The Aliaa Effect
“Try models who posed naked for Fine Arts students in the 1970s, hide all art books, and destroy all naked statues. Then take off your clothes and look at yourselves in the mirror and burn those bodies of yours which you despise in order to get rid of your sexual complexes forever. Do that before you hurl your discriminatory insults at me or rob me of my freedom of expression.” So wrote a 20-year-old Egyptian girl Aliaa Magda Elmahdy in her blog recently where she also posted nude photos and paintings of herself. Obviously, the post received almost instant global media coverage and provoked outrage in Egypt, a conservative Muslim country where most women wear the veil. Many liberals there fear that Elmahdy’s actions will hurt their prospects in the parliamentary election next week. These photos were also posted on her facebook page and on Twitter and in facebook alone, were viewed by more than 250,000 angry, curious, shocked, or supporting viewers.
Aliaa, who recently dropped out of university, describes herself as a ‘secular liberal feminist vegetarian individualist Egyptian.’ She has been living for the past five months with her boyfriend, blogger Kareem Amer, who, in 2006, was sentenced to four years in a maximum security prison for criticizing Islam and defaming former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. It was first claimed by her boyfriend that she is a member of April 6, an Egyptian political group that came to prominence during the revolution. But soon after this claim, group members denied reports that the young blogger has ties to the pro-democracy group but rather, said she is part of a conspiracy against them. However, after the group’s statement, she denied having claimed any ties with the April 6 movement. “I am not and never was a member of April 6 and I have never claimed such a thing,” she told CNN in a recent interview.
Talking to CNN, Aliaa explains why she did post her nude photo. “I am not shy of being a woman in a society where women are nothing but sex objects harassed on a daily basis by men who know nothing about sex or the importance of a woman.” She further added on a question of sex that most Egyptians are secretive about sex because they are brought up thinking sex is something bad and dirty and there is no mention of it in schools. Sex to the majority is simply a man using a woman with no communication between them and children are just part of an equation. “To me, sex is an expression of respect, a passion for love that culminates into sex to please both sides,” she said.
Though her stand was opposed by many from her orthodox country, a group of forty women across the border in Israel stood behind her and also stripped in a show of solidarity for her and other women in the area and around the world (Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2064267/Israeli-women-strip-support-nude-Egyptian-blogger-Aliaa-Elmahdy.html).
Aliaa herself had termed her nude photo campaign as a "scream against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy" and no doubt, she and her blogger boyfriend have been receiving a number of death threats, online complaints, and even a lawsuit, recently filed by the Coalition of Islamic Law graduates for "insulting" the Islamic religion and for "advertizing immorality." On November 22, Aliaa wrote on her facebook page: “I stand by every letter I wrote and every photo I published and will say that I don't acknowledge any laws that limit freedoms or are discriminatory if I was called for investigation”
How It All Relates
Besides the question of women’s rights over their own body and the freedom of self-expression, Aliaa raises two major points in her posts and interviews. One is about the use of the veil and another on the virginity test. On the veil, she comments many women wear it just to escape the harassment and be able to walk the streets in peace.
Sexual harassment is a serious problem in Egypt. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, 83 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed (Source: Johnston, “Two-thirds of Egyptian men harass women?”; see also Magdi Abdelhadi, “Egypt’s sexual harassment ‘cancer,’” BBC News, July 18, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7514567.stm.) However, it cannot be assumed that all women in Egypt are wearing the veil for this one reason. By connecting sexual harassment and the veil, Aliaa gives the impression that the veil is strongly associated with oppression.
Maybe not, though. In some countries, veils are used as a protest. In Europe, where wearing the Islamic veil (hijab/niqab) is banned, women protest wearing it. In Libya, under former ruler Muammar Qaddafi, the Niqab was banned. According to a report from The Economist, women across Libya are now celebrating over the restoration of their right to wear it. In contrast to Aliaa undressing herself in search of freedom of expression, some Libyan women want to dress and wear such clothing to feel themselves in real freedom and real expression in what they believe. What would Aliaa and her boyfriend say? What could they say? Is this not freedom of expression too?
And about virginity test in Egypt, the Human Rights Commission is still probing the cases continuously performing the Military-style brutal test to insert two fingers into vaginas of women to test their virginity in and after Mubarak’s reign. During an interview with CNN, in May, a SCAF general, talking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the army had conducted "virginity tests." "We didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place," he said. "The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and [drugs].” ( Source: http://uk.ibtimes.com/articles/246877/20111110/egypt-virginity-tests-used-military-humiliate-women.htm). It is true to believe that the military authority who believes in virginity test has no right to raise a question on the grounds of morality?
Aliaa’s Actions: a Help or Hindrance
But do Aliaa’s actions support or hinder a healthy debate on the sexual rights of women?
Sexual rights are often misunderstood and wrongly defined either by feminists or by activists. What do you want to mean by woman’s right on own body? Is ‘body’ an alternate term for ‘sex’ or ‘sexual object?’
Is a ‘woman’s body’ inherently sexual, and can it be used to define any object subjected for passionate feelings only? Is there no need of correlating hunger, sufferings, pain, and shame with that object? Women's bodies are always the issue - too unclean for Hindus, dangerous enough to be covered up for Muslims, and obscured for Christians. We should be more cautious about differentiating these terms carefully. Otherwise there may be every possibility for women to become and remain tools of oppression.
Patriarchal practices shape and perpetuate gender inequality and strip women of any form of control over their sexuality. It is double standard of patriarchy that when it needs to, it allows a woman to disrobe and we can see how the grammar of fine arts are created with the patriarchy accepted social standards of aesthetics and modesty/morality. We see how mythologies played a significant role in focusing a philosophical attitude toward sex. Even the patriarchal effect has been prominent when we find Shakti, the female god is painted with her nudity. When Aliaa disrobes herself, it is patriarchy which shouts with a hefty voice raising the question of morality. But what about other events like fashion shows, beauty contests, or bar girl dances in restaurants and clubs? Morality, in the case of female sexuality, has often been misused or used intentionally to oppress feminine rights and always used by patriarchy as a tool to oppress women.
British feminist and goddess activist Asphodel P. Long (1921-2005) often considered the grandmother of the Goddess Movement in Great Britain once wrote something which can apply to Aliaa’s recent activities. She wrote, “Freud is said to have asked: "What do women want?" Women know what they want. Their difficulty, which is mine, is to find words to describe, and to produce ideas acceptably. Not because we are "silly" but because words and ideas have grown over the last 5,000 years in a patriarchal setting, and describe what men want. Every word, sentence and set of ideas is painful to write, is open to misinterpretation, certainly by men.” (source: http://www.asphodel-long.com/html/politics_of_sexuality.html).
It is explainable why Aliaa did what she did. What she couldn’t do with words, she did with her actions. She boldly spoke volumes using the power of an image -- something to which everyone can relate and understand no matter where they live or what they do or in what they believe.