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.