Aliaa al-Mahdy sparked a firestorm of controversy last month when she posted a sensationalist nude photo of herself on her blog, ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary.’ Praised almost universally in the West for her “courage,” the 20-year-old art student sent “shock waves” through Egypt’s conservative society. (It is interesting to note that when women attempt to attain their rights to wear the hijab or the niqab in lets say France it is not met with the same enthusiastic praise but rather derision.)
After decades of resurgent Islam, public nudity is frowned upon in Egypt, even in art. Mahdy defended her act, writing in her blog:
Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.
Mahdy also launched a Facebook campaign, “Wearing Hijab in Solidarity with Women,” which called on men to support women’s rights by uploading photos of themselves wearing headscarves. The idea of men wearing hijab to make a political statement is not new.
In 2009, Iranian authorities tried to humiliate jailed activist Majid Tavakoli by publishing photos of him wearing hijab as punishment for his role in protests following a disputed election. Iranian men responded by launching the online “Be a Man” campaign, and hundreds of men expressed their solidarity with Travakoli by uploading photos of themselves wearing hijab.
The “Be a Man” campaign also advocates women’s rights. Mahdy featured many participants’ photos on her Facebook page before it was shut down in response to thousands of complaints. She has vowed to relaunch it within days.
Egypt’s Attorney General has received a legal complaint accusing Mahdi and her boyfriend, Kareem Amer, of “inciting immorality, debauchery, and defamation of religion.”
This legal complaint is bound not to help the situation and will likely have the opposite effect. We know whenever the state interferes to repress freedom of conscious it only brings more attention to the issue and entices copycats.
Secular liberals and religious conservatives are vying for support in Egypt’s increasingly polarized society. Mahdy’s liberal critics fear her radical tactics could prompt a conservative backlash and strengthen ultra-Conservatives in upcoming elections.
Egyptian journalist Mohammad Abdelfattah, whose role in exposing the deadly beating of Khaled Said helped spark the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, expressed his support for women’s rights, but advocated a different approach, saying:
I don’t think that’s how I would like to show my support for women. Both of us respect our differences, but that’s not something I would do … I think that it’s a funny tactic, it’s not serious stuff…
You know, we can mobilize for women’s rights in a more serious manner that can achieve real things on the ground, not just some superficial type of tactics that would make the already conservative population [of Egypt more] alienated … to the idea of women’s rights.
Mona Eltahawy, a freelance Egyptian-American journalist based in New York, who ironically supports bans on the burqa dismissed liberal critics who accused Mahdy of hurting their cause. Eltahawy, who describes herself as a liberal, secular Muslim, said conservative opponents should not be allowed to set the agenda. In an article expressing lavish praise for Mahdy’s campaign, she wrote:
When a woman is the sum total of her headscarf and hymen – that is, what’s on her head and what is between her legs – then nakedness and sex become weapons of political resistance…
[Mahdy] is the Molotov cocktail thrown at the Mubaraks in our heads – the dictators of our mind – which insists that revolutions cannot succeed without a tidal wave of cultural changes that upend misogyny and sexual hypocrisy.
Eltahawy’s views are prevalent among feminists who interpret public nudity as the ultimate rebellion against the burqa, considered a notorious symbol of oppression in the West. Many who subscribe to this view believe Islam and feminism are mutually exclusive, and that religion should be tossed in the trash bin, along with the hijab.
Muslim feminists have challenged this orthodoxy, forwarding the argument that Islam and feminism are compatible, and that modest dress actually liberates women from the confines of superficial beauty. Many Muslim feminists have introduced a competing contemporary narrative that challenges the notion that women’s liberation is a one-size-fits-all endeavor.
Maybe Mahdy’s campaign will contribute to a new feminist mosaic that is inclusive and focused on choices, not mandates. Rather than becoming a lightning rod issue, pitting one side against another, why can’t we make room for naked bloggers, and burqas, and boys in hijab?