On Thursday, Amina Sboui, a.k.a Amina Tyler — a Tunisian activist who first gained notoriety for topless protests on Facebook in March – was fined 200 dinars ($122) for illegal possession of pepper spray. Sboui, who has been laying low since her controversial photos sparked a fatwa from a top Tunisian cleric, re-emerged on May 19 while protesting an Islamist rally where she was arrested for spray-painting “Femen” – the name of a prominent feminist group with which she is affiliated – near a cemetery wall.
It comes as little surprise that Tunisian authorities pressed ahead with Sboui’s hearing on relatively thin charges. (Though, she could face a second hearing on indecency charges as early as June 5). After all, her unusual protest created shockwaves across Tunisia – a conservative country struggling to build stability after the ouster of strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 amidst growing animosity between an Islamist-led government led by moderate party Ennahda, a secular opposition, and vocal Islamist hardliners. (Not to mention the ordinary Tunisians caught in the middle.) What’s more, her hearing is well in line with Ennahda’s longtime seesawing between its Islamist roots — once a radical party in Ben Ali’s era, Ennahda has since tempered its rhetoric – and its largely moderate constituency.
This has translated to a certain amount of backpedaling on controversial measures, such as basing Tunisia’s constitution on sharia law and the inclusion of an article about women’s “complementarity” to men, as well as an at best confusing attitude towards ultraconservative Salafist sects. After months of leniency on the movement, Ennahda launched an aggressive crackdown earlier this year on its violent factions. But on Tuesday, a Tunisian court issued light sentences to extremists involved in 2012 attacks, further clouding the issue. By adopting a similar tactic for Sboui with a rap on the wrist – her spray pepper fine is incidentally based on an obscure 19th century law — Ennahda undoubtedly hopes to appease conservatives without alienating its moderate base. Then again, if prosecutors press indecency charges, the young protester will face a sentence of two years in prison.
While Sboui’s topless protest was not the only incident this year to crystallize tensions between Islamists and secularists – see Harlem Shake clashes and a Tunis dance hall face-off — it is the most high profile one. Her acts have garnered international solidarity, copycat protests in Tunisia and continuing media attention. And thanks to a story rich with dramatic elements – i.e., nudity, religion, prominent supporters, and a complex backstory (Sboui reportedly has a history of depression and suicidal tendencies) – Tunisia’s most infamous topless activist isn’t likely to exit the media scene just yet. Which means that in the run-up to national elections expected to take place this fall/winter, Ennahda is left with the difficulty of quieting the media furor around Sboui, without creating a martyr figure for feminists in Tunisia and abroad.
Easier said than done, perhaps. On Wednesday, three Femen activists staged their own topless protests in Tunisia, and were subsequently arrested. And on Thursday, Femen members gathered in front of the Tunisian embassy in Brussels, demanding the release of all Femen activists jailed in Tunisia.What’s more, jail time for indecency may give Sboui that much more credibility in the eyes of her local and international supporters. Given the potential for Sboui’s lasting notoriety — and the robustness of Tunisia’s most conservative elements — look for Ennahda to continue its flip-flopping, namely by going ahead with indecency charges, but while avoiding a maximum jail sentence.