A young Tunisian woman with the topless protest group Femen went on trial Thursday for illegal possession of pepper spray, sparking angry Salafist demonstrators to demand she face stiffer charges under Islamic law.
In Tunis, three European members of the group, two French and one German, were due to appear before the public prosecutor after their arrest on Wednesday from baring their breasts outside the central court.
Their protest was the first of its kind in the Arab world and shocked many in Tunisia, where hardline Islamists have become increasingly assertive since the country’s January 2011 revolution.
As the trial began of Amina Sboui, known by her pseudonym Tyler, in the city of Kairouan, 150 kilometres (90 miles) south of Tunis, angry residents gathered outside the court building.
They shouted insults at the lawyers of the young woman.
The demonstrators were joined by dozens of Islamists, notably the spokesman of Tunisia’s main Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia, who was furious at not being allowed to attend the trial, where extra security was deployed.
“Why shouldn’t I be allowed to attend the trial?” Seifeddine Rais asked, adding that the accused could “go to hell,” while members of his extremist group chanted: “The people want the application of Islamic law”.
Sboui sparked both scandal and a wave of online support in socially conservative Tunisia after she was threatened by radical Islamists for posting topless pictures of herself on Facebook.
Arrested on May 19 after painting the word Femen on a wall in Tunisia’s religious capital of Kairouan, where radical Salafists were planning to hold an illegal congress, she told the judge she had carried the pepper spray for two months, for self-defence.
Tensions were also palpable inside the courtroom, where several lawyers claiming to represent residents of Kairouan joined in demands for heavier charges to be brought against her.
“There was a desire to sow trouble and sedition in Kairouan and we want the file to be transferred (on this basis) to the public prosecutor. It is not just a case of possessing pepper spray,” said lawyer Hamed El Maghreb.
But her lawyers have asked for Sboui, who is being prosecuted under a law that prohibits the ownership of incendiary or explosive devices, and carries a prison sentence of six months to five years, to be acquitted.
“The judge will probably give his verdict today, in the afternoon,” said Mokhtar Janene, one of the young woman’s lawyers.
Sboui’s father Mounir Sboui said before the trial opened that he was “proud” of his daughter for her ideological commitment while describing her acts as excessive.
“I am proud of my daughter. This case is getting more and more politicised. Her actions were excessive but she defends her ideas,” he said.
Her family has described her as someone who suffers from chronic depression and has suicidal tendencies, and for a long time they prevented her from going out, claiming her safety was at risk.
But the young woman accused her relatives of holding her in captivity and beating her, and ran away from home in April.
She has regularly appeared in public since then, although never topless.
The Femen movement, founded in Ukraine and now based in Paris, has flourished since 2010, with feminists around the world stripping off in protest at a wide range of issues linked to the mistreatment of women, but also against dictatorship.
Tunisia, whose ruling coalition is headed by Islamist party Ennahda, has the most liberal laws in the Arab world governing women’s rights, although gender equality has yet to be inscribed in the new constitution.
Since the revolution that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country has been rocked by a wave of violence blamed on hardline Islamists who were repressed by the staunchly-secular former dictator.
Opposition parties and feminist groups accuse Ennahda of seeking to roll back women’s rights and of being too lenient on the extremists, although the Islamist party has opposed enshrining Islamic sharia law in the constitution.
But a failed attempt last year to introduce the concept of gender “complementarity” rather than equality into the constitution raised serious doubts about the party’s real intentions.
The latest edition of the proposed text, drafted in April, states that “all male and female citizens have the same rights and duties”.