Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 November 2011
Issue No. 1073
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Different faces of extremism?

Unusual bravery or needless provocation? Salonaz Sami assesses the case of naked Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda El-Mahdy

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While some have called her a heroine, others have opted for the term mentally ill. But however you see her, 20-year-old university drop-out Aliaa Magda El-Mahdy has managed to become a household name in Egypt in just a couple of days by posting naked photographs of herself on social networking Internet sites.

After they were removed from Facebook, El-Mahdy, a self-proclaimed atheist, gave her friend permission to upload her photographs on Twitter. The naked pictures immediately prompted furious discussions on the social media sites, and pages supporting and denouncing El-Mahdy were put up on Facebook.

Between supporters and attackers, El-Mahdy's blog, entitled "A Rebel's Diary", has received more than 4,000,000 hits since she posted the pictures. El-Mahdy earlier wrote on her Facebook page that the pictures, which show her standing wearing nothing but stockings and flat red shoes, are meant as "screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy."

Not everyone, however, has been so sure. According to psychologist Dorreya El-Sherif the pictures are best described as cries for attention. "Emotionally immature people tend to have low self-esteem and hence a constant feeling of insecurity," El-Sherif explains. In order for them to be able to deal with such feelings, "they create situations in which they become the centre of attention." This form of behaviour is surprisingly common, El-Sherif said, especially among women.

"It could be that this person didn't receive much attention from his or her parents or close family members as a child, or perhaps he or she was abused or neglected," she added.

Nevertheless, in an interview with the US television network CNN, El-Mahdy did not seem at all shy about talking about her sexual life, even though she comes from a country where such things are often thought of as taboos. "I enjoyed losing my virginity at the age of 18 with a man I loved who was 40 years older than me," she said, to which El-Sherif responds that "being so explicit about intimate sexual details in a society like ours is almost unheard of."

On her Facebook page, El-Mahdy has posted a photograph of her bruised hand. "A week before I left my parents' house, my father beat me for refusing to allow him to drive me to college and choosing to take the bus instead," the caption read.

El-Mahdy has been living with her boyfriend, controversial blogger Karim Amer, for the past five months after she decided to move out of her parents' house. "He is the love of my life and my support system," she said of Amer, who was sentenced to four years in a maximum security prison in 2006 for criticising Islam and defaming former president Hosni Mubarak.

In a post on her blog, El-Mahdy has advised readers to "put nude models who work in fine art faculties on trial, hide art books and smash naked statues. Then take off your clothes and look at yourselves in the mirror. Burn your body that you so despise to get rid of your sexual complexes before you subject me to your bigoted insults or deny me my freedom of expression."

Although El-Mahdy is not the first person to use nudity as a form of protest worldwide, she is the first person in a country like Egypt, where Islamists and Salafis have been replacing photographs of female electoral candidates with pictures of flowers or of the women's husbands. Perhaps El-Mahdy's views reflect a form of extremism on the other side.

"While the Islamists believe that women should be kept out of the public eye and treat their bodies as sinful, saying that they should be covered up or replaced with drawings, El-Mahdy has been doing the opposite by taking her clothes off in protest," comments Dalia Osama, a TV producer and political activist. "She is obviously misguided," she added.

At a recent parliamentary election rally in Alexandria, local Salafis covered up a statue of mermaids in a public square. Salafi clerics appearing on TV talk shows have refused to appear with female presenters unless they put on headscarves or a barrier is erected between them.

In response to the photographs, the Coalition of Islamic Law Graduates, a pressure group, has filed a case against El-Mahdy and Amer, accusing them of "violating morals, inciting indecency and insulting Islam".

"Their actions are also an insult to the revolution as these two, who pretend to be revolutionaries, are asking for sexual freedom," Ahmed Yehia, coordinator of the coalition, told "They are giving the uprising a bad name," he continued.

Prominent secularist Sayed El-Qemni shares the same opinion. "This hurts the entire secular current before those who call themselves 'the people of virtue'," El-Qemni said, referring to the Islamists on a TV show last week.

In response to the statement, El-Mahdy tweeted a link to an article criticising El-Qemni's decision to stop writing after receiving death threats in the 1990s. "This is so we won't forget and will be able to fully differentiate between those who uphold their thoughts in the face of challenges and difficulties and those who forget them when the going gets tough," she said.

"We shouldn't be afraid of those in power or the Islamists as much as we should be worried about those who claim to be liberals," Amer wrote on his Facebook page. "They are ready to sacrifice us to avoid tarnishing their own image."

El-Mahdy has also said that she is not a revolutionary. "I was never into politics," she has said. "I first joined the protests on 27 May because I felt the need to participate and decided I might be able to change the future of Egypt and refused to remain silent."

Some liberals fear that the controversy over El-Mahdy's photographs may now taint them in the eyes of the Muslim majority ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections.

However, though millions have criticised El-Mahdy, thousands more have also supported her. "I am totally taken aback by her bravery," activist Ahmed Awadallah tweeted. Another supporter, Emad Zekri, wrote that "we need to learn how to separate nudity and sex." Both comments received hundreds of likes and more than their fair share of insults.

Another comment read that, "she is not doing it because people will find it sexy and therefore pay attention to her message. She is doing it because people will find it outrageous and shameful, and she is literally risking her life."

"She is saying, I could be naked and it would still be your job to respect me as a human being, not to punish me or control me," the comment added. In support of El-Mahdy, some 40 Israeli women posed nude for a group shot, holding up a banner that read, "love without limits -- homage to Aliaa El-Mahdy."

In Egypt, some have argued that it is hypocritical to attack El-Mahdy when there have been few criticisms of the alleged virginity tests carried out by the ruling military authorities on 18 female protesters.

"It's the same thing. In both cases, women took their clothes off in a society that frowns upon nudity. The difference is that El-Mahdy did it voluntarily," one women told Al-Ahram Weekly.

For her part, El-Mahdy described the alleged tests as rape. "The men in the military who conducted these tests should be punished for allowing this to happen without the consent of the girls. But instead the girls walk around feeling shame, and most of them are forced to remain silent," she said.

El-Mahdy did not reply to requests from the Weekly for an interview.

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