A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, December 5, 2011

Aliaa ElMahdy Revisited: As the Real ElMahdy Says She's in Hiding, Pakistani and Tunisian Actresses Try to Gain PR By (Sort of) Daring Photos

I really am not a dirty old man, and for the record I've only posted once, directly, up to now about Aliaa ElMahdy's notorious posting of nude photos of herself, though I've referred to it in passing in discussing the cases of Samira Ibrahim and Mona ElTahawy, both victims of violent sexual  abuse and thus hardly the same thing, though they received, at least in the first case, less international attention. I also try to keep this blog PG-13 and keep controversial material in the links, with due warnings. But it seems to keep coming up still, and it may be time for an update, and some commentary on my part.

The immediate storm in the Egyptian media and blogosphere faded with the confrontations in Tahrir and the elections, which overshadowed it, so I've kept away from the story. Now, however, tabloid headlines in various countries are proclaiming a "Pakistani Aliaa ElMahdy" and a "Tunisian Aliaa ElMahdy," even though the real Aliaa is apparently underground for her own protection.

No, those press reports of growing Islamist strength throughout the region are not attempts to cover up some sudden outburst of female nudity: the tabloids aside, it's not happening. Both of these latest claimaints are actresses apparently seeking publicity and neither of their photos is all that revealing (about PG-13 on a US film rating). Neither of their pictures reveals more than the Cosmopolitan covers on display in the checkout lines in this country, not to mention European magazine covers, whereas the real Aliaa, who left nothing to the imagination, now says that she's gone into hiding due to threats against her life. The fact of the matter is, she, at age 20 and perhaps unwisely, took much bigger chances and is paying a much bigger price (but with a less commercial motivation) than a couple of actresses already known for daring roles, who appear in suggestive but not really naked poses. The comparison is a reach, since Aliaa ElMahdy was far more offensive to societal values and has a lot more to lose. Assuming she really has gone underground, given the electoral results (my next post coming up this morning), she may have good reason.

Aliaa ElMahdy
A website called CyberDissidents.org recently published what it described as an interview with Aliaa ElMahdy. It would seem to be her first public comments since an interview with CNN when the story first broke. In that interview she talked openly about her sex life, losing her virginity at 18 to an older man (not her current boyfriend), and other issues that are taboo in Egypt and, along with her proclaimed atheism, transgressed just about every boundary. Now she's more circumspect.
CyberDissidents.org: You've paid a heavy personal price for publishing your picture. Who is threatening you and why?

Aliaa Elmahdy: Individuals, unions and Islamists.  They are afraid that I might influence others and change the position of women in Egyptian society.  One woman who reported me to authorities said that she is afraid of my influence on her children. She is afraid she will lose control over them.

CyberDissidents.org: Has the political revolution in Egypt also sparked a social revolution? 

Aliaa: Not yet. 

CyberDissidents.org: What does freedom mean to you?

Aliaa: Freedom means doing what you want and making your own choices so long as you don’t hurt others.  Real freedom to me is not a gift.  I can say I’m free because I practice my freedom even though I know I can be hurt for doing so. 
She did deny that she is the young woman shown in a YouTube video being kicked out of Tahrir Square and apparently beaten.  The video is disturbing whoever the young woman may have been, and I'm not embedding it here. It may explain her going underground, though.

I'll say more about the debate over Aliaa later, but first, her actress "emulators," though again, the pictures don't reveal much. I'll link to them but not publish them here only because I'm not their publicist and I know publicity stunts when I see them.

Pakistani actress Veena Malik seems to have an unusual career track for a Pakistani actress: after a career in Pakistan, lately she mostly acts in India, first on TV, now with aspirations in Bollywood. She appears on the cover of the Indian edition of FHM Magazine, apparently naked but with her arms and legs strategically placed. Noticeably, she has "ISI" tattooed or Photoshopped on her (strategically positioned) arm, which is of course the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence. This is causing a furor in the Pakistani social media, and I imagine it got ISI's attention as well.  Uri Friedman at Foreign Policy discusses the issue here. She has denied that she ever posed nude, claiming the cover must be photoshopped, but the Magazine Editor insists he has both video proof of the photoshoot and e-mail evidence she saw the pictures beforehand. Though I edit a very different sort of magazine, I tend to assume magazine editors have their legal bases covered. I also think India Today in the last link nails it: publicity stunt. Maybe she got cold feet when she learned of the reaction in Pakistan. She seems to spend most of her time in India and it's a Cosmopolitan cover level of "nudity" at best, so she's hardly the Pakistani Aliaa ElMahdy.  (If you must see the cover, all three links above reproduce it.) Though she might want to stay in India as long as her visa permits, unless she can come up with something else "ISI" could stand for.

I'm also unimpressed by the "Tunisian Aliaa ElMahdy." Actress Nadia Boussetta has appeared on her Facebook Page and, apparently, will appear in Tunivisions Magazine posing wearing a vest open down the front, but covering all but cleavage and her navel.You'll see more skin at the Oscars, or almost any beach; including, I might add, many Tunisian beaches catering to French, German and Italian tourists.  Calling this one "semi-nude" as many are is rather misleading if not downright deceptive outside of Afghanistan.  (Note that the last link, BikyaMasr in Egypt, transliterates her name "Bostah," but the Tunisian sites show it's Boussetta.) She has told the media that she intended no political statement (link in French) and seems to be pretty honest that she's just promoting her film, Hekayat Tunisia (Contes tunisiennes, Tunisian Stories), which, according to this article about worries over censorship in the new Tunisia, had already been raising hackles with Islamists for its candor. At least she's honest about doing PR for a movie, and frankly, the average Arab movie poster shows more. Only tabloid newspapers and Islamists would consider these "nude" pictures. The latter is particularly inoffensive.

I do, of course, recognize it takes a certain courage even for an actress to defy the conventions of her society. But I suspect their motives are pretty much aimed at promoting their careers. Aliaa ElMahdy's daring, whatever you may think of her judgment, is of a totally different scale, and may have denied her a career. She dropped out of the American University in Cairo, she told CNN in the link above, because her parents cut off her tuition when she moved out of their house. She is now apparently in hiding, though she or her boyfriend Kareem Amer occasionally post links or photos to social media.

While I don't want to emphasize her story overmuch, or fuel some of the more prurient discussions out there, she does represent an unprecedented defiance and transgression of the rules. Since it has been several weeks since my first post on the subject, it may be worth surveying, briefly at least, much of commentary on her act, which has been extensive.

Mona ElTahawy's post at The Guardian, "Egypt's Naked Blogger is a Bomb Aimed at the Patriarchs in Our Minds," is a frank discussion of her daring, and concludes:
When Mohammed Bouazizi, fed up with humiliation, repression and poverty, set himself on fire in Tunisia last January, essentially taking state abuse to its logical end, he ignited the revolutionary imagination of the Middle East and north Africa. Aliaa Mahdy, fed up with hypocrisy and sexual repression, undressed. She is the Molotov cocktail thrown at the Mubaraks in our heads – the dictators of our mind – which insists that revolutions cannot succeed without a tidal wave of cultural changes that upend misogyny and sexual hypocrisy.
One of the most extended discussions by an Arab woman on the subject is Maya Mikdashi's at Jadalyiyya, "Waiting for Alia." It deserves to be read in full. (Like Mona ElTahawy's post it reproduces the picture of Aliaa, uncensored, so be aware.) Among the key points:
The idea that female bodies are sacrosanct, and that somehow they are “protected” from overt sexualization in Egypt is false. Contrary to what many of Alia’s detractors and what many commentators on the Arab world have said, female bodies have long been the site of struggle, interrogation, harassment, and commodification throughout the region. In particular, Cairo is famous for being the premiere public ass-pinching, breast-grabbing, and body-rubbing capital of the Arab world. The fact is that a woman (unveiled or not) cannot walk down a crowded Cairene street or take a public bus without expecting, and thus constantly guarding herself against, sexual harassment. In recent months, females involved in protests at Tahrir Square were subjected to “virginity tests” by the military junta. The “virginity tests” were administered via the age-old method of inserting two (male soldiers') fingers into each woman's vagina. These women were violated in order to ascertain whether they had engaged in consensual sexual activities. Of course, the real point of these virginity tests is not to actually see if someone is a virgin. The point is to humiliate, threaten, and to demonstrate and reassert control over a body and through that individual body, the body public and the notion of “public morality.” The point is to terrorize, and the aim of terrorism is always to instill fear (and hope that that fear will incite self-policing) in a civilian population . . .

Of course, the female body is not only a site of political control and the regulation of patriarchal public morality. It is also a primary vehicle for making money. The horizontal and vertical cavalcade of visual imagery and signage that is ubiquitous throughout the city will have awed anyone who has been to Cairo. In Cairo and in Beirut, the little sister with a Napoleon complex, the public display of the sexualized female body is everywhere. Women in various stages of undress writhe and pose in film posters, advertisements, and publicity campaigns for female pop stars.
Mikdashi posts several videos and still pictures of video sexuality, lingerie ads, lurid movie posters and such, to prove her point that defense of the female form is not quite so obvious as ElMahdy's critics suggest.

(Let me add as an aside that though it's become shorthand for the entire world, I'm a little bothered by the "nude Egyptian blogger" label: she is known for only one blogpost, and I have no idea what she may have been wearing when she posted it.)

One of the best (at least of those I can reproduce on a PG-13 site) cartoon comments I have seen is this one by Kaveh Adel:

Most of you will recognize the emergence from conservative dress, through the feminist symbol, which Aliaa transforms into the Ankh, the Ancient Egyptian symbol of life. Adel's title is "From  Non-Existent to Life for Aalia AlMahdy." I hope that does indeed prove to be the outcome of her act.

Hoda Sha‘arawi
At least one blogger, Ashraf Ezzat, has argued ("Cry for Freedom by a Nude Egyptian Blogger") that Elmahdy's defiant act is somehow in continuity with the daring act of Hoda Sha‘arawi (1879-1947) appearing without her veil in 1923; my concern is that this will lead to a "slippery slope" argument among Islamists who think Hoda Sha‘arawi's act leads directly to Aliaa ElMahdy's.

There have been some efforts to persuade other Arab and Muslim women to emulate Aliaa, not counting the publicity seeking actresses mentioned above. A large number of Israeli women did pose nude in solidarity, though they showed a lot less than Aliaa did, at least in the linked photo, and they no doubt helped convince many in Egypt the whole thing was an Israeli-Zionist plot. Otherwise, publicity-seeking actresses excepted, she did not start a groundswell of nudity. A Facebook Page calling for "Nude Photo Revolutionaries" to post in solidarity went nowhere; a British-based feminist activist hasn't had much better luck.There are some posts in sympathy by a Tunisian woman living in Italy and an Iranian woman living in Denmark (where, in the minds of Islamists, everyone is naked all day and also drawing cartoons of the Prophet); both look like professional studio shoots and neither goes beyond toplessness, and rather demure at that, and I see no need to link: it's hardly a daring act in Italy or Denmark. Apparently one woman inside Iran did post a photo of her topless, not showing her face, but she took it down within 48 hours saying the authorities had discovered her real identity. I hope she's OK, and will not otherwise identify her (no longer extant) site.

Now to Aliaa's case itself. My remarks about the anodyne and rather Cosmopolitan-cover nature of the Pakistani and Tunisian actresses' "daring" photos comes not from disappointment but from dismay at the notion that they have done something as risky and transgressive as Aliaa ElMahdy. Do not, however, assume therefore that Aliaa's picure is somehow pornographic, though I have to get a little more specific in discussing it, and therefore if you're uncomfortable with the discussion, don't proceed, there's nothing here that should shock a mature adult.  Her picture is naked, yes, but not overtly sexual. The photo itself would seem mild in any Playboy from the 1970s or later, and downright lame in this century, to Western, jaded eyes. I'm still not going to print an uncensored version, since I don't want the MEI blog being banned in those countries that don't already ban it (Syria and Iran, last time I looked), but it's hard to talk further without a censored one, so one appears below. (Warning: clicking on it will take you the uncensored, fully nude, NSFW original.) The black circles are not there in the original and are not what she wanted the world to see, but as you can see from what is shown, she is not posing erotically, despite the mesh stockings, or seductively: her expression shows, I'd guess, both apprehension and defiance. The fact that, unlike her Pakistani and Tunisian alleged emulators, or even her foreign supporters posting topless pictures abroad, she hides nothing, is part of the whole transgressive nature of her act. 
Aliaa ElMahdy censored
[Again: clicking on the photo will not enlarge it: it will take you to an uncensored version.]
If you are one of the few people who have not yet seen her original and now heavily visited website, and if you don't feel awkward (she is only 20, and as the father of a daughter I do a bit, but have made the sacrifice for professional blogging reasons), then do so (click on the PG-13 picture at left for the original photo alone, or for the whole web posting, link here, but both sites contain full frontal female nudity, latter site  both female and male, and both are most definitely not safe for work).

This is not a pornographic picture. It's a picture of a young woman standing there, not wearing clothes. Most classical sculpture is more erotic.  Not everyone gets that, and here I have to be a little graphic, so if verbal discussions of nudity bother you, stop here. Annoyingly but not surprisingly when it first appeared, some commenters (mostly women and Westerners) praised her for her daring; many, predictably, of both sexes denounced her as a tool of the devil; some (mostly male) liberal Arabs suggested she would fuel the Islamists' wrath and therefore denounced her; and, completely missing the point, some younger Arab males have complained that her breasts aren't big enough. Let's look at that rather adolescent comment.

I cannot think of a more obvious way to completely miss what this young woman was trying, however awkwardly, to say. "Big enough" for what, exactly? She is not trying out for Playmate of the Month, or trying to be some silicone-enhanced starlet; she is not asking you to look at her breasts, or focus on her breasts, though she is welcoming you to look at them if you choose to: she is saying, simply, this is me, this is my body, and I'm not ashamed of it, and I don't give a fuck whether you think my breasts are big enough or not, because I'm not doing this for you; I'm doing it for me. Unlike the actresses above (whose nonexplicit photos with hands and vests concealing their breasts call more attention to their hinted-at breasts than Aliaa's photo) and the occasional European-based women whose "solidarity" has been expressed by professional studio shots that show, at most, their breasts, this photo is not focused there or on any other body part: she's just there, naked, looking at the camera. In fact, if she'd only shown her breasts, I suspect it wouldn't be so controversial: as Mikdashi's post linked above notes, partially though not completely bare breasts are common in Arab movies (and more so in their billboards), lingerie ads, music videos, and much more. The fact that she displays her pubic area is the really transgressive act. Again, she doesn't flaunt it or call attention to it, but it raises alarm bells. But she's just there. Nothing flaunted, nothing concealed. But a lot of Arab commenters won't say this, because while breasts are taboo, down there is somewhere beyond taboo.

That's one of many things her sexist commenters are missing. She's saying, "hey, this is me, and who I really am," not, "hey guys, look at my big boobs." She's not showing them off, or bragging about them.  They're just part of her. Really. I shouldn't comment on a 20-year-old's body or you will think I'm a dirty old man, but she, and if you must know, they, her breasts, look pretty normal or average to me.  She's a young, slender, and attractive (sexually and otherwise), woman, but no more or less so because she is easily seen naked.  I blame Hugh Hefner for the American focus on big breasts (not that there's there's anything wrong with them, mind you, just they're not essential); in Egypt, I think it's the film industry and their highly suggestive billboards. This is what Aliaa is rejecting, not encouraging. She's not trying to titillate you (pun fully intended). Cool off, guys, you're totally missing her point. She wants you to think of her as a whole person. Stop salivating.

Most won't. That's one way her message may fail. "Nude" and "sexual" are equated in, not just the Arab world, but still in large parts of my own country.  Not so many years ago some Internet blockers were blocking breast cancer sites because of the word "breast." I hope that doesn't happen to this post, which also includes words like "nude" and "naked": but that's a reminder that we're not that far away from where Egypt is.

Since I'm already deep into the subject, and have probably already offended some readers, let me say a few more things. Whether or not this daring act was wise will, of course, depend upon one's individual definitions of what is acceptable; it was unquestionably daring, and it captured the imagination of many female Arab feminists as well as the international media. But most of those praising it are female and outspoken feminists already (Mona ElTahawy, Maya Mikdashi, both excerpted above) or Western men and women with Western assumptions. While the wisdom of the posting is disputable, there are Arab pornographic sites and personal sites that show as much or more: she posted it to the whole web, and made it political. She really has thrown the bomb into the minds of many people.

She may not be the new Hoda al-Sha‘arawi, though I am unsure that's a completely irrelevant metaphor. I just hope she does not regret, as apparently she already may, her profoundly transgressive and defiant fame. She is forever the "nude Egyptian blogger," whatever else she may do after the age of 20, though she hasn't blogged much and, for all I know, was clothed when she did.

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