A topless protest is bound to hit the headlines – but whether such provocative methods can advance a cause is far less certain.
Last year saw what was believed to be the first public topless protest in the Arab world, as female protestors gathered in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began in late 2010.
Three women, two French and the other German, bared their breasts while shouting “free Amina,” in support of a young Tunisian woman detained while protesting against hardline Islamists.
The women were part of the FEMEN movement which began in the Ukraine in 2008, in protest against what its founders see as three facets of a global “patriarchal society” – the sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and religion.
The concept of a topless protest proved particularly controversial in the Arab world, a region where much debate centers around decency in women’s clothing, including the wearing of the headscarf and body-covering garments.
The three women were defending Amina Sboui, a young Tunisian woman who had been arrested for painting the word “FEMEN” on a wall in the central Tunisian city of Kairouan.
No stranger to provocation, Sboui had previously posted a topless photo on Facebook with the words “f*** your morals” displayed on her chest.
Three months later, shortly after her release from prison, Sboui left the group, accusing it of Islamophobia in an interview with the Maghreb edition on online news site Huffington Post.
Despite dropping her affiliations with the group, Sboui’s actions were hailed as “revolutionary,” by Alexandra Shevchenko, a founding FEMEN member now based in Paris.
“It doesn’t matter now that she says she’s not FEMEN,” Shevchenko told Al Arabiya News.
The activist, who often goes topless herself during demonstrations, said she was proud of what the topless group had achieved this year.
“It is a first for the Arabian world, to go to the middle of a main square and dress and scream your position,” she said.
The topless protests represent a “real women’s” uprising, Shevchenko added.
“This is truly the first steps for FEMEN in the Arab world, the first steps of a real women’s Arab Spring with natural, beautiful consequences,” she said.
But while FEMEN’s notoriety in the Arab world reached its zenith with the Tunisia protest, some doubt whether the protest achieved any palpable results.
“It doesn’t have that much weight of significance,” said Randa Serhan, a political sociologist and director of Arab Studies at Washington, DC-based American University.
“They definitely got more press in the West than in the Arab world,” she added.
Outside of shock value and media publicity, the protests had little purpose or result, said Tina Richardson, lecturer in media studies at Middlesex University’s Dubai branch.
“They got publicity. If that was their goal, then they did a good job. I don’t think they succeeded on any other level,” said Richardson, who is a researcher on women’s activism and audience reception.
The topless protestors may have an ideological problem – advocating women’s rights and repressed societal status while flaunting bare breasts daubed with painted statements such as “I am a women, not an object” and “Muslim Women – Let’s get naked.”
“I’m not sure you can work towards women’s rights, objectifying women, or creating a sexual object out of a woman, even if that woman happens to be yourself, it’s the same thing,” added Richardson.
FEMEN’s faraway roots in Ukraine mean that it is unlikely to be accepted as a valid movement in the Arab world, according to Serhan.
“The problem is that it’s not an indigenous movement, so it’s automatically going to be discredited, and be suspect,” she said.
One Cairo-based researcher on Egypt’s class dynamics and how they led to Egypt’s 2011 revolution calls FEMEN’s Middle East campaign “problematic.”
“They’re universalizing women’s issues,” said Sara Salem, a PHD researcher with The Hague’s Institute of Social Studies.
Instead of creating awareness and action towards patriarchy in the Arab world, the topless protests in Tunisia have create a backlash that actually makes it worse for women, Salem said.
“They’ve listed all the problems women have, which are very specific to a European context or American context, and they’ve sort of transposed them onto Arab countries,” she added.
While FEMEN’s topless public demonstration in Tunisia is believed to be a first for the Arab world, an earlier nude protest carried out online also caused a storm in the region.
In 2012, Aliaa ElMahdy posted a picture of herself online, fully naked except for her stockings and shoes. ElMahdy said the nude picture was her protest against Islamic rule and oppression of women in Egypt; the stir it created led to her receiving a series of threats and condemnations from Islamic hardliners.
In a later move to Sweden in 2012, ElMahdy become affiliated with FEMEN, and continued her cause - this time against the proposed introduction of Sharia law in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of the time.
A recent interview in German magazine Spiegel claims that the now 22-year old ElMahdy lives her life in and out of hiding from Islamist Egyptians. However, she appears to have no regrets about her actions, telling the magazine that she is “not ashamed to be proud to be the woman I am.”
Despite continued appearances in Western media, actions such as ElMadhy’s are quickly forgotten in the surging tide of Egyptian culture. “A lot of people talked about it for a week, then it died down,” said Salem. “People responded very defensively and said: this is not what we want here.”
What are FEMEN’s plans in the Middle East next year?
Shevchenko is reluctant to give precise details.
“We are working as an army, and an army never opens up their plans and shows it to the world,” she said.
However, the activist said that the group intended to directly target Middle Eastern political leaders.
“We want to attack the people who are guilty in our problems. For example, such person[s] as Putin, but in the Arab world, the dictators - the bosses of the country,” said Shevchenko.SHOW MORE