The naked truth about Egypt’s body politic

 
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By Khaled Diab

One young woman’s daring nude protests are unlikely to emancipate Egyptian women, but will they actually hurt the cause of freedom and equality?

Monday 7 January 2013

aliaa

Photo: FEMEN

“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 appears to have approved it, despite incredibly low voter turnout. But this wasn’t the first time that ElMahdy had used her naked body to try to expose the hypocrisy of Egypt’s body politic. She had 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 the amount of outrage the human body, especially the female form of it, and sex can provoke. For instance, a US 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, that 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, and they were saying “fuck off” and not “fuck me”. 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. Criticise 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 organisation, 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.

That said, 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.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 January 2013.

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  • Abraham

    This is a serious analysis of the Egyptian political culture.

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  • Josephine

    This is a very interesting and thought provoking article on women’s bodies and the bizarre politics that surround them

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  • Claudia

    Yes, nude protest causes still a stir in Europe because Europe is also still
    light years away from gender equality. Especially Germany, where I’m
    from, is a case for fucking stone age. Nudity might be though more okay
    in Germany, but gender equality definitely
    is still an illusion. Anyways I’m just tremendously upset that things
    in my beloved EGypt are going backwards instead of forwards. In all
    those years I never lost hope for Egypt because I always thought “Egypt
    needs a revolution” and for years I played the childish game with my
    Egyptian friends cruising around at night with loud music and open
    windows and screaming at random people on the street “Thawra Thawra
    Thawra” and strongly believing the day will come when Egyptians gather
    the courage to stand up, revolt and start to create their own fate. And
    yes, the day came. With one of those friends I stand on Tahrir on 1st
    February 2011 screaming again Thawra Thawra Thawra and be couldn’t
    believe that our years long game became reality. But when I see now how
    Egyptians are shaping their new fate it makes me cry. And as you said in
    your article a nude protester wherever doesn’t make a difference to
    anything.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/diabolically.khaled Khaled Diab

    Thanks, Riem. True Claudia, though to be fair, nude protests still cause a stir even in Europe, albeit to a much smaller degree (otherwise why bother to do it), and if an Egyptian man had protested naked, he would also have faced criticism and outrage, albeit to a much smaller degree. After all, nudity is not really an Egyptian thing – it’s not exactly Scandinavia.

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  • Claudia

    As
    long as a female body can cause so much reaction we are far away from
    any gender equality. Everybody owns one’s body and nobody else. And if
    some Egyptian woman wants to demonstrate naked then she should be free
    to do so.

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  • Riem

    I’m glad you stripped the strip story down to the essence of the situation. Great writing!

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