Egypt’s Politics Stripped Naked

One young Egyptian woman’s explicit nude protests are unlikely to emancipate Egyptian women, but how far does her pushing back against religious intimidation hurt the cause of freedom and equality?

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab
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Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab

“Sharia is not a constitution” is a sentence that many Egyptian secularists and progressives would, under normal circumstances, wholeheartedly agree with. However, when these words are scrawled in lipstick red on the totally naked body – except for glasses and a headband of flowers – of a young Egyptian activist, then the medium suddenly eclipses the message, especially in a society as conservative as Egypt’s.

Aliaa ElMahdy, 21, was protesting, with European feminists in Stockholm, Egypt’s controversial draft constitution ahead of a referendum which approved it, despite incredibly low voter turnout. But this isn’t the first time that ElMahdy has used her naked body to try to expose the hypocrisy of Egypt’s body politic. She already gained notoriety and stirred up controversy in 2011 when she posted naked images of herself on her blog to express her opposition to the growing influence of Islamists and to demand her full freedom of expression.

An old joke claims that the best way for a woman to please a man on a date is simply to turn up naked. In contrast, it would seem that the best way to outrage the patriarchal male order is to protest in the nude – judging by the insults, threatened legal action and even some death threats which the nude activist received.

Personally, I have long been bewildered - and sometimes outraged - by how much outrage the human body, especially the female form of it, and sex can provoke. For instance, a U.S. president can be impeached for lying about his sexual relations but not apparently for lying to start a war. Likewise, at a time of massive revolutionary ferment, how society can find the time or interest to obsess over an amateur black-and-white photo of a solitary nude woman on her personal blog is beyond me.

Of course, if even in some liberal societies nudity can still offend many, I can understand that in a society where the vast majority of women now cover their heads in one way or another, nakedness can cause distress. But there is more to it than that. After all, nudity is a mouse click away for millions of Egyptians and, as one observer pointed out, there is reportedly a popular niche in pornography involving women in hijab and even niqab (the full face veil). Moreover, semi-nudity and sexually suggestive imagery is on billboards, television screens and cinemas everywhere you turn in Egypt.

The trouble with Aliaa is that her photos were too subversive: they were naked but not sexy. Her nude protest against the constitution was similarly seditious: she was using a tool many would regard as immoral to deliver a highly moral and principled message.

So, though many Egyptians may agree with her message, few approve of her means. In fact, revolutionaries and secularists have been tripping over themselves to give ElMahdy a full dressing down.

This is partly out of genuine disapproval. Egyptians are generally conditioned to see nudity as a sign of licentiousness and debauchery, and so when a young activist strips in protest, they reach the “inescapable” conclusion that she is either bad or mad, or possibly both.

Many leftists regard ElMahdy as self-absorbed and selfish and that she, through her reckless actions, has potentially set the cause of female emancipation back years. And they have a point – up to a point.

ElMahdy’s actions are unlikely to sway many, if any, ordinary Egyptians to the cause of greater freedom in Egypt, and may even strengthen the dictatorship of, and through, the masses.

Religious and social conservatives and bigots have used her political striptease as proof-made-flesh of the “corrupting” influence of secularism – which has become something of a dirty word in Egypt since Islamists successfully and inaccurately equated it with atheism – and that the only way to combat this is by curtailing personal and political freedoms.

In addition, the fact that ElMahdy’s most vocal defenders have mainly, but not exclusively, been expatriate Egyptians and Europeans has played up to the paranoid idea promoted by the former and current regime that the revolution is an anti-Egyptian foreign conspiracy designed to shred the country’s social fabric and destroy it by stripping it of its moral rectitude.

And since a family’s, and by extension, a society’s honour and strength, lies, for some bizarre reason, between the legs of women, ElMahdy has been transformed by the patriarchy into a biological WMD – a dirty bomb, you could say – and has helped them cement the traditional view of women as highly volatile sex bombs who will spontaneously explode upon contact with greater freedom.

Activists fear that this will hurt the aspirations of Egyptian women seeking equality with men and fighting against discrimination. But is this enough to abandon ElMahdy?

On this issue, Egyptian democracy activists are caught between a rock and a hard place. Defend ElMahdy’s right to do what she did and this will be equated with agreeing with her actions. Criticize her or stay silent and be guilty of curtailing freedom of expression yourself.

In 2011, ElMahdy confessed that she was shocked by how the April 6 Youth Movement, which was one of the main secular, youth-led dynamos behind the revolution, had issued a statement not only clarifying that she was not part of their organization, which is correct, but also that they do not accept “atheism.”

“Where is the democracy and liberalism they preach to the world? They only feed what the public wants to hear for their political ambitions,” she complained at the time.

It is unfair to single out ElMahdy, who does not possess any political affiliation, nor does she claim to speak for anyone beside herself. Just as she is not single-handedly destroying Egypt’s traditional social fabric, as conservatives claim, the blame for the apparent setback secularism and feminism are facing in Egypt cannot be placed solely on her shoulders.

Had Aliaa not stripped, it would have made very little difference to the outcome of the draft constitution – it is still incredibly unpopular and uninspiring, as reflected in the low voter turnout and the huge demonstrations. Had Aliaa kept her clothes on, it would not have deterred Islamists from their project to roll back whatever hard-earned freedoms Egyptian women have gained – they would simply have ignored her.

What this episode reflects is how, despite opposing the revolution and not taking part in it, Islamists have become more emboldened and, at least, apparently powerful. It also highlights how in spite of the fact that secular and oft-young revolutionaries have instigated a process of radical change, many still remain apologetic for their convictions and allow themselves to be browbeating and intimidated by religious conservatives.

The attitude seems to be one of, “if you can’t beat them, join them,” and so secularists have increasingly appropriated some of the rhetoric of the Islamists. But what some have failed to notice is that the Islamists, in order to survive, have also had to appropriate the secular discourse of democracy and freedom.

Another problem with this approach is that as Islamists gain confidence they are becoming more militant once more, and progressives may soon discover that the only option left will be to “beat” them. And the Islamists, who have been rapidly planting the seeds for their own downfall, are unwittingly providing pluralist secularists with plenty of opportunities to steer Egypt towards a more tolerant and inclusive future.

As the polarisation between conservative and progressive forces in society grows, persuasion and bridge-building will become increasingly necessary, but so will confrontation, especially on issues of principle and fundamental freedoms.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy and fellow activists in Stockholm this month.Credit: Reuters

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