Under Tunisia's "moderate" Islamist government, you can attack and vandalize the American embassy and still walk free. But if a woman bares her breasts in a form of protest, a four-month prison sentence is considered too lax.
A Tunisian judge sentenced three European feminists Wednesday to four months in prison for a topless protest outside the courthouse. Their supporters expected to be fined or deported, London's Independent reports. European Union officials blasted the sentence as excessive.
"To ensure ... freedom of expression, the EU underlines the need to revise [Tunisian] laws inherited from the previous regimes, which can be used to restrict it," spokesman Michael Mann said.
Two weeks earlier, a Tunisian court issued suspended sentences for 20 people accused of causing property damage at the U.S. Embassy and setting cars there on fire during violence last September.
The women – two from France and one German – are part of group called Femen. "Breast Feed Revolution," the women wrote across their chests. They came to Tunisia late last month to protest the arrest of a colleague, Amina Tyler, a Tunisian who was arrested after posting a topless picture of herself on Facebook with the message "My body belongs to me and not the honor of others" written on her chest in Arabic.
That's not the way Tunisian Islamists see it.
"In Islam we respect our mothers, our sisters, our wives. Islam respects women and their physical dignity. Public nudity is forbidden. We reject the actions of Femen," prosecutor Slah Barkati told the court.
Attorneys for Islamist groups who wanted to be parties to the case wanted to define freedom for the women. "It is Islam that honours women and offers them freedom, not the act of undressing," attorney Slah Khlifi said in a Middle East Online report. Another attorney said the topless protest constituted an attack on state security under Tunisian law and is punishable by up to a year in prison.
On the other hand, a veteran Tunisian feminist said Femen's actions were counter-productive for her cause and asked that the group stay out of Tunisia in the future. Provocative actions like topless protests come off as signs of western debauchery. "We Tunisian feminists are trying to steer the discussion away from identity. Women's rights are a social and political issue," Maya Jribi said in an interview with Germany's Der Spiegel.
Tunisia was the first country to see governmental change in the 2011 "Arab Spring." But the rise of the Islamist Ennahda Party has not eased tension there, as radical Salafis gain stature and a secular opposition leader was gunned down in February. While news outlets continue to call Ennahda "moderate" – the Reuters report on the Femen protest did just that – the group's leader envisions Islamists soon dominating the Arab world. Rachid Ghannouchi also predicted the Arab Spring would "threaten the extinction of Israel."