Women Standing Up For Themselves Means They’re Mentally Ill?
A 19-year-old Tunisian woman, Amina Tyler, recently posted photos of her naked torso to the Femen-Tunisian Facebook page she created and sparked an immediate uproar. One photo showed her smoking and “My Body is My Own and Not the Source of Anyone’s Honor” scrawled in Arabic on her bare chest. Another showed her with “F— Your Morals” written on her torso and her middle fingers raised.
Amina had appeared on the Tunisian talk show Labes on March 16 to discuss bringing the Ukrainian women’s activist group Femen to Tunisia. As Jezebel reports, a Twitter user, Saida Manoubia, observed that the talkshow host suggested that Amina be committed to a mental institution. Then, after her family discovered the Facebook page with the topless photos, Amina disappeared, Femen leader Inna Shevchenko told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Tayler last week.
Shevchenko also said that she had gotten reports that Amina had been “delivered by her parents to a psychiatric hospital in Tunis” and had also been informed of a video in which Amina’s aunt claimed her niece had “decided to kill herself and so posted nude pictures of herself online.”
Almi Adel, a Salafi Islamist preacher and Tunisia’s head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Tunisia, proclaimed that Amina’s actions could lead to “epidemics and disasters” and “be contagious and give ideas to other women,” according to The Atlantic. Under Tunisian secular law, Amina could be punished with two years in prison and face a fine of 100 to 1,000 dinars, local media reports said.
Calls to support Amina have occurred across the internet; an open letter calling for an International Day to Defend Amina (April 4) gathering thousands of signatures. Hundreds of young women have submitted topless photos of themselves to the Facebook page Amina had created, says the U.K.’s Huffington Post.
Amina’s Whereabouts Unclear
As of March 26, Amina is back with her family according to Bouchra Bel Haj Hmida, as reported by the U.K.’s Huffington Post. Hmida, an activist herself, told AFP that she had spoken to Amina who said that “she was doing well and would be going back to school soon.” On Tunisia Live, Hmida said that Amina was not missing “and has never been in a psychiatric facility.”
In other words, reports about Amina have been varied. Shevchenko made this key point to the Huffington Post: noting that “rumors about Amina’s case are coming out every day” — including that she had been raped in the street and had been arrested — Shevchenko made the observation that there had been “still no sound from Amina.”
Women’s Rights After the Arab Spring
Amina’s protest stands out amid reports of women’s rights and well-being endangered in the countries where, two years ago, the Arab Spring set alight hopes for new freedoms. Sexual assault has been on the rise in Egypt and a report by the International Rescue Committee has found that the rape of women has been used as a strategy in the two-year-old war in Syria.
The reports about Amina’s current situation are conflicting, but the equation of her protest for women’s rights as a sign of her being mentally ill has been made before. In the Western world, branding women who speak up as mentally ill goes back to ancient times. The 5th century B.C.E. Athenian playwright Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata depicts women going on a “sex strike” to stop the men from a protracted war. Aristophanes (who was a political conservative) depicts his female characters as defiant, determined and far more heroic than the men in the play (most of whom are in a less than happy way due to being deprived of sex).
While a modern audience may want to see Lysistrata and the other female characters as women taking charge, it is highly likely that the play’s ancient (all-male) Athenian audience would have considered women protesting the most hilarious thing to happen at all and would have thought the play’s characters simply crazy. Feminist scholars of more recent literature and history have shown that, prior to the women’s rights movement, women who dared to speak up and advocate for their needs outside the house were depicted as going crazy, as does the narrator of Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ iconic 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
As we sort out the details of Amina’s situation, one thing is for sure. Women protesting, being dubbed “mentally ill,” and being forced to keep quiet (or end up in a psychiatric institution) — this is a too-familiar pattern. Really, what’s craziest of all is that women everywhere have to go to extremes to get out the message about how restricted their lives — our lives — remain.
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