Aliaa Maghda El-Mahdy, a 20-year-old dissident from Cairo, describes herself as a “secular liberal feminist vegetarian individualist Egyptian.” A college student, an atheist, and a blogger, she may seem like just another attention-seeking political activist. But her latest act of political rebellion has set off a firestorm in Egypt and in the Twitterverse of Arab dissidents.
In one of the nude self-portraits she posted this week on her blog, A Rebel’s Diary (warning: X-rated), which has received more than a million page views, she faces the camera wearing no more than a red ribbon in her hair, thigh-high tights, and red ballet flats. Mahdy’s photo, which shows one of her feet propped on a stool and a flash of defiance in her eyes, is erotic. “I took my nude photo myself in my parents’ home,” she writes. The same photo appears on her blog a second time, now with a yellow rectangle covering her crotch. “The yellow rectangles on my eyes, mouth and sex organ resemble the censoring of our knowledge, expression and sexuality,” she writes.
Although many in the West have been desensitized to images of female nudity, particularly online, Mahdy’s rebellious act shocked and scandalized a whole range of people in Egypt, from devout Muslims to members of the youth movement. According to the website cyberdissidents.org, she has received thousands of “threatening comments” since the publication of the nude photos, the purpose of which was “challenging her community to restrict her freedom.”
Mahdy doesn’t care. “I have the right to live freely in any place,” she writes on her blog. She is using all the weapons in her arsenal to protest “a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.” A staunch critic of Islamic extremism and the puritanical censorship that accompanies it, she is advocating a “freedom revolution” in Egypt, just as the pro-freedom forces of the Arab Spring are being overwhelmed by staunch Islamists. According to one report, the foxy feminist supports a Facebook group called “Men Should Wear the Veil.”
Mahdy’s exhibitionist streak has generated a massive response, much of it critical. Some wonder whether she really had to resort to a pornographic image to make a political point. On Twitter, a debate has erupted over the nude photos under the hashtag “Nude Photo Revolutionary.” Osama El Zamzamy tweets, “I can’t see the difference between Aliaa and a stripper, she just had a camera and a blog.” Ethar El-Katatney, a female journalist based in Cairo, notes, “Truly do feel sorry for her. She’s barely 20 & misguided. This will shadow her forever.”
Responding to such criticism, human-rights activist Leah McElrath tweets to the Mahdy haters: “#EGYPT: Even if you don’t ‘approve’ of her actions, you should support her right to expression.” Another female commentator agrees: “I support her in her right to do whatever she wants with her body and publish it if she so chooses.”
But to one Egyptian dissident, Mahdy’s “right to expression” should have limits. He tweets, “Liberty is the NUDITY of your mind…Not the NUDITY of your body.” In other words, having a free mind has nothing to do with posting nude photos of yourself online.
For Mahdy, however, the two are inextricably linked. The radical Islamists for whom she feels so much contempt have a problem with female sexuality, which they want to cover up. This is why they hide their women behind veils, have them swim at the beach in chadors, and force them to pray in separate quarters at the mosque. The muftis and imams, in their stodgy black garb, think that if a man catches a glimpse of a woman’s soft ankle, he will fall into a paroxysm of desire. Mahdy, we can assume, understands this. This is why she is tearing the veil—all veils—away. And it is why she should be supported for doing so.
By daring to challenge the sexual conventions of her native country, the provocateur may spark a larger conversation about the restrictions that stand in the way of Egypt’s development as a modern nation. The experience of American feminists in the 20th century proved that women’s political liberation is intimately tied to their sexual liberation. There’s no reason to believe that the same wouldn’t be true for the women of the Arab world.
As a young woman who grew up in an open-minded Muslim household, I delight in Mahdy’s complete irreverence toward the prudish Islamists who have corrupted Islam for decades and who are now trying to commandeer a revolution in Egypt, and the Arab world at large, that began as a call to freedom. Is she simply an exhibitionist? Perhaps. But even if she is, Egypt—both its male and female halves—will be better off with more bold and courageous women like Mahdy than under the rule of morbid chador fetishists.