Women to Bare Their Breasts for Topless Jihad Day

“Our tits are deadlier than your stones!”

Today, women around the world are being encouraged to bare their breasts in solidarity with a young Tunisian activist whose decision to publicly profess her desire for self-determination unleashed a fury of condemnation across North Africa and revealed the extent to which the Arab Spring has abandoned its female participants.

Last month, Amina Tyler published topless photos of herself on Facebook with the words “My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone’s honor” written across her chest in Arabic to protest the absence of adequate protections for women in Tunisia’s draft constitution. Activists charge that conservative Tunisian men have hijacked the democratic revolution of 2011 to push the country closer to Sharia law. The backlash was swift and severe, with one Salafist preacher calling for the 19-year-old student to be stoned to death.

“Her act could bring about an epidemic,” said the preacher, Adel Almi. “It could be contagious and give ideas to other women. It is therefore necessary to isolate [the incident].”

Almi—who leads a group known, oddly enough, as the “Moderate Association for Awareness and Reform”—represents the most conservative wing of the many political groups that have been jostling for power in Tunisia. But his comments are emblematic of the Arab world’s pervasive culture of misogyny, which, in many ways, has become more pronounced in wake of the mass revolutions of the Arab Spring.

Within days of their posting, the pictures were down and Amina seemed to have disappeared, prompting a frenzied search and reports that she had been institutionalized by her family. She eventually turned up at her parents’ home, but by then the incident had taken on a life of its own, and Amina emerged as the cause celebre of an international movement to draw attention to the second-class status of women in Tunisia and other Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa.

By last week, thousands of people had signed a petition supporting Amina, and Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN called for an “International Topless Jihad Day” with the motto “Our tits are deadlier than your stones!”

“On 4 April, we will remind the Islamists and the world that the real epidemic and disaster that must be challenged is misogyny – Islamic or otherwise,” the group stated.

Despite all the high hopes surrounding the Arab Spring and its calls for democracy and reform, women appear to have gained little in return for their sacrifices. Women and girls stood side-by-side with men against autocratic regimes during uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere—risking physical harm and even death—yet they have found themselves increasingly marginalized in post-revolutionary political life.

• In 2011, less than a month after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, women celebrating International Women’s Day in Egypt’s Tahrir Square were set upon by groups of men who demanded they go home and “wash clothes.”

• Egypt is now facing an epidemic of violence against women, with bands of young men roaming the streets like packs of animals looking for prey to set upon.

More than 80 percent of Egyptian women say they have experienced sexual harassment in the nation’s streets, and random sexual attacks on women have surged since the fall of Mubarak—whose police state did a far better job of preventing street harassment than the current administration led by former Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. Some Egyptian officials have even gone so far as to blame the victims.

Activists contend that the attacks have a political motive, and are being orchestrated by Islamic hardliners to keep females from participating in the public sphere. The new government in Egypt eliminated a quota for female representation in parliament, and the country’s constitution, signed by President Morsi last December, contains few if any protections for women.

While the situation is not quite as bad in Tunisia (where a quota left over from the Ben Ali days requires 30 percent of Parliament to be female), women like Amina are routinely treated as second-class citizens. And the rising tide of Islamism in the country threatens to undo the rights women ironically achieved under the very dictator they helped overthrow.

The role of women in traditional societies has always been tenuous, but perhaps nowhere is their status held in lower regard than in traditional Islamic societies. Presumptive U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan maintain atrocious records on women’s rights; and in Afghanistan, families still sometimes use their girls to pay off debts.

I don’t have breasts, but if I did, I’d bare them today for women like Amina, who have sacrificed so much for so little.