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Women’s bodies belong only to women

This op-ed by FFRF’s co-president was published April 24 in The New York Times as part of its “Open for Debate” series. The topic was “Is the Hijab Worth Fighting Over?”

Nineteen is the perfect age to push the parameters of social convention, to experiment with self-expression and rebellion. Young women coming to terms with sexual objectification, harassment and social judgment have a perfect right to protest prudery and patriarchal religion without being threatened with execution.

Amina Tyler, a Tunisian 19-year-old, exercised that right. She participated in a feminist Facebook project in which she posted images of herself online, with the words “I own my body; it’s not the source of anyone’s honor” written on her bare chest.

Tunisia reacted with revilement and threats of violence. The head of Tunisia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice reportedly called for Amina to be stoned to death. She and her family faced vicious threats, including that acid should be thrown in her face.

Amina, who reports having been subjected to a “virginity test” and other indignities, appears to be in hiding with the intention to escape to France.

She uploaded the photos on a Facebook page created by Femen, a Ukrainian women’s group dedicated to freeing women. In solidarity with Amina, Femen declared “Topless Jihad Day” on April 4, holding demonstrations across Europe in which women treated their bared torsos as protest placards.

The tactics are reminiscent of Slutwalk, a protest movement fighting rape culture, in which young women (some bare-breasted, others scantily clad) take to the streets to defy conventions that blame victims for rapes.

Arguments for female modesty are sadly familiar, and troubling regardless of their religious context.

I’m proud to be part of the tradition that Femen and Slutwalk have joined. In 1977, after Circuit Judge Archie Simonson in Madison, Wis., called the rape of a 16-year-old high school student by three boys a “normal reaction” to her wearing a turtleneck and jeans, I engaged in a different kind of street theater.

After organizing the first picket of his courthouse, I dressed in a nun’s habit and marched holding signs that said “Shall men be our dress codes?” and “Is this what you have in mind, judge?” We successfully recalled that judge. But the attitudes, unfortunately, persist.

There’s nothing obscene about breasts. What’s obscene is decking women in burqas or face-shrouding veils. What’s obscene is that a statement by a young woman that she owns her own body could still set a world religion on fire.

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