In 2004, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the controversial Somali-Dutch politician, wrote the script for Submission, an 11-minute film highlighting the subjugation of women in Islamic societies. Within the Netherland’s growing Muslim community, the film immediately provoked outrage. Among other offenses, Hirsi Ali’s film projected sexist Koranic verses on the nude female form. Three months after the film premiered on Dutch television, its director, Theo van Gogh, a relative of Vincent van Gogh, was found murdered in the streets of Amsterdam, his head nearly severed from his body and a note secured to his chest with a knife, promising that Hirsi Ali, a supposed apostate from Islam, would be the next victim.
After Van Gogh's murder, Hirsi Ali's formerly sedate life as a Dutch politician was besieged by death threats. To mock Islam—and especially its holy book—is to invite a particular type of risk, especially for those who question not just gender roles within Islam, but the religion’s most basic tenets.
Despite the enormous risks assumed by women like Hirsi Ali, a new generation of activists are radically challenging religious extremism in the Middle East. With an echo of Hirsi Ali’s notorious film, Egyptian atheist and activist Aliaa Elmahdy recently provoked fury in her home country when she contorted the Muslim call to prayer on Facebook, posting an image of the Arabic phrase “Woman Is Great,” a play on the Islamic incantation “Allahu Akhbar”—God is great.
In 2011, Elmahdy gained notoriety as the “nude poser” when she posted a picture of herself on her blog wearing nothing but red kitten heels and thigh-high stockings. The unprecedented image—which she said was a protest against Islamic rule and oppression of women in Egypt—provoked intense debate across the region. She received death threats and was briefly kidnapped before being granted political asylum in Sweden.
Last December, Elmahdy joined forces with the feminist organization Femen in Stockholm where, flanked by two of the group’s activists, she held an Egyptian flag over her head, the words “Sharia is not constitution” scrawled across her naked chest and stomach in red paint. The adoption of Sharia law—based on the Koran—in Egypt, Elmahdy argued, would dictate second-class citizenship for women.
But by explicitly attacking religion with her “blasphemous” rewriting of the Koran, rather than broadly criticizing gender inequality in Egypt, Elmahdy prompted fierce backlash from influential Muslims. The radical Salafist preacher Sheikh Nasser Radwan called for her to be tried for “defaming religion and insulting the Divine Being.” Muslim scholar Mahmoud Muhna echoed the Radwan’s sentiments, labeling Elmahdy an “apostate” and demanding that she be brought before a criminal court.
The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram stacked the deck against Elmahdy. “While some have called her a heroine,” the paper wrote after her nude photo went viral, “others have opted for the term mentally ill.” To bolster the case for madness, the newspaper quoted an Egyptian psychiatrist who attributed her activism to either parental abuse or neglect: "It could be that this person didn't receive much attention from his or her parents or close family members as a child, or perhaps he or she was abused or neglected.”
The Western media is frequently titillated by bare-breasted (and usually attractive) Femen activists, whose toplessness is often irrelevant to their feminist message. But in the Muslim world, Elmahdy’s nudity isn’t just titillating, it’s the ultimate act of brave rebellion.