists, islamist, arab, ansar al-sharia

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