Monday 19 December 2011

The Revolution Bare

I saw lots of political graffiti in Egypt. I can’t read Arabic but I know it was political because it was often accompanied by an illustration or even some English text. In Aswan one wall had a depiction of Mina Daniel, a Coptic Christian killed by the army in October. It was close to one of Che Guevara, a figure with whom he identified, something I found out later.

There was something else, something that puzzled me, an image of a woman who appeared to be posing naked; she was certainly wearing stockings or holdups and her shoulders were bare, but the central part of her body was covered in Arabic text. Well, she was posing naked, an Egyptian woman, and I missed the storm it caused because I was in Egypt! Oddly enough it wasn’t reported on BBC or CNN, both afraid, perhaps, of the naked truth

Anyway, her name (you may know this already) is Alia el-Mahdi, a twenty-year-old student at Cairo University, who posted a full frontal nude picture of herself on Facebook, Twitter and her personal blog as a ‘revolutionary’ gesture. It’s certainly another interesting dimension of the ferment in the Arab world. Women in Libya are taking to wearing the niqab, now that they are free from the secular pressures of Colonel Gaddafi, and a woman in Egypt has found freedom in nakedness!

This is what she wrote on her personal blog;

Put on trail the artist’s models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise top forever rid yourselves of your sexual hang-ups before you direct your humiliation and your chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.

Hmm, yes; it’s certainly a gesture of a sort, a brave one, given my knowledge of Egypt and Egyptian culture, but I’m not really sure what she hopes to achieve beyond ‘freedom of expression’; it certainly did not advance the revolution, just the contrary, judging by the results of the November elections, which saw mass support for the Islamists.

Alia is in every way untypical, even, I would hazard, of the most advanced sections of Egyptian opinion. She describes herself as an atheist and lives openly in Cairo with her boyfriend, a city where some women wear the niqab just to escape unwanted sexual attention. And, believe me, it’s bad.

I’m torn here between a certain admiration for her boldness and bafflement over her folly. Life in Cairo must have been difficult enough for someone like her. Now, with such a high public profile (she’s had over a million hits on her blog), it will be impossible, especially as a group of graduates in Islamic law are taking her and her boyfriend to court for ‘violating morality’, ‘indecency’ and ‘insulting Islam.’ If convicted she could face up to eighty lashes.

The graffiti I saw was a reproduction of her nude picture. It was beside the image of another woman, head shot only, a woman wearing a headscarf. This is Samira Ibrahim. She did not pose naked, no. She alleges that she, along with seventeen other women, was forced naked by soldiers last March and subjected to some intimate probing to determine if she was a virgin or not. She is now taking the military to court over the matter. The text on the wall contrasts the way in which this outrage was ignored while Alia’s antic has caused a huge media and public fuss.

There is certainly a serious point here, a point about hypocrisy, about the hypocrisy of Egyptian culture and society. Is this the way to make it, though? I simply can’t be sure. There seems to be an awful lot of me, me, me in this, empty self-promotion, shock for the sake of shock.

Alia has been criticised for her actions not just by the conservatives but by the liberals. A spokesman for the April 6 Youth Movement denied that she or her partner were members, saying they could not possibly accept “a girl who behaves like this” into their ranks.

Predictably she has attracted support from beyond Egypt, from the arbiters of liberal opinion, and from naked Israeli women, which is certainly not going to help. There is a tiresome piece – of course – in the Guardian by one Mona Eltahawy, a woman who clearly knows next to nothing about the nature of Egypt, conservatism or revolution. I wonder what she would have said if an English woman had appeared on the pages of the down-market Sun like this. Would her nudity still be ‘a weapon of political resistance’? I rather think not. Actually, Alia’s picture is not good enough for the Sun; it’s much more readers’ wives, the kind of amateurish thing favoured by some English porn magazines.

I find myself in agreement – the horror! the horror! - with a piece written by Nelson Jones in the trendy left New Statesman, a publication I normally think of as a retirement home for intellectual and political mediocrities. He said that the gesture was curiously old-fashioned, a harking back to the days when, as he puts it, “sexual liberation and nudity were part and parcel of revolutionary politics.” (Part and parcel; what a cliché!) It's awfully old-fashioned, that's true, trendy 60s stuff; Hair, OZ and the Age of Aquarius. Hey, let the sun shine in!

Yes, things have moved on and Egypt is advancing into a counter-revolution. Alia, in her own naked way, may have made that process just a little quicker.


  1. I thought of this:

    Every stand against tyranny is a blow for liberty. We may not understand what motivates each individual to act, but the very fact that individuals DO stand up and challenge the state, the church, the party, or the mob is a reminder that we all have an inherent right to liberty. The state, the church, the party, and the mob have no right to deprive us of that liberty, and their claims to such power are absolutely false.

    Death to tyrants!

  2. probably not a wise political gesture, but I would give her bold nakedness a standing ovation!

  3. I remember when John Lennon & Yoko Ono released a record, the cover of which was a photo of the two naked as newborn chickens, a stunt which produced cries of "Put it back on!" even from the Left. Alia, admittedly, is a little more pleasant on the eye than Mrs. Lennon, but I've never been particularly sold on the idea of public nudity as revolutionary activity. Still, whatever floats your boat...

  4. I see nude protests as harmful because of the theatricality being so extreme coupled with the gut urge to go "hee hee, I see her boobies!" It's why I'm not all that high on PETA.


  5. Alas, Calvin, tyrants are easy; tyrannies are not. The greatest tyranny of all is the tyranny of the majority.

  6. Anthony, I have the impression most guys would. :-)

  7. Bob, I think I've seen that cover, not a very prepossessing couple!

  8. Ana, i think you should counter PETAs nudity with anti-PETA nudity ;-)


  9. That's me on the left, impish naked,a true counter-revolutionary! The best anti-PETA gesture is fur. :-))

  10. I suspected as such. Dear Gods, that picture turns my blood to wine. If I may say so :)

  11. This story is not fair. You are also naked on your blog, but are not attracting the same amount of attention. Maybe you should try a frontal picture....

  12. Jean Paul, there are some things a lady will not do. Alia is in a harsh light; Ana prefers to be in subtle shadows! I only attract attention with my words, clearly far less effective than my boobs. :-))

    Seriously, I’m sorry if you think my article unfair. I did my best to be balanced. I wonder, perhaps, if you are missing the point. I have no problem with Alia or anyone else being naked, if that’s what they want. My criticism was not of a particular form of expression but of a political gesture, and as a political gesture I think this has been counter-productive.

  13. Damned red shoes! I said "Kansas," not "Cairo."

  14. Her photograph is strikingly 'retro'. It's in stark contrast to what would be a statement of female empowerment here in the US- something like the Annabel Chong story or the work of Suzanne Lacy for instance.

  15. Why do I keep coming back to this post?

  16. Oh, because you are so fascinated by the bare facts. :-))

  17. Ana, I have been long mulling over a comment on this post, and your decision to post Delacroix’s “Liberty leading the People” finally catalysed me into writing.

    I agree with your conclusion “Yes, things have moved on and Egypt is advancing into a counter-revolution. Alia, in her own naked way, may have made that process just a little quicker” but it seems uncharacteristically tentative—especially for you.

    What still seemed missing was a vision of what a politically powerful image of a naked woman might be. The illustration to your ironic recent post “Mea Culpa” was one possibility, but it’s the Delacroix painting that provides a perfect example.

    The other possibility, one you consider and your post, is that the effect of el-Mahdi’s photo might be closer to Delacroix’s painting “Woman with White Stockings”:

    If el-Mahdi’s photo is indeed closer to the second Delacroix painting, merely self-advertising, than all the strictures about time and place and questionable taste, harsh lighting, etc. become not only relevant but controlling in our judgment of her photo.

    By your conclusion, however, you seem to come down on the side of Alia el-Mahdi at least deserving credit for attempting to pull of a “Liberty Leading the People”.

    The paradox is that the power of a woman’s naked body as a political statement originates in its softness, vulnerability, and emotional appeal.

    Kenneth Clark observed: “[Praxiteles] has discovered that landscape of breasts and thorax which for some mysterious reason, connected, perhaps, with our earliest physical needs, is one of the most satisfying the eye can rest upon.” (THE NUDE – A STUDY IN IDEAL FORM, Page 77)

    Whether or not Clark is right, why is Delacroix’s image “Liberty leading the People” such a politically powerful image, and what is the source of the political power possessed by a soft, vulnerable image of a naked woman?

    To start with an historical, or apocryphal, rather than a visual, example from your own tradition, Lady Godiva’s nakedness was a gesture of vulnerability, a symbolic act of generosity and a sharing of her beauty which counter-balanced her husband’s harsh policies towards the people of Coventry.

    In this sense, a woman’s nakedness as political gesture embodies the saying in the Tao Te Ching:

    Nothing in this world
    Is as soft and yielding as water
    Yet for attacking the hard and strong
    None can triumph so easily
    It is weak,
    Yet none can equal it
    It is soft, yet none can damage it
    It is yielding, yet none can wear it away

    (continued in next comment)

  18. (Continuing the previous comment)

    The Delacroix painting you posted is a perfect example. Liberty’s soft breasts and tender flesh are not in themselves conquering and threatening. The power of her nakedness, and the earnestness and sincere passion implied in her disheveled bodice, is its ability to awaken a desire to conquer on her behalf, to protect those breasts and their owner and lay before her feet trophies of the vanquished enemy.

    A naked woman’s body represents the land, liberty—the prize and goal itself—not the means to the goal, even though Delacroix depicts Liberty herself charging through the barricades like a precursor of the 1er RPIMa.

    I remember seeing the painting as a boy and recoiling in horror at the thought of a bayonet or a bullet piercing Liberty’s beautiful flesh—and that is precisely why a naked woman’s body is so politically powerful.

    Now, I’ll briefly address the the issue of the awkwardness, naïveté, or at best jolie laide quality of Alia el-Mahdi’s photograph. Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’herbe”

    and his Olympia (which looks quite a bit like Mademoiselle el-Mahdi):

    both of Manet’s paintings demonstrate the social and political power of the image of a naked woman’s body—sometimes precisely when the image is considered to be in doubtful taste by contemporary standards.

    A political vision is a vision of order. Kenneth Clark observed “In the history of art, the subjects that men have chosen as nuclei, so to say, of their sense of order have often been themselves unimportant . . . . But the human body, as a nucleus, is rich in associations, and when it is turned into art these associations are not entirely lost. For this reason it seldom achieves the concentrated aesthetic shock of animal ornament, but it can be made expressive of a far wider and more civilizing experience.” [Page 8]

    Clark also characterizes the significance of the nude in Greek culture in one of my favourite prose passages in the English language:

    “The bodies were there, the belief in the gods was there, the love of rational proportion was there. It was the unifying grasp of the Greek imagination that brought them together. And the nude gains its enduring value from the fact that it reconciles several contrary states. It takes the most sensual and immediately interesting object, the human body, and puts it out of reach of time and desire; it takes the more purely rational concept of which mankind is capable, mathematical order, and makes it a delight to the senses; and it takes the vague fears of the unknown and sweetens them by showing that the gods are like men and may be worshipped for their life-giving beauty rather than their death-dealing powers.” [Page 25]

    The final demonstration that it is the human image portrayed artistically in its nakedness, tenderness, and vulnerability that is the ultimate catalyst to action in the real world is Clark’s reminder: “It is no accident that the formalized body of the “perfect man” became the supreme symbol of European belief. Before the “Crucifixion” of Michelangelo we remember that the nude is, after all, the most serious of all subjects in art; and that it was not an advocate of paganism who wrote, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth.”

    You can see one of Michelangelo’s drawings of the Crucifixion, Ana, in the collection of the British Museum.

    As a parting thought, you may recall that Lady Godiva's name is the Old English name Godgifu or Godgyfue meaning "Gift of God". It is our bodies that make us capable, in principle, of giving, and being, gifts of God to one another.

    1. Thank for this, an issue you’ve clearly given a lot of detailed thought to. I would simply say that everything depends on the context. Yes, in certain situations a naked figure could be a revolutionary statement. Here it serves to quicken the process of reaction. I’m sure you are aware of the latest news from Egypt (I’ll be writing about it soon). It’s not at all encouraging.