TUNIS, Tunisia – Three foreign activists disrobed in front of the Justice Ministry on Wednesday to protest against the jailing of a Tunisian member of Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN, quickly attracting a crowd of offended Tunisians before the three women were hustled away by police.
The trio, one German and two French, approached the entrance to the ministry wearing coats which they took off, revealing naked torsos scrawled with "Breasts Feed Revolution." Wearing just jean shorts, the women chanted in English "Free Amina" and "Women's spring is coming" as people in the crowd attempted to cover them.
Tunisian woman Amina Tyler scandalized society by posting topless pictures online in March in a FEMEN-inspired protest in which she scrawled "my body is my own and not your honor," on herself. She was later taken into hiding by her family after conservative preachers issued death threats against her. The 19-year-old said last month she wanted to do one last topless protest before she left the country to study journalism in France and was arrested May 19 in the religious center of Kairouan where an ultraconservative Muslim group had hoped to hold a conference before it was banned by police.
Tyler was charged with carrying a dangerous object, apparently a canister of pepper spray, and will appear before a judge Thursday.
The women in Wednesday's protest climbed up on the gates of the Justice Ministry until police pulled them down and hustled them shouting into the building as an angry crowd, many of them lawyers there for work, gathered.
"This is against our religion," said Fatima Zahaouadi, a young woman wearing the black robes of a lawyer but without a conservative headscarf. "For these women to take off their clothes as part of freedom of expression is against our religion and the traditions of Arab-Muslim Tunisian society."
The crowd surrounded the area where the women were being held and when the activists were transferred to a nearby building the crowed surged forward before being fended off by police.
"The Ministry of Justice is not a house of ill repute," said Fawzia Dridi, an angry bystander.
The crowd also attacked journalists attempting to cover the event as well as lawyers who tried to protect the reporters. Police took several journalists into custody to take statements from them as witnesses before releasing them.
Tunisia's prosecutor's office later announced the women had been taken to main police station for questioning before being charged, and their embassies have been informed. The French consul visited the women and said they were in good spirits.
Lawyers said they could be charged with an attack on public morals or threatening public order, offenses which could carry up to a year in prison.
A member of FEMEN who identified herself as Inna told The Associated Press by email Tuesday that the activists were protesting the treatment of women in the Arab world.
"We are attacking the Ministry of Justice one day before the trial for Tunisian FEMEN prisoner Amina to demand to let Amina free and to give up Islamists tradition judging women's liberation," she wrote. "FEMEN is planning first topless action in Arab country as a sign of a big changes ... Femen is announcing the women's spring that (is) starting in Tunisia."
Though it has the reputation as one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East for women's rights, overwhelmingly Muslim Tunisia is still a relatively conservative society and there has been a rise of piety since the overthrow of the secular dictatorship in 2011.
FEMEN, which has carried out semi-nude protests in Europe, has only recently started focusing on the Middle East, especially after Tyler's actions.
Middle East feminists, however, have largely condemned their approach saying their tactics are foreign to the largely conservative region and risk provoking backlash against women and real concerns like achieving equality.
The protests come during a particularly delicate period for Tunisia, where decades of progressive legislation are being challenged by a rising trend of conservatism and there is a struggle over the identity of this North African nation of 10 million.
Associated Press writer Paul Schemm contributed to this report from Rabat, Morocco.