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Following the invigorating debate that took place on the Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) network, sparked by the arrest of FEMEN activists in Tunisia on June 12, WLUML issued the following statement :

WLUML calls for the immediate release of FEMEN activists, including Amina Tyler, and demands that the Tunisian government drop all charges. WLUML does not endorse FEMEN's tactics or specific platforms, but we find the imminent imprisonment of FEMEN activists for exercising their right to freedom of expression to be a violation of fundamental human rights. However we may feel about nude protest as a method, it is critical to defend the right of free expression, particularly in the post-dictatorship countries of the Middle East.

Three women activists[1] identified with the international feminist solidarity network, FEMEN, were arrested and sentenced to four months imprisonment in Tunisia on 12 June. They were found guilty[2] of the criminal charges of "public indecency, offending public morality and disrupting the peace" in response to a topless protest staged on 29 May demanding the release of imprisoned Tunisian FEMEN activist Amina Tyler. Amina was arrested earlier this May on multiple charges, including offending public decency. In March, Amina posted a photo of her naked upper body on Facebook bearing the slogan "my body belongs to me, and is not the source of the honour of anyone".

FEMEN has gained a reputation for staging protests using their naked or partially naked bodies; their methods have sparked controversy amongst women's groups in various parts of the world. Some activists support their activities and overall strategies, while others have raised concerns and criticisms. As a network of women's rights defenders, WLUML's strength lays in its diversity. We also affirm the universality of women's human rights, regardless of political position. As such, violence against FEMEN and their supporters is absolutely unacceptable and only serves to stifle much needed debate regarding women's human rights, sexuality, and transnational politics.

WLUML adds its voice to women's rights groups who are mindful of the dangers inherent in forms of protests that centre around nudity, including the manner in which they may feed into the widespread commodification and objectification of women's bodies worldwide.

On the other hand, WLUML networkers are acutely aware of historical precedents where naked bodies have constituted sites of protest and defiant displays of female sexuality served struggles against colonialism and patriarchy. Nakedness in these contexts has the emancipatory potential of generating shocking, humorous and/or poignant communication, which can be more powerful than words. It can constitute a way in which women take back their own bodies.

For instance, in 1840, a woman in the Indian state of Kerala cut off her breasts and presented them to district tax collectors in protest against a local tariff on women who wished to cover their chests. The 'Sassale' of the Songhai community in Niger can also be called upon, or will themselves to emerge, to perform collective public nakedness rituals to spill bad luck and evil on the persons they target. Frequently, their targets are men in positions of power.

These forms of protest aim to mobilise women's naked bodies to challenge human rights violations in society, which are oftentimes justified in the name of 'culture' or 'tradition'. In contexts where women's bodies are relentlessly commoditized, nakedness is anything but empowering, and can be co-opted to reduce women yet again to their objectified body parts. What all these histories have in common is the necessity of women on the ground who are uniquely capable of diagnosing their own struggles, forming their own movements, and communicating their own experiences.

We reiterate the call by many who critique FEMEN's methods and tactics that solidarity actions must be informed by and complement the struggles of women activists on the frontline. It should not alienate and undermine the work of local activists. Most importantly, FEMEN must take into serious consideration the security of local feminists who will be exposed to backlash as a consequence of such actions. Irrespective of FEMEN's intentions, their activities may put long-serving women's activists in danger, and any ethical and responsible transnational activism must take these considerations into account.

WLUML aspires to contribute to ongoing critical analyses and debates on the subject of 'politics of nakedness' and its challenges to feminism. But we also believe that in order to have such a conversation, freedom of expression must be protected from those who wish to silence unpopular positions with violence. Otherwise, the debate will not be our own.

20 June 2013

[1] Two French nationals, Marguerite Stern and Pauline Hillier, and one German, Josephine Markmann,

[2] Articles 226, 226bis and 315 of the Tunisian Penal Code.

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