A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, December 27, 2013

Remember Aliaa Elmahdy? Apparently Der Spiegel Still Does

Remember Aliaa Elmahdy? In 2011 she was the "naked blogger" who briefly rocked the Middle East and feminism and then was overtaken by more serious events; her daring and courage, while in Egypt, demanded admiration whatever you might think about her judgment. (Early posts here and here.) It once seemed exciting:
She had put her career and perhaps her life on the line for a cause, and paid the price of voluntary but perhaps wise exile. Exactly a year ago I posted a piece on "Aliaa Elmahdy Revisited: The First Time as Tragedy, the Second as Farce?", after she stripped down in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Stockholm, where the heroism seemed less daring and the exhibitionism more obvious. (None of these links include the photos, but the dirty-minded among you will find links there to the photos.) My comments included:
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 . . .

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.)
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.”
. . . 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.
But perhaps not entirely; nearly a year after that last post the German newsweekly Der Spiegel (once the Time of Germany, now, I'm afraid, still the Time of Germany after 40 years of deterioration of both magazines, has published an article called in English, "From Icon to Exile: The Price or a Nude Photo In Egypt."

I thought it was sensationalist and exaggerated, exploitative as well. Apparently I wasn't alone;
From the Der Spiegel piece:
When this story is published, Aliaa Elmahdy will have wiped away the traces of her former life and will be living in a location unknown to us. She will continue to flee and fear the day when one of the men from her native Egypt tracks her down and stands in front of her to take her back.
Meanwhile, she maintains an active social media presence, periodically demonstrates herself or with the topless Ukrainian protest group Femen, and doesn't seem intimidated by anybody.
For the last two years, 22-year-old Egyptian Aliaa Magda al-Elmahdy has been a hunted woman because she used the delayed-action shutter release of her digital camera to take a photo of herself, which she then posted online. She is only wearing stockings and shoes in the photo.
...Most recently, she lived in a Swedish village that could be reached after driving for an hour through a coniferous forest. It's a place that rarely sees outsiders. It was difficult to contact Elmahdy. Many people have attempted to write her emails or messages on Facebook. But Elmahdy ignores messages from strangers, because most strangers berate her.
Did they try her Facebook page? (Well, yes, they say they did.)  Her Twitter account? Her English and Arabic conversations on Ask.fm? Maybe she didn't answer because she thought they'd sensationalize it?

Now, at least, she says on Facebook that she lives in Gothenburg, which is the second largest city in Sweden, not "a Swedish village that could be reached after driving for an hour through a coniferous forest," and is involved in a relationship with a Norwegian  musician, so if she's really deep in hiding she could learn a few things from, say, Ayman al-Zawahiri (and wouldn't you like to imagine that meeting?).
After fleeing from Egypt, Elmahdy applied for political asylum in Sweden, where she hardly left her apartment for six months. She kept the curtains drawn, and whenever she heard a loud noise, she was afraid that her pursuers had come to get her. Sitting behind her closed curtains, she wondered what would become of her.
She no longer had a family, was no longer a student, and she had no job or home to return to. She had no friends in Sweden. Her boyfriend, who she sees only occasionally, lives in Norway. Her life is in tatters.
But this follows immediately and with no obvious irony:
It would be understandable if Elmahdy were to change her name and try to forget the past. Instead, she decided to do the opposite. She searched for an organization to join and found the group Femen, which originated in Ukraine and fights against religion and for more equality for women. The women of Femen became famous for their topless protests. They are trying to construct icons in series.
Elmahdy joined the Femen women in a topless protest for the rights of homosexuals in Russia. On another occasion, she snuck into a Stockholm mosque disguised in a burqa, undressed and staged a protest against Sharia. Elmahdy had learned that only a small group of people knew about these protests in advance, which made her feel safe from her pursuers . . .
Nor has she stopped her public protests:
On a fall day in 2013, Elmahdy made an appearance at a book fair in the Swedish city of Göteborg. Security guards had been hired for protection. There was a panel discussion on a small stage in which four women talked about feminism. The moderator asked whether bare breasts could be hiding the real message. Elmahdy placed her microphone on the table, pulled up her sweater and stood topless in front of the moderator and the audience. The audience members held their smartphones above their heads and snapped her picture. "The body is merely a symbol," Elmahdy said to the moderator.
Flashing a book fair press conference does not suggest she's living in terrorized anonymity.
When asked what she achieves with her protests, Elmahdy replies: "People become more courageous and express their feeling. The goal is to break the taboo."
I must give her credit for continuing to make her point, though in a country where her exposing herself poses few risks other than goosebumps; the Spiegel account seems over dramatized to say the least, and her continued self-exposure (which is her right) hardly suggests she is cowering in terror of Islamist assassins;  if anything she's flashing her boobs at them in defiance. In fact, she seems hardly to be someone frightened of vengeance, but rather someone who wants to throw down the gauntlet. (Language below NSFW, and my words though she's said similar things):  This isn't a scared young girl hiding from Islamists: she may not be in Egypt but she still has an "in-your-face, fuck-you-for-your-fucking hypocrisy, as you gawk and drool over my boobs you fucking hypocrites" message, not that of the terrorized exile the Der Spiegel article implies. (Pardon the language, but that's the message I think, not one of timidity.) A girl on the run from Islamist assassins doesn't strip down publicly in the Stockholm mosque, painting anti-Sharia slogans on her breasts, and give interviews to Der Spiegel. Her denunciations of Islam and all religion put her beyond yet another pale if her sexual views hadn't already done so. She may not be in Egypt but she's not shy about revealing either her opinions or her body. She may or may not be relevant but she hardly seems frightened.

True, it's not as daring sending that message from Sweden, but even if Morsi's gone, she's cut her links to Egypt for a long time. So is she irrelevant now, just an exhibitionist in Sweden where nudity isn't that much of a shock, or still an (exiled) voice in Egyptian affairs? I think Egyptians need to decide that, and many Egyptian women activists see Aliaa as an embarrassment, not a Joan of Arc.

Der Spiegel again:
After the conversation in the café, Elmahdy is standing on the shore of a lake outside the Swedish village. She watches the ducks, and when she discovers a playground, she climbs onto a jungle gym and sits on a swing. The icon of the Arab Spring giggles as she swings back and forth. What was the meaning of her gaze in the photo? "It means that I am not ashamed to be proud to be the woman I am."
From now on, Elmahdy could very well change her address every few months. Fleeing from others threatens to become the focus of her life. But unlike the screaming child on the photo from Vietnam, little of Elmahdy's deed will remain in the world's collective memory. The symbolic power of the image will gradually fade away. The photo hasn't changed anything -- not Islam, not Egypt, not the city of Cairo and not even Elmahdy's parents. Before long, her naked breasts will be nothing more than naked breasts.
Except maybe for Der Spiegel, I think that's all they've been for a couple of years now. The original message was sent in 2011 and, as I noted at the time, it was not just her breasts: it was her full frontal nudity that broke all the taboos.  And since her breasts are not the only ones on the Internet (or so I'm told), I find the Der Spiegel article sensational. I've seen her breasts;  much of the world has seen her breasts, and unless you're blocked by your national carrier, prudish, or can't click a mouse, so have you. Women have mammary glands and nipples, as any art museum will display. What's new here, and why raise fears for a 22-year-old girl who is already in exile and apparently found the article inaccurate? Those who need to hear her message are hearing it; let's the rest of us let it go. Her message is out there.


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