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Women’s groups fear step backwards after Tunisia uprising

Women rights campaigners have voiced fears that after Tunisia’s revolution, conservative forces could turn back the clock on levels of equality.

It comes after at least three people were hurt when Islamists staged a protest in the capital, Tunis, calling for the closure of the north African country’s brothels.

People were hurt when security forces fired into the air to disperse the rock-throwing crowd as hundreds of Islamists rallied outside the interior ministry before marching to Abdallah Guech Street.

Five weeks after an uprising toppled dictator President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last month, Friday’s protest is the latest sign of Islamists mobilising in the country, the only Arab nation where prostitution is legal.

Elections to replace Mr Ben Ali are expected within six months, and at least one Islamist candidate is expected to run. Now Tunisians are locked in a fierce debate about Islam’s role in politics. In Tunisia about 98 per cent of people are Muslim, but abortion is legal, polygamy outlawed, and women wear bikinis on its Mediterranean beaches. Wine is openly sold in supermarkets and in bars.

''Nothing is irreversible,'' said Khadija Cherif, a former head of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women. ''We don't want to let down our guard,” she told The New York Times.

"The force of the Tunisian feminist movement is that we've never separated it from the fight for democracy and a secular society," she says. "We will continue our combat, which is to make sure that religion remains completely separate from politics."

Ms Cherif joined thousands of campaigners who marched through Tunis at the weekend calling for the separation of mosque and state in one of the largest demonstrations since the president was ousted.

The demonstrators were also showing force of feeling after a Polish priest was killed on Friday. The body of Marek Rybinski, 34, was found in the garage of a religious school near the capital. The country’s central Islamist movement, al-Nahda, spoke out against the murder, saying it was a tactic to distract Tunisians from the objectives of Tunisia's revolution.

''We know we have an essentially fragile economy that is very open towards the outside world, to the point of being totally dependent on it,'' al-Nahda's secretary general, Hamadi Jebali, told the Tunisian magazine Realites. ''We have no interest whatsoever in throwing everything away, today or tomorrow.''

The group, which has connections with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, says it is against bringing in Islamic law.

Hayley attribution