A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Aliaa Elmahdy Revisited: "The First Time as Tragedy, the Second as Farce"?

Karl Marx' famous line (riffing on Hegel in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon) that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, seems appropriate to this story. Remember Aliaa Elmahdy? She’s been back in the news again (and back in the nude again) by demonstrating at the Egyptian Embassy in Stockholm.

Anyone who has been following the Middle East, through this blog or any other media, for a little over a year, may remember Elmahdy, who a bit over a year ago shocked Egypt and energized many Middle Eastern women by posting a full-frontal nude portrait of herself on a blog. She became known as the "nude blogger"; and she was praised by Egyptian and Arab feminists and Westerners, denounced, of course, by Islamists, and avoided by male secularists who feared she would increase the Islamist vote in the then-imminent Parliamentary elections, She was only 20 at the time; I wondered  then about the wisdom of her act while recognizing the real courage it took. (This blog covered the issue solely for its sociological and anthropological importance, of course.)  Later there were various copycats such as a Pakistani and a Tunisian actress who sought fame by showing a bit of cleavage or a striptease-like pose, but Aliaa showed it all and did it while living in Egypt. But this time, it's in Stockholm.

Yes, Stockholm. It just doesn’t seem quite the same. The first time she risked life and limb; this time she mostly seems to have risked frostbite. (It’s December, after all.)

Before discussing her latest return to the limelight, let's review the giddy days of last year:
At the time it was a bombshell: in part, certainly, for the prurient aspect, but also because, in the heat of the Egyptian Revolution, as Mona Eltahawy put it in a famous column in The Guardian:
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.
Cartoonist Kaveh Adel caught the mood of the time:
Her daring was not without consequences: feeling harassed and threatened, she has apparently spent the past year outside of Egypt, mostly in Eastern Europe and more recently in Sweden.  She has apparently fallen in with a Ukrainian feminist protest group known as FEMEN, whose signature (?) form of protest seems to be demonstrating topless or naked in various European capitals, often with protest slogans written on their bodies in markers. It's no doubt an effective attention-getting device, but its political effectiveness is not as clear to me. Apparently they tried to get Aliaa to Paris at their expense, intending to protest the new Egyptian constitution at the Egyptian Embassy there, but she was denied passage at the boarding gate, so they held the protest at the Egyptian Embassy in Stockholm instead. Aliaa and two other protesters, carrying mock books labeled "Bible," "Qur'an," and "Torah," appeared in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Stockholm and stripped to reveal anti-religious slogans written on their bodies. Aliaa raised an Egyptian flag above her head but was otherwise fully naked. She is of course free to protest as she sees fit. But that's part of the point: in Sweden, she's free to protest. And this protest is different, I think, in another way. It seems to have gotten more coverage in the Gulf press and the West than in Egypt, where the current issues engaging women's activists are a lot more urgent. And it seems to send a different sort of message. One much more in your face.

Here's the (censored) version of the photo; a video is linked below:

Appearing nude on the Internet in Egypt clearly risked not only her reputation and employment but even life and limb; in the present environment in Cairo, she might well be in even more danger were she to return. Appearing naked, even in public, in Stockholm is rather a different matter. Her demonstration in front of the Egyptian Embassy there might subject her to some misdemeanor charges: trespassing, disorderly conduct, maybe indecent exposure if that's even a crime in Scandinavia. I’d be more worried about the frostbite. The video shows snow on the ground. The video also shows no guards or other people on the street (weekend?) and only one passerby who glances at the naked ladies as if it's a not uncommon sight. It's also a brief protest, mostly for the cameras. (They were going to stand around all day naked in December in Stockholm?) This is no "Molotov cocktail thrown at the Mubaraks in our heads": it's a self-indulgent protest from the safe asylum of Sweden at the emerging dangers in Egypt. There is still violence in the streets of Cairo; getting goosebumps in Stockholm is not the same thing.

Don't misunderstand me. I don't want her going back and doing this in Egypt: her survival could be in serious doubt. And I know far too little about FEMEN to know whether they are real revolutionaries or self-indulgent exhibitionists, but having come of age in the 1960s I also know how quaint this sort of thing can appear a generation or so later, however wonderfully transgressive it appeared at the time.

I never posted an uncensored version of her original photo (NSFW, nudity) which she posted to her website in October 2011 and so I won’t post an uncensored photo of the current protest, not out of prudishness but so as not to be blocked all over the Arab world. I will, with all the usual warnings (Not Safe for Work; contains nudity; mature viewers only etc, link to an uncensored version of the censored photo above, and to another shot from a slightly different angle,) so that, with due warnings (NSFW, contains nudity) those who wish to may judge for themselves (and so the rest of this commentary makes sense). The original photo was ostensibly protesting the unavailability of nude models to art students, as well as women’s oppression generally. But what still strikes me is the innocence of the photo, though it is full-frontal. The fishnet stockings and red shoes may seem daring, but this is not a "seductive" photo: if anything it seems reticent, uncertain, a young woman unashamed but far from brazen in her sexuality. In the age of the uncensored Internet it never seemed the "Molotov cocktail" it was to Egyptian readers. Though in interviews she spoke of her unbelief, there was no overt attack on religion. There was little message beyond her feeling she was unashamed of her body. Its mere existence was enough to stun many Egyptians, especially since she posted it while still in the country and intending to remain.

The new photo certainly is not "seductive" either, but it is loud, and it's rife with messages. Messages written on the women's bodies; messages held in front of their privates; and the whole scene is a message. The first photo can be seen, I think, as a personal protest of sorts, though only due to its public posting: her body is her body, no more, no less. But this is a political protest that also attacks religion: in an age when sex is regularly used for advertising, this is advertising a political/religious message using sex. And the female body: Aliaa, in the center, has "Sharia" written across her breasts as if to make sure no one can miss it. (In that respect I suspect she’s quite right. [Link is also NSFW/nudity.] The whole message reads “Sharia is not a Constitution.”) But the message seems different. The first photo seems to say, "This is just me. Make of it what you will, or not." It suggests the body is natural and normal and not shameful. The second says, "my body is a megaphone: read my angry message as you ogle it." Instead of a natural, ordinary thing, her body has become a billboard, a placard. In the first picture she is seemingly simply saying "this is who I am." In this one,  her main political message has become, to be a little bit crass about it, “Read my tits.”

If anything, the FEMEN video of the demonstration (same NSFW/nudity warnings on this link as on the still photos above) adds to the sense of how different this is from last year. It shows pretty clearly how few people were present and how brief the demonstration seems to have been. (The one passerby barely looks up. Perhaps you see naked women on snowy streets all the time in Stockholm?) The video of the girls returning to their hotel giggling and laughing adds to the sense that if the original post was speaking truth to power and defying the patriarchy, this was just a lark. (Though the floral headbands add to the sense of 1960s déjà vu.) This seems to add to the sense that her message has shifted from "This is who I am and I'm not ashamed to show it as it's my body to do with as I please," an opinion I share, to a message to religious believers that boils down to "Fuck You." That's an entirely different message.

Transgressive, certainly. Offensive to religious believers, obviously. (For those who did not watch the video or felt obliged to avert your eyes, if that applies to any of you, the other young ladies convey the messages "Apocalypse by Mursi"/"No Religion" and "No Islam Yes Secularism"/"Religion is Slavery": clearly intended to outrage Islamists even if the messages were not, uh, strategically placed.) Indeed a different message I think, from last year. Last year she seemed a genuinely transgressive protester, proud of her body but not flaunting it, just displaying it. This year she's a FEMEN exhibitionist, not just denying religion but attacking it. Yes, I and lots of others have reported on her both times. But while I recognize the shock-waves she created last year,  I fear her 15 minutes were up some time back. And I doubt if she'll be returning to Morsi's Egypt anytime soon.

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