Nudity as an Intervention
Since Alia al-Mahdi stripped off in the Swedish winter to protest the sexist laws of the new Egyptian constitution, the debate over nudity and feminism has not stopped. There are two main camps critical of Alia’s acts for different reasons. Those in favor of conformance with social norms do not have to think twice before labeling her a whore for not dealing with her body the way she is supposed to, while the other opinion labels her a neo-liberal feminist, especially after she became a member of the FEMEN group. The smallest camp, though, can be described as the typical self-hating Arab liberal who praise any controversy that can provoke our backward-sexist-beast societies.
When Alia first posted naked pictures of herself on her blog last year, the visitor-counter did not stop ticking. Having written about the reactions to her pictures, I received tens of disgusting messages from Egyptian men, as if I were Alia herself. When she showed up in front of the embassy in Stockholm, her message, this time, included a context that was lacking in her past controversies. What triggers me to write this is the after-debate that is raging on one of the extremes.
First, we might want to look at the reactions to Alia’s naked photos last year and her subsequent naked protest. I see a person like Alia normalizing an individual and personal practice (whether we agree or disagree) by breaking a taboo. Last year, the mainstream spoke of Alia for weeks and attacks against her continued. The reactions were less tense this time, not because she was less controversial but because the taboo is being challenged continuously. Last year, “the elite” criticized Alia for defaming the image of the Egyptian revolution. There was this sense of a Utopia from which they wanted to expel a woman for her form of expression.
I do believe that what FEMEN does can promote Islamophobia among other things. This is where having a world-wide feminist movement becomes problematic because one act is being imposed upon different contexts. In the Ukrainian example, FEMEN came radically to overturn the sexualized and objectified image of the Ukrainian woman who is portrayed in the mainstream as a whore. The group is growing worldwide and targets all religions for their sexist and homophobic views. In Alia’s case, thousands were protesting near Mursi’s palace in Cairo when she decided to pose naked in front of the embassy in Stockholm. Alia drew attention to what she cares about: women’s rights in the new constitution.
Feminist voices of different ideologies, just like the voices of minorities, have been subdued since the revolution. They have been considered secondary in priority because what matters most is achieving justice against the criminals of Mubarak, SCAF, and now the Ikhwan. The unquestioning nobility of this goal is used to silence others. It is fine to disagree and criticize Alia but it is not fine to exclude her from this entity called ‘the revolution.’ A young woman like her took part in the revolution believing it would bring greater gender equality. She and her boyfriend, the blogger Kareem Amer, posted a video after the revolution challenging public space by being intimate openly in a park. A person’s need from the revolution might not be focused on an individual need, but this should not criminalize the importance of interventions made by those who care for their personal freedoms. Both discussions should enrich a post-revolution project.
Alia’s choice would not be my own. Alia can be used by western media and liberal feminism for political propaganda. FEMEN’s attacks on Islam are outrageous as they target a religion of minorities in Europe, which faces hate speech every day. Yet, Alia is making an intervention for women’s rights in Egypt and for personal freedoms to be considered part of the discussion, regardless of form and content. Whether her intervention will create space for women or not, her acts do not need not be suppressed and labeled as the acts of a traitor, “the native informant,” or the ‘feminist whore.”