Last week, the Dubai-based Saudi TV station MBC aired a movie without cutting a scene which revealed a pair of breasts. The company received major criticism from its customers, and MBC issued an apology almost immediately.
In Egypt, a woman posts a picture of herself in full nude on her blog and Twitter becomes infested with angry comments.
Egypt’s revolution was never meant to be merely political. Egyptians by and large became tired of the old status quo and wanted change to permeate through their society. The revolution has opened the doors for a broader range of issues to come to light.
One such issue is the stark contrast noted between Egyptian society and sex, as well as Hollywood depictions of Western mentalities. In the age of near instantaneous access to information on a global scale, cultures are always coming in contact with each other and differences in culture become quite obvious to people. Egypt’s exposure to Hollywood movies loaded with scantily clad and promiscuous women (in comparison to Egypt) has helped provide steam for many people to want change in Egyptian society, but are their actions helping them get there?
Usually, society changes bit by bit as new generations come to power and bring their values to the table. As each new generation explores the fringes of society’s values, the shape of that society slowly transforms. But when individuals leap past the fringes into the taboo to challenge the status quo the results can often cause society to retreat from that area, undoing progress.
Such may yet be the case with Egyptian blogger Magda Aliaa Elmahdy, who posted a naked picture of herself in her blog in October. The picture in question shows Elmahdy completely naked and uncensored, angering many Egyptians.
Aliaa Magda Elmahdy said on Twitter that she posted the photo under her real name. She added that she took the photo by herself in her parents’ home. Her blog, which has only one entry so far, has received more than 400,000 hits.
- Under the title “fan a’ry” (nude art), Elmahdy posted eight pictures, two of herself and one showing a nude man holding a guitar, in addition to other photos.
- In one photo, yellow rectangles cover parts of her body. “The yellow rectangles on my eyes, mouth and sex organ resemble the censoring of our knowledge, expression and sexuality,” Elmahdy said.
- On her Facebook page, she said that she was “echoing screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.”
- Elmahdy argued on the blog that publishing the photo was an expression of freedom. “I have the right to live freely in any place… I feel happy and self satisfied when I feel that I’m really free,” she said.
From the 1930s until the early 1970s, Egyptian women enjoyed greater personal freedom in terms of wearing western style garments, including bathing suits. Headscarves were a rare sight among middle class and university female students.
In recent decades, however, Egyptian women have increasingly worn more “modest” clothing, such as the headscarf and even the face cover.
In Egypt’s recent history, students of fine arts were trained to draw portraits through the use of nude models. This practice no longer exists in Egypt.
Legendary Armenian photographer Van Leo destroyed his nude photographs before his death because he was concerned that they would make him a target of Islamic extremists.
The issue has become a debate in Twitter under the #NudePhotoRevolutionary hashtag. While some praise Elmahdy for being a revolutionary, most people have replied negatively to her actions.
“The lighting is awful and the composition is dreadful. Break all the social boundaries you want, but don’t call it art,” prominent Egyptian blogger Lilian Wagdy posted in the discussion.
Comments ranged from the overtly religious warnings of sin and punishment in the conservative camp, to genuine concern expressed by liberal activists. Ali Hagras, another Egyptian blogger expressed his concern for the ramifications of Elmahdy’s actions.
“Let’s just hope Salafi Sheikhs don’t get word of this. They’re going to throw it on the liberals and seculars.”
Elmahdy is a self-professed atheist since she was 16. An outspoken feminist, liberal vegetarian, she seems to tackle many controversial issues.
“Elmahdy really seems to support freedom of speech,” said Islam Kamel, an Egyptian Engineering student at the American University in Cairo, to bikyamasr.com. “She is even supporting Denmark for the drawings they made.”
“#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 continued. According to Kamel, he feels that her actions have caused more harm than good. 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.”
“She is very young,” Kamel added. “There is also the chance that she has a philosophy behind her actions but it is not thought out properly.”
One activist, Mahmoud Hossein, told Bikyamasr.com he felt her actions were brave, but ultimately foolish. The general feeling coming from the liberal camp is that she should not have tried to be so bold. “She should think of the consequences of her actions.”
The fear is that such acts of expression are such delicate issues and any massive and sudden disruption to the way the system works will inevitably lead to more conservatism as people shy away from what ‘liberalism’ may bring.
“The only thing she accomplished is giving the conservatives a better way to win the elections using this single blog as their method,” Kamel stressed.
Following the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak in early February, Islamists have gained influence as they are suddenly free to operate openly without persecution from government authorities. Ultra-conservative Salafis have called for applying Islamic Sharia law, while some conservative preachers have called for banning women from wearing western swimsuits.
Perhaps Elmahdy’s actions were rash, but the debate has certainly stirred many different opinions. Perhaps Egypt is a few decades away from having such expressions of freedom accepted. Until then, sex and shame are inextricably linked together, and Egypt’s sexual taboos remain firmly (on the surface) in place.
Sources from Bikyamasr, Almasryalyoum, and Lefigaro