Who’s afraid of Aliaa el Mahdy?

Aliaa ElmahdyOctober 2011: a young nineteen-year-old Egyptian woman blogs a naked picture of herself. What could have been but a mundane act in the west was about to stir a passionate debate around feminism religion and nudity in the Arab world. Two years later, after having been harassed, threatened and kidnapped in her home country, Aliaa el Mahdy the naked blogger has now sought political asylum in Sweden, where she is cut-off from other Arabic secular activists.

Apart from the predictable fury of the conservative Muslims, the most baffling reaction to Aliaa el Mahdy’s bold act was most Arab feminists’ reluctance to endorse it. Aliaa el Mahdy was accused of causing an unnecessary controversy and of actually harming the causes of women and secularism by further maddening the patriarchal oppressors and religious extremists. And indeed, why stir anger and hatred by posting provocative pictures that might hurt the religious feelings of the pious and the honorable while a constructive discussion in favor of women’s right can only take place in a unified, pacified society? Aliaa el Mahdy was further disgraced in the eyes of Arab feminists when she participated in a naked protest against Morsi’s constitution in December 2012, alongside two activists from the Ukrainian group Femen. In an Al-Akhbar article, Sara M Salem argues that Aliaa has sided with a neo-colonial feminism that patronizingly intends to teach muslim women how to be free by getting rid of their religious traditions and cultural heritage. Even the unapologetic atheist Joumana Haddad condemns the methods of naked protest by stating that they are but another patriarchal objectification of the female body. And indeed, should we be afraid of Aliaa el Mahdy?

Before tackling the thorny question of cultural relativism as far as women’s rights are concerned, one simple statement comes to mind: Aliaa el Mahdy has faced death threats, harassment and kidnapping for committing the crime of showing her naked body to the world. Somehow, something about el Mahdy’s exposed body has been interpreted as a tremendous threat to patriarchal society. Specially that this kind of naked protest -including that of the Ukrainian group Femen- is not intended to be erotic, or to lure male desire: in other words, the female body is not presented as an object of desire from a male’s perspective but in a neutral matter-of-fact perspective: this is what a woman’s body looks like. Not only did Aliaa el Mahdy break the taboo of nudity, she also countered the tyranny of the male gaze that constantly strives to enclose the female body in one of two categories: either a desirable object to lust upon or a shameful object to hide under heavy sheets. This change of perspective is, in my opinion, what was the most scandalous in Aliaa el Mahdy’s act.  The punishment faced for breaking this taboo has been widely disproportional.  This tells us about a society that has become so controlled by machismo that it is unwilling to acknowledge a naked female body.

One might argue that in an oriental society, gender equality can be achieved through  a different path: that of religion and traditions. While it might be true that a veiled woman can be a free woman, in a society that considers a woman’s body sinful, no woman is free. Beyond cultural relativism, the first step towards human rights is the acknowledgement of the individual: refusing to see women’s bodies is refusing to acknowledge them. This is why Aliaa el Mahdy’s initiative is so relevant in the Middle-Eastern context. Before worrying about neo-colonial feminism threatening to take over oriental culture, Arab feminists should worry about the traditional structures of a culture that forces them to remain hidden, except in circumstances when their bodies are highly eroticized -as we can see in Lebanon, for instance, where pictures of half-naked lascivious pop stars and belly dancers are bombarded at us, but where nudity is still considered chocking, and the female body sinful.

In this regard, the criticism of veiling is not an excess of a westernized and colonial feminism, but a rightful examination of the sexist structures of a society that compels women to keep their bodies -and sometimes their faces- hidden.

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  1. Nice! Thank you Joy! It reminds me of ‘The Body Uncovered’, at Paris Arab World Institute last year, an exhibition which aimed to challenge the stereotypes usually associated with the Arab world that reduce it to the single image of religious fanaticism.
    “It is intended instead to echo the reality of an Arab art scene that despite the conservative climate, exists, dares to overcome taboos and manages to find a place in the global contemporary art scene”.

    1. Thank you. Haven’t heard of this exhibition. I wish I had! That’s the Arab voice that should be heard.

  2. I followed Femen’s activities and what happened to Aliaa el Mahdy. I’m for freedom of expression. I don’t agree with the position of Joumana Haddad, nor the conservatives’. Still I think there is a need for different opinions and practices concerning the fight for women’s rights, and for human rights in general. As long as bridges are built!

    1. Yes, the differences of opinions among feminist are a good and important thing. I salute the courage of Joumana Hadad and admire her writings, I agree with most of the posts she makes, but disagree with her on the naked protest part.
      It’s the same with Femen, I’m a supporter (I find them very brave) yet I disagree with some of their ideas.
      It’s important to be able to have that kind of critical thinking.

  3. Who’s afraid? Those who are afraid of women’s power… Those who have low self-esteem issues… Those who think they have power and don’t want to lose it…. Those who don’t want change or are afraid to lose their comfort zone…

  4. The article misses entirely the point. There are two times when Aliaa pictured herself nude. The first was in Cairo, the second with Femen. Most of the eastern feminists praised Aliaa for her courage in her first nude protest. The controversy, best displayed by Al-Akhbar’s article referenced in this one and that is probably the reason of this article being, points out to an Islamophobic Western discourse that sees Arab as uncivilized because of Islam and eastern values. You know, that’s how we easterners roll… We are savages and stuff.
    So Yes, Aliaa is courageous and she challenged the patriarchal structures. No FEMEN’s ways of Liberation forced onto the east are just a display of neo-colonialism just like the article compared with French colonial women unveiling Algerian women supposedly “civilizing” them.
    Lebanon is a clear example of how this duality is observed. Which woman is more emancipated? A woman dressing half naked, displayed by her father then her husband as a sexual object, trophy of his goods or conquest that doesn’t work and isn’t independent or a veiled woman that has studied, is working and has gained her independence.
    Western women first fought for the right to work, they didn’t first fight for removing clothes off.

    1. Hello Jean,
      I am well aware that the women who are half-naked and displayed as sexual objects are not freer than those wearing hijab (and I do make this point in the article). However, I do think you are oversimplifying when you put Femen and “western feminists” on this side of the spectrum: they also fight against the objectification of women’s body in the sex industry for instance.
      What bothers me when people say that a certain kind of feminism can be a “neo-colonial forced liberation” is that it implies that arab women should be held to other standards than western women. As if they did not deserve the same rights. (For instance, a western woman protests naked, we couldn’t care less, an Egyption woman protests naked, there is talks of taking her Egyptian nationality away from her).
      It also implies that there shouldn’t be an honest and frank discussion about what is sexist because “this is our eastern culture, it has always been like that, and you trying to change it is colonial”
      I do not think of women in terms of cultural belonging, but as individuals. And yes, the veil can be considered as a sort of sexist domination by feminists (mainly because it is imposed upon women only). Should you just brush off the issue by saying it’s a sort of cultural domination?

      1. What’s colonial is not the value but the argument. Aliaa was naked in both times, in Cairo and with Femen. The difference lies in the form. As I said, patriarchal structures should be challenged and destructed, but what should be challenged also is a racist west picturing the east as uncivilized and that needs western values to become better.
        How is a veiled woman treated in France or in the US? She’s treated worse than she is in the Arab world.. They don’t let her work, they look down onto her as lesser.. Etc. Does that mean that the veil isn’t a form of body subjugation by the man? Of course not… The veil should be challenged, but not the way the west is challenging it because all the islamophobic west is seeing is the veil.
        Take for example the first comment on your article. It is a blatant display of a house negro that only cares about how the west sees us while it’s the west’s problem because they are racist white men, we shouldn’t be begging them for acceptance. They should beg us for forgiveness.
        Instead of coming up with waya to challenge the patriarchal structure, we kiss the white man’s ass so he sees us “differently” and that not all of us are “savages”. Typical house negro mentality.

  5. “refusing to see women’s bodies is refusing to acknowledge them”
    an opinion, not a fact.
    Being free by having people stare at you then?
    Modest clothing where you can be seen as a person IS being free.
    why did human invent clothing from the start? isn’t it to protect themselves? isn’t it a form of cover to defend their bodies against harm?
    simply uncovering yourself in front of people isn’t being “free”. it’s a form of expression i agree with it, but it doesn’t imply freedom or talking about fear.
    That’s my opinion at least. So i don’t mean to offend anyone or anything.
    especially in our middle eastern world. Put religon aside, it’s not about religion it’s about morals.
    Your freedom stops when it’s harming someone else’s. And she sadly broke that. She had a good cause but I believe she expressed it the wrong way or supported it with someone less dignifying that what it could be.

    1. Hello Blue,
      I do agree with you: uncovering yourself isn’t being free. Freedom has nothing to do with the way you chose to dress.
      It has to do with a culture that considers your body sinful and compels you to feel guilty about it, and to hide it in order to be “humble” and “modest”. It has to do with a culture that centers her morality on your body and thus dispossesses you from it.
      The problem is that we women are taught to look at our bodies from a male’s perspective: would they stare me? would they consider me alluring? We are taught to learn that taking our clothes off can have only one goal: seducing men.
      Nude protest can have this simple objective: taking back our bodies as women, showing it as it is in a non-eroticized perspective.
      By covering us or looking at us as mere sexual objects society refuses to see us, and to acknowledge us as individuals. That’s my opinion anyway 🙂

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