Lessons from a Nude Blogger

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, a female citizen of Egypt, took a picture of herself in the nude and posted it on the internet. The blog contains not only images of herself in the nude, but drawings of  women, a picture of a nude man, a picture of a cat and a picture of George W. Bush and his wife stylized as Simpsons characters. One picture she posted shows her image side-by-side three times, each image with a yellow stripe across a part of her body. The stripes were placed across her vagina, her mouth and her eyes. The blog is not merely an exhibitionist frolic across the internet, it is a form of artistic expression. This fact seems lost on many of Elmahdy’s detractors.

The irony of Egypt’s strong reaction is not lost on me, given the amount of power women in Ancient Egypt had. In fact, a woman ruled as Pharaoh of Egypt for 22 years; her name was Hatshepsut.

Today, the likelihood of a woman ruling Egypt for any period of time seems rather unlikely. Egypt’s dynastic periods had been interrupted by what are called intermediate periods- years when an Egyptian Pharaoh, male or female, did not rule- to the point where the country weakened and could not maintain long-term stability. By the time the Ptolemaic Period rolled around, Egypt had fallen behind Greece, then Rome. The country became a province of the Roman Empire after Cleopatra VII- another female Pharaoh- sided with Marc Antony and against Octavion, who would become Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of Rome.

A few hundred years later, the spread of Islam reached Egypt. Unlike the polytheistic religion Egypt had in years past which granted divinity to men as well as women, Islam serves as a monotheistic religion in which its supreme being, Allah, is male. Straight from the pages of its holy book, the Koran, it is easy to see where the attitudes of modern-day Egyptians come from.

Here are a two examples:

“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other.. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them.”  -Women are not equal in the eyes of Islam. Here the word “scourge” is meant to mean whipping or other harsh physical punishment.

The prophet said: “When a man calls his wife to bed and she does not come, the husband spends the night being angry with her, and the angels curse her until morning. The one who is in heaven is displeased with her until the husband is pleased with her.” -A wife is required to have sexual intercourse with her husband whether she wants to or not. This verse is a blank check for the husband to feel angry at his wife, since his feelings are shared by Allah.

Consequently, it is not difficult to see why Egyptians of all varying beliefs might be upset at Elmahdy’s nude blog post. Not only does she show all of her naughty bits to everyone, she is also making a political statement about how her body is being controlled through societal norms and governmental policies aimed at restricting the rights of women. This is not merely a question of whether or not a woman is forced to wear a hijab or niqab: this is about how much expression a woman is allowed to make in regards to what she feels is going on.

The New York Times article provides a translation for the Arabic script found in the blog:

“Try nude models who worked in Fine Art Faculties in the early 1970s, hide all art books and smash naked archaeological statues, then take off your clothes and look at yourselves in the mirror, then burn your body that you so despise to get rid of your sexual complexes forever, before subjecting me to your bigoted insults or denying my freedom of expression.”

Elmady’s comment hits to the core of not only the Egyptian experience, but the experience of women worldwide. Women are taught from an early age that the female body must look a certain way in order for it to be accepted by others. A 2005 study in New South Wales, Sydney, Australia analyzed the impact media portrayal of women’s bodies have upon women’s appearance anxiety. It may be that overly thin models are creating unrealistic expectations for young girls. The images of women seen in magazines are digitally altered to make her more acceptable.

Not so with Elmady, who bares all in her effort to create a form of art that is not only empowering but also speaks the truth about her own experiences with Egyptian censorship. Extremist elements of her country want her arrest, probably as a set-up for execution. Liberals in Egypt are worried that the blog will tarnish their image with centrist voters they are trying to win over. Just about everyone involved has overlooked the simple truth: Egypt was once a country where strong women lived alongside strong men. Even after 1500 years of Islamic teachings, those strong women are still there.

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  1. Posted November 20, 2011 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    Hi, thanks for your post above. I have searched the net with the works ‘feminism’ and ‘Aliaa Magda El-mahdy” and got little results. I would have expected not just the feminist blogosphere but the mainstream press to be full of feminist comment about this. Where are the voices of Kira Cohrane, Natasha Walter, Libby Purves, Lynne Segal – even Janet Street Porter, who was complainig about the lack of a sisterhood in the Mail recently? I find their silence astonishingly remiss, just as I found their silence and lack of support for Marnie Pearce cowardly and shameful. Women like Aliaa Magda El-mahdy are real feminist pioneers who are risking their lives for the furtherment of women’s rights in highly oppressive patriarchies. We in the West, in weak patriarchies, have the power to support these women, to lobby politcally for female emancipation via the dissemination of liberal values. I wonder if many feminists feel thay cannot do this because they feel they must still be seen as critics of our society – for all it’s freedoms – rather than focusing on the many positives, they still call for the end of a patriarchy that has been already reformed by progression of feminism and liberal democtatic values.

    Aliaa Magda El-mahdy and feminists like her abide in dangerous, unreformed patriachies and need our help, not our silence and hypocrisy.

    • Posted November 20, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      I expected this site to put something about it on their main page as well. What she is doing is not only revolutionary, it is also exposing many of the flaws that Muslim male-first societies have. I figured I should write something about it because no one else seemed to notice.

  2. Posted November 21, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

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