How Egypt’s Nude Revolutionary Delivered a Stick of Dynamite

 By Guest Contributor Simba Rousseau, cross-posted from Witnessing Life

Twenty-year-old Egyptian blogger Magda Aliaa el-Mahdy rose to stardom after delivering a stick of dynamite via her blog, ‘A Rebel’s Diary’, in what she described as being in the spirit of the revolution.

(Editor’s Note: NSFW image is under the cut. – Arturo)

Who is Aliaa? Nowadays she’s known as the Nude Revolutionary and the dynamite was – you guessed it – a nude photo of herself online, which sparked outrage from both conservatives and liberals in Egypt alike. Here’s her take on why she took such controversial measures:

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.

The North African country, with a population of roughly eighty-five million, is a largely conservative society.

Earlier this year, inspired by the wave of uprisings that struck the region following Tunisia’s ability to send their long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali packing, Egyptians from all social and political classes took to the streets with a unified dream of doing away with a system that had outlived its stay.

As punishment, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) subjected women to humiliating ‘virginity tests’, which entailed having a soldier insert two fingers into their croch. Once again, as discontent returned to Tahrir earlier this month, women’s bodies were targeted.

Women’s rights advocates like award-winning Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy believes that El Mahdy’s act not highlights how in times of extreme repression sex and nakedness becomes the only weapon of political repression for women. In a recent article in the Guardian, she argues:

When sexual assault parades as a test of the “honour” of virginity, then posing in your parents’ home in nothing but stockings, red shoes and a red hair clip is an attack towards all patriarchs out there.

While Mahdy’s act has been hashtagged (#NudePhotoRevolutionary) and her name tweeted and Facebooked endlessly, others did not receive such attention.

Samira Ibrahim, the only one of the women subjected to “virginity tests” who is taking the military to court for sexual assault, has neither a dedicated hashtag nor notoriety. Another woman, Salwa el-Husseini, was the first to reveal what the military did to them, but news reports have said she can’t raise a lawsuit because she doesn’t have identification papers.

Not only did el-Husseini speak out, she courageously agreed to be filmed at a session of testimonies on military abuses. Again, hardly anyone knows her name, her recorded testimony isn’t racking up page views, and she was called a liar and vilified for speaking out. Both women have vehemently maintained they were virgins.

If “good girls” in headscarves who kept their legs together only to be violated by the military speak out and no one listens, what’s the message being sent?

Whether or not El Mahdy’s act was revolutionary or not it has definitely sparked a debate as to how far women should go in pushing the boundaries in their fight for a more inclusive society.

One question that probably pops in your head is: had she been a man, would the publics reaction have been different?

Critics argue that the embattled blogger not only insulted revolution but has tarnished the uprisings image.

#nudephotorevolutionary was the most daring conflicting act I’ve seen for a long time but was also the worst thing that happened to the liberal movement in Egypt,” Kamel argued. “Her actions have done nothing but stir a debate and allow the conservatives to have one more reason to call for an Islamic state and blame liberals and seculars for this. You will probably see one of them saying this is how all women will act if Egypt isn’t saved by an Islamic leader.

In the aftermath of her public expression, El Mahdy has been slapped with a lawsuit as the Coalition of Islamic law graduates in Egypt filed a case against the blogger and her boyfriend, Kareem Amer who also appears nude on the site, for ‘violating morals, inciting indecency and insulating Islam’.

In her defense, supporters have established a Facebook page in which they vow to also get butt naked in an act of self-expression. According to Eltahawy, El Mahdy’s nudity was a way of extinguishing the ‘dictators of our mind’.

Perhaps, but is this the way to do it?

I remember when I was still living on the streets and working as a delivery person in New York City while cleaning houses on the side. The delivery service was a family run business and in the midst of being delighted to finally have someone pay me for once, I didn’t even consider that the $20 a day for over eight hours of work was meager. Then a good friend C told me to quit that job and go art model.

I thought she had lost her mind. Now, it’s not like you think. It actually entailed going around to art schools and posing.

To convince me she said, “once you drop the clothes, it’s done and you got a new career.”

The idea didn’t sound bad to me, especially after discovering that NYU paid a hefty $18 per hour and most classes were four hours long. The major feat was challenging a lot of societal mishaps in the process but eventually I saw this as a great way to rekindle the artist in me, revolutionize my thinking and love my body.

So, I did it. After some time I was the most sought after model circulating the art scene and I felt empowered, liberated and I was an entrepreneur.

I use this example in an attempt to paint a visual image of one way in which nudity was used to empower an individual.

However, in the case of Egypt’s nude revolutionary, my question to readers is: Is any time the right time for the clothes to come off when advocating women’s rights? Is this truly an act of self-expression?

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  • Dan

    I, for one, applaud her bravery and action in this time of change.  I hope the revolution will progress faster than her trial.  The sexual assaults perpetrated by the Egyptian military are a horrible reminder to us all of the brutal oppression of women.  We need to be in solidarity with all people who are reaching out to a new, better future, whether or not we agree with their techniques because they have chosen action and resistance over compliance and despair.

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  • Anonymous

    It’s interesting how female liberation and freedom of expression is often limited to nudity and sexualization.  Whether it’s celebrity centerfold layouts in Playboy, nude scenes in movies, or this, these “bold” gestures are circumscribed by the same old attitudes.  You can’t change the game if you continue to play it by the old rules.  

  • Anonymous

    I assumed the “privilege” being discussed was privilege of Western media attention and sympathy. Those from the islamic world who appear to embrace more “western” values are held on pedestals as the “good” Muslims in the US. Her story gets more media attention here than empowered hijabi ladies struggling against oppression because they does not fit the bill of who an empowered Muslim woman is in the West. I don’t think anyone is arguing that she isn’t facing any oppression in Egypt, but moreso questoning how this action will help or hinder the short term political winds, as elections have been being held for weeks for various political offices.

  • Jeanette De Foe

    You make an excellent point. Suggesting that by not conforming to certain aspects of your culture means you’re somehow not part of it is pretty offensive. Seems to be buying into this warped perception of culture’s place in history, as if some cultures (western ones) progress and change, while ‘Others’ stay the same forever..

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, just another point! I find a lot of people who promote people like Ayaan Hirsi, Irshad Manji and this lady, are kind of like those racist people who only accept ethnic minorities by saying “Hey! Look! They’re just like us! With their Anglicized names and sanitized accents! They’re so civilized, isn’t it great!” 
    But all the while looking their noses down at people who do not conform to this and deeming them uncivilized and too ‘racialized’!I also think people have trouble accepting Muslim women in general as fully formed human beings with their own independent views on their religion and politics. Sure, Muslim men can be happy in their faith, but Muslim women are always ‘oppressed by it’, and only realize their full human-hood when conforming to western culture, as if to implicitly say that only western culture promote full humanity. Implicit White supremacist notions there.In regards to that, as Black Muslim myself, Racism and Islamophobia to me seem too similar to be set apart. They are interwined and rely on each other. I STRONGLY think that if the muslim demographic was strongly western/white – like Judaism for example (this is not anti-semtism, I’m just using an example of a non-christian religion with a heavy white/western following), Islamophobia would not be as much of an issue. Muslims would be less scary, less of a group of ‘others’.

    Just my point, anyway.

  • Anonymous

    No you are misunderstanding my point. Its that people like me, who do wear hijab, are ignored because do not inhibit what people think are the desirable face of what a Muslim should be. Or what a model muslim should be. Our stories are not romanticized, because our image is unattractive. I don’t really care for her story because its not really related to the revolution- its actually to do with her art class and how she cannot obtain nude models.  I don’t study art in Egypt, so it doesn’t interest me.  

    You are also misunderstanding what we mean by privilege. You don’t have to be western to be light-skinned, pretty, thin and fit into the western archetype of beauty. People pay attention to her story WHICH IS UNRELATED TO THE REVOLUTION! Whilst more tragic stories of muslim women abused in protests are ignored. Lets face it, a lot these women are hijabis and are actually quite religious. So they their stories do not fit into the anti-islamic rhetoric of the western media. It will not be picked up on, because its not inflammotory enough. Yeah, these women are against the regime, but so is the west, so are the liberals, so are the ‘conservatives’. Its not a big story, because no-one likes Mubarak, there is no spin you can put on it. But oh- pretty exotic looking middle eastern girl strips off in act unrelated to the revolution- and BAM its more newsworthy than muslim girls being sexually and physically assaulted!

    I am also saying that if this girl was fatter , darker, disabled, ect, no -one would care. Even in the west we would label her crazy! The Egyptians authorities would label her mentally ill, rather than a political threat. 

    Lets admit the Western media are also sexist and want a pretty face to draw in their news stories.
    Its just easier to sympathise with someone who looks like her than someone who looks like the opposite of her.

    And also she is probably of privilege. In egypt school isn’t free, so how could she even pay for basic level of education, and on top of that university education?

    This is racialicious, man. This website never gives anyone a break- if they spot privilege, they sure as hell will call you out for it! Lol.

  • apihtawikosisan

    It really seems that women are damned if we do, damned if we don’t.  Damned if we’re too pretty, damned if we’re not pretty enough, damned if we do it ‘too soon’ or ‘too late’.  Cover up, take it off, either way men and women are going to judge us, praise us or revile us.  It’s enough to paralyse a woman with uncertainty.

  • apihtawikosisan

    It really seems that women are damned if we do, damned if we don’t.  Damned if we’re too pretty, damned if we’re not pretty enough, damned if we do it ‘too soon’ or ‘too late’.  Cover up, take it off, either way men and women are going to judge us, praise us or revile us.  It’s enough to paralyse a woman with uncertainty.

    • Anonymous

      I find it quite annoying that people are completely misrepresenting my argument.
      This website is about analysing race and culture. Frequently people  make points about how white privilege, class privilege, and light skinned privilege helps you in society. I do not see at all why we shouldn’t make allowances for this situation. The article was asking us how felt about this nude lady controversy, and that was my answer. i would like to see muslim ladies of all races, hues, classes, health-types, ages, ect, being equally heard. The west cannot call them progressive whilst cherry picking who can be heard, and ignoring dissident voices. 

      This reminds me exactly of the slut-walk controversy, and of feminism in general. Who gets to be the leader of a protest, of a revolution, and in that case, slut walking. Its always a certain type of person. Usually, white, middle class, and educated. Please tell me that last poor, degree-less, women of colour leader of feminism or a feminist movement. We can’t just rely on Bell Hooks.

      And nothing hurts a revolution more than reproducing the inequalities of what a revolution was fighting against in the first place.

      Where is the Muslim version of Ayaan Hirsi, or the Hijabi Irshad Manji?
      Why do you have to be a certain type of Muslim person to get heard?
      Just like, where is the black Germaine greer,  the Asian Gloria Steinem, the disabled Jessica Valenti? < Thats a pretty random line up of people, but still, you get my point.

  • Matt Pizzuti

    I think this one of the cases demonstrating how right and good aren’t necessarily on the same side.

    Yes, she’s got every right to pose nude. Regardless of what kind of explanation she can give for it, she’s within her rights. It’s HER body. There seems to be some skepticism about whether this is really a political statement and not just driven by ego or some other motive. So what? Even those desires are fine. 

    At the same time, it may not be “good” for the revolution when it comes at a time so much is changing, so fast and very brief events will have unusually long-term consequences as a new political system is built. A reaction, is inevitable – a reaction that will have worse consequences for other Egyptian women than for Aliaa.

    I can imagine a lot of Egyptian liberals are reacting to the photos by cringing, thinking, there couldn’t be a worse time for somebody to do this. That’s a tough situation, but my principle is that you never blame individuals if their actions stir up prejudice against them. Those who are prejudiced are responsible for their prejudice. (As an analogy, it would be like pointing to people who are “stereotypical” embodiment of a minority group and telling them that it’s their fault if it stirs up racism, sexism or homophobia. But being somehow held responsible for the public image of your minority group – while the oppressors get to shift some of the blame for their own actions onto members of a minority group – is party of the privilege/disadvantage binary.) 

    In any case, in a country with a population of 80 million, how can you not expect that someone would do this?  It’s inevitable. Not everybody is a tactful politician and shouldn’t have to be. If somebody is looking for “examples” in order to punish all Egyptian women, they will find them, whether Aliaa had done this or not.  

  • Malik

    All the time is the right time to express sexuality (be it liberal or conservative) to advocate for women’s rights. If Egypt, or any country trying to change their nation, don’t confront all the pillars of oppression in their society then it isn’t a revolution, just a changing of the guard. As it pertains to this, I would suggest showing women comfortable and happy in all stages as dress to better convey a sexual liberation because any sort of liberation isn’t just for 1 type of person.

  • NoLeeway

    I second sof92’s opinion.

    If the physical appearance and financial/economic status of the nude photo revolutionary were inverted, the reactions to her would be FAR different.

  • Anonymous

    No, it just perpetuates the fact that muslim women can’t get listened to if they’re not perpetuating an agenda that isn’t in line with the west’s ideal of what liberated muslim woman should be like. Namely, one who dresses according to their norms, and is probably not an hijabi wearer, is probably an atheist or non-believer therefore not really a muslim but someone of a muslim background. As a hijab wearing lady who wears the Islamic dress, my story is probably not exotic enough for them. They would be probably label me as backward or extremist. I wouldn’t make a good news item, or create a twitter storm.
    They’re only interested in hearing Muslim women’s stories when they’re thin, good-looking young and pretty, and therefore more easier to sympathise with. I’d like to call out this young lady on her privilege,  and the fact that she conforms to what society views as beautiful. I wonder if she could get away with what she did if she was older, or heavier, or not able bodied, or darker skinned, or poorer, ect.
    Just my two cents.

    • Simba Russeau

      You’re two cents are well said. I agree she’s definitely of privilege. Today in Egypt, hundreds of women took to the street to voice their outrage to the ruling military. At a time when people are being abused, raped and beaten by the military these brave women from all walk of life made their voices heard. Sadly, with this young lady she chose the wrong time to express her opinion in such a way because it gave the revolution a bad image that could be used to continue spreading rumours on state TV about how the protestors are ruining the country. Thanks for your comment!

      • k.eli

        “…because it gave the revolution a bad image that could be used to
        continue spreading rumours on state TV about how the protestors are
        ruining the country.”

        I concur. My first thought when I heard about this story was “too much too soon.” Liberals and leftists in Egypt were already having a hard enough time organizing and trying to win over the majority and in doing this, she has made it that much harder to do so in such a conservative country. She essentially equipped the MB and the Salafists with all the dynamite they need for the elections.

      • Anonymous

        Maybe she has more vision than you give her credit for. Giving the conservatives ‘ammunition’ in the short term versus giving everyone else a new paradigm in the long-term? Maybe that’s her goal, and who is anyone else to tell her she can’t do it?

    • Keith

      I completely agree with you, and I am glad you chose to voice your opinion.

    • Keith

      I completely agree with you, and I am glad you chose to voice your opinion.