A huge story is breaking the the Arab press this week… An Egyptian activist posted nude pictures of herself online to protest limits on free expression in Egypt. Twenty-year-old Aliaa Magda Elmahdy exposed herself on her own blog. Conservatives have lambasted the bold move, as any public display of nudity is frowned upon in most Muslim societies. Liberals fear that Elmahdy’s display will hurt their chances in parliamentary elections starting November 28 by tainting the image of free-thinkers.
Elmahdy, who wore only stockings in her pictures, said her photos were “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.” The blog has received 1.5 million hits since she posted the photos earlier this week.
We’ve already gotten some feedback from our community on Elmahdy’s motivations (poll below) and at the moment it seems people believe she is as much a publicity seeking exhibitionist as she is a bold, brave dissident. Initially, the reaction on Twitter was positive citing her feminist bravery.
A feminist #Jan25 revolutionary posted her nude photo on the internet to express her freedom. I’m totally taken back by her bravery!! - Ahmad Awadalla on Twitter
But things became more cloudy in the days that followed. The New York Times wrote a piece on Elmahdy which suggests that the stunt has had an unintended political effect and perhaps has backfired. The reason: Egyptian parties – both liberal and conservative – are beginning to learn how to campaign and use national inflection points – in this case Elmahdy’s nudity – to attack their opponents.
Muslim conservatives have been quick to point out that Elmahdy is a self-proclaimed political activist who is only 20-years-old and affiliated with one of the earliest dissident groups in Egypt – the April 6th Movement. This is seen by many as an effort to taint the youth movement that has been deemed instrumental in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. Liberals have gone out of their way to distance themselves from Elmahdy. The April 6th Movement has since posted online that none of its members engage in this kind of behavior, even though Elmahdy says she is a member.
Al Bawaba posted an article saying April 6th spokesperson Tarek al-Kholi told Al Arabiya television that official membership screening and not simply registration on the Internet or a Facebook page constitutes party affiliation.
It is also unclear from Elmahdy’s postings what her political persuasion is. The musings in her blog posts accompanying her nude photos show a rebellious attitude toward conservatism in general, an admiration of all forms of nudity and a disdain for sexual conservatism. Elmahdy never formally tied her actions to any overt political position ahead of the elections. Perhaps she never even intended to do so. But since the photos received hundreds of thousands of views in a matter of days, the debate around her has taken on political overtones not readily apparent in her postings.
Take for instance:
Try models who posed naked for Fine Arts students in the 1970s, hide all art books, and destroy all naked statues. Then take off your clothes and look at yourselves in the mirror and burn those bodies of yours which you despise in order to get rid of your sexual complexes forever. Do that before you hurl your discriminatory insults at me or rob me of my freedom of expression. - Aliaa Magda Elmahdy
Incidentally, we have reached out to Elmahdy for an interview and will update this post should she grant one.
We will be adding reaction from both the Arabic and international press throughout the week.
You may submit your own Viewpoint on the issue here.
In the meantime, please share your views in this poll. Also, feel free to comment on the issue further below.
Davin Hutchins is Consulting Editor of Middle East Voices. Hutchins brings 17 years of journalism experience to VOA after working with media organizations such as CNN, Tech TV, Huffington Post and PBS. He specializes in news, documentaries and new media with an emphasis on international social issues, media training and online delivery platforms. Hutchins lived five years in the Middle East and covers the dynamic changes that have been triggered by the Arab Spring.