Ever since controversy exploded over Egypt’s ‘Nude Revolutionary’, a question has been haunting me: Was Aliaa El Mahdy the first Egyptian young woman ever to pose nude for non-pornographic purposes? Probably not. But her photograph, reportedly taken in October and publicized on November 12 by a friend, has been treated by both media and the public as an unprecedented act of rebellion or debauchery — depending on what side of the fence they stood on.
I first became aware of the situation when the hashtag #NudePhotoRevolutionary cropped up on my Twitter time line. Intrigued, I looked up the website created by a 20-year-old, self-professed feminist featuring a picture of herself standing naked save for a red pair of shoes and sheer thigh-high stockings. I’m not a stranger to nudity as an act of protest — or nude art for that matter — but I did blink a few times with a tinge of shock when I first saw it.
Her picture was among a collection of others, one showing a seated, naked young man with a guitar in one hand, another of two naked men cuddled in bed — this one cropped at their waists. The quality of the images was mediocre at best, but the title of the blog post was “Naked Art.” It isn’t art, but it’s so daring, I thought.
Within a week, El Mahdy became a household name, her story carried by Al-Ahram, CNN, Al-Arabiya and countless news organizations. Her followers on Twitter rose from a few hundred to close to 16,000. Now, the number stands at more than 27,000. And several citizens have already filed “public debauchery” complaints against her with the general prosecution.
El Mahdy used her blog to announce that her nudity is “an expression of freedom.” She defines herself as a liberal (at a time when the term itself is loaded with misconceptions about what liberalism in “New Egypt” entails) and an atheist. She’s also open about the fact that she left her family’s house five months earlier to live with her boyfriend Kareem Amer — yes, the same blogger who served a sentence for ridiculing Islam and former President Hosni Mubarak on his personal blog in 2007.
But does her picture really represent freedom and liberalism? Religious fundamentalists tried to stoke fears that other women would emulate El Mahdy’s example and used this to justify their hatred of “moral-crushing liberalism” and its prevalence in Egyptian society.
“What does liberalism mean?” a joke begins. “It means your mother taking off her veil and donning a bikini.” A snub at how simplistic the view of liberalism has become, the joke now has a biting element of truth. El Mahdy’s picture — posted in the name of freedom and liberty— is proof of that, at least in the eyes of many.
According to Al-Ahram Online, the ultra liberal writer Sayid El Qimni, slammed for unconventional views on Islam and religion, described El Mahdy as “a mentally disturbed girl.” And he’s not the only liberal to distance himself from or outright condemn her.
The Al-Mahdi photo story broke just days before Egypt’s first round of parliamentary elections, arguably the first free elections in decades, and whose results will set the direction in which policy creation and constitutional principles will be steered. The timing was certainly questioned by many. Many liberals argue the blogger has made their plight for legitimacy harder in a society so gripped by conservatism. Do the non-Islamist representatives need be dealt another blow by none other than a young woman from among their ranks? Support it or hate it, it does make the liberals’ fight harder.
From where I sit on the fence, it’s easy to see that what was stripped bare was the fact that many of us — liberals, leftists, Islamists or moderates — know very little about freedom, personal boundaries and what constitutes a respectable attitude regarding the other.
And in this atmosphere, whether or not I endorse the young woman becomes irrelevant. What is clear is that it’s time for a dialogue about freedoms, and what liberalism means, politically and socially.