Veröffentlicht auf Free Arabs

Telling you what’s good for you, that’s not exclusive to Western governments – sadly, many actors of civil society use very much the same neocolonial mechanisms to tell fellow “Southern” activists how to resist. A closer look on the case of Tunisia.

Amina, a Tunisian high school student, had exposed her bare breasts on Facebook, written “My body is mine” in Arabic on her chest, and “Fuck your morals” in English. Amina was the first Tunisian to participate in the international feminist movement Femen a month ago. So far, so good. What happened afterwards can serve as a case study of international mobilization taking a wrong turn.

When Amina stopped appearing in public, rumors spread quickly over social networks and the press during the last weeks, saying that Amina was kidnapped or locked up in a mental asylum. Franco-Tunisian filmmaker Nadia El Fani and French feminist Caroline Fourest seem to have been behind this news, directly contacting journalists who might be working on that topic. The news was quickly taken up by international media. Amina’s Tunisian laywers (two well known left-wing/liberal feminists) could well confirm that Amina was at home with her family – too late. Femen had already called for worldwide protests for April 4th to support Amina.

Now if getting topless in front of an embassy or burning the black banner [Rayat Attawhid, commonly used by extremist Salafis around the Muslim world] in front of the main mosque in Paris while showing your breasts helps the case of Tunisian women, I’m not sure (and by the way, Amina, while still supporting Femen, condemned the flag burning, which she qualified as an insult to all Muslims) – but that’s not the question here anyway. The question is: why do foreign (and most of the time, “Western”) activists know what’s best for Tunisian feminists? The answer is as simple as sad: they don’t – but they assume to know, and that’s paternalistic.

Doing more harm than good

Arriving with their values, concepts and the intention to help, many (unwillingly) do more harm than anything else. By deciding for others what’s good for them, by applying the same neocolonialist patterns of support, and by wanting to apply the same fight fought at home to another country, foreign activists prove essentially two things: that often, they know little about the country in question, and that they don’t trust “the autochthons”, thereby degrading them to second-class humans. Even worse, when it comes to women’s issues, good intentions are often mixed with something that goes from the intention to helping the “poor, oppressed, Muslim women” to sheer islamophobia.

Amina’s case provoked little reactions in Tunisia. Of those actually feeling concerned, a large majority defended her, even if they were fearing that the shock strategy might actually provoke a backlash and serve as a pretext for fundamentalists to enforce criticism of what they see as imported concepts, such as the fight for emancipation and equality, thereby making the struggle for equality more difficult.

Now the case of Amina is not a single incident. The same imperialistic/paternalistic pattern emerges over and over again when looking at civil society action:

Early March, a conference in Tunis presents the project Nissa TV, a TV channel aimed at women around the Mediterranean. Its goal: “to encourage evolution in the attitudes […] towards women”. On the team list of Nissa TV: a majority of Europeans, along with a list of European politicians supporting the project. At the conference: a row of head-shaking Tunisian feminists, one of them telling me: “I am for empowerment of young people and for equality, but this project will set us light years back.”

Patronizing patterns of support

Third and last example: the weekend before the World Social Forum, at the harbor of Tunis: A group of activists from all over the world waiting for a ferry from Italy. On the ferry: a group of about fifty activists fighting for the rights of illegal migrants, among them fifteen without papers, mainly from Senegal and Mali, who had miraculously managed to cross the Franco-Italian border and then take the ferry to Tunisia. “The authorities agreed to let them in for the Forum and then leave again. They will go back to Europe”, one of the organizers tells me. He doesn’t have a written accord from neither the Tunisian nor the Italian authorities guaranteeing anything. At the harbor, the migrants are sent back by the authorities, as expected.

Yet the story takes an unexpected turn: by I don’t know what miracle, they manage to get back to Italy without being detained and deported. And still: using them as puppets to fight for a (legitimate) cause and risking their deportation shows a deep lack of responsibility by the organizers.

What do the cases of Amina, Nissa TV and the illegal migrants have in common? Essentially, they show a lack of trust. A lack of trust in local activists, who more often than not know bloody well what they are doing (and why they are doing it). And if they don’t, and therefore might need your help and support, trust them to be mature enough to let you know. Just stop putting them under tutelage. Or, to say it with Amina’s words: “Fuck your morals.”