A Femen activist holds up a poster with writing reading in Italian "Amina Free" during a protest in front of the Tunisian Consulate in Milan this month.
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A few weeks ago, a number of young women activists took to the streets of major European cities to protest the treatment of a Tunisian woman. They belonged to Femen, a Ukrainian feminist group whose members protest by taking off their tops.
Established in 2008, the group opposes exploitation of women by society or religious institutions. Recently, members of the group protested the international sex trade by confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany. The group has a small but visible and vocal international following.
Amina Tyler is a 19-year-old Tunisian activist who posted topless pictures on her Facebook page. Across her chest was the inscription in Arabic: “I own my body; it is not the source of anyone’s honor.”
Many religious people in Tunisia and elsewhere took exception. The head of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice called for quarantining her for her contagious ideas, and then suggested that she should be stoned to death. Femen retorted: “Our [breasts] are deadlier than your stones.”
Many Arab and Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, have official commissions and organizations that are entrusted with enforcing strict laws against vulgarity and obscenity.
Such commissions are traditionally populated by self-righteous men who believe that women and evil are synonymous.
So members of Femen decided to hold what they called Topless Jihad across Europe in support of Ms. Tyler. The core issue is not the response of the clergy in Tunisia, but the standards of modesty in any society.
In most European countries, it is common to see bare-chested women on billboards. In America, such nudity is banned.
Many communities in America have their own definitions of nudity and obscenity. However, public nudity is not tolerated in America or Europe, or for that matter in most other countries. Consequently, the police in those cities arrested the protesters.
Is there is a visible line between obscenity and decency? If there is, who defines it and how?
There are de facto “commissions” everywhere that promote virtue and prevent vice. They may not get their inspiration and strength from religious texts, but they accomplish the same thing: upholding community standards of what is decent and what is not.
I sympathize with Ms. Tyler for becoming the target of religious zealots. It is her right to use her body to make unpalatable statements on the Internet.
However, if she were to appear nude in public to make that statement, she would be subjected to the norms and laws of the village, town, or country she chose as the venue for her protest.
In a marketplace of ideas, we carry our own megaphones and tell others what is good for them. In such a cacophony, I once heard a distinguished lady from the Indian subcontinent lament the fact that on Indian and Pakistani television and at social events, young women’s dresses have crossed the limits of decency.
She was referring to contour-revealing tight clothes that women wear at weddings and social gatherings in those countries and in America. The lady was wearing a sari, a nine-yard-long fabric that women wrap themselves in. Keeping with tradition, her midriff was exposed even though the length of the fabric could have covered her body many times over.
So those who protest by taking off their tops only to be arrested should remember: The issue is not simple. Contradictions abound. Decency, like beauty, often is in the eye of the beholder.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org