Egyptian Blogger’s Nude Photo Launches Global Debate on Women’s Rights in Arab World

By Zach Waksman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa

CAIRO, Egypt – On October 23, twenty-year-old Aliaa Magda Elmahdy posted a full frontal nude photograph of herself on her blog as a complaint against a ban on nude models in Egyptian universities and books.  After the photo was removed from her Facebook page, she gave a friend of hers permission to post it on Twitter, under her own name and the hashtag #NudePhotoRevolutionary.  The tweet, first posted last week, has been viewed more than one million times, and her daring act has set off a powder keg of debate in Egypt that may affect the country’s elections scheduled for November 28.

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy's decision to post a nude photograph of herself on Twitter has drawn scorn from people on both sides of the political spectrum in Egypt. She justifies her actions by calling them “echoing screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.” (Photo courtesy of the International Business Times)

The mostly black and white picture depicts Elmahdy – who is naked except for a red ribbon in her hair, a pair of thigh-high stockings and red patent leather shoes – standing with her foot on a stool.  Her blog post features several other nude pictures, including a variant of the main photo that uses it in triplicate with censor bars over her eyes, mouth, and sex organs.  It is accompanied by a caption, written in both Arabic and English.

“Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity,” it urges.  “[T]hen undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.”

She later spoke to the media about the post and her motives.

“I accepted [my friend’s request to post the photograph] because I am not shy of being a woman in a society where women are nothing but sex objects harassed on a daily basis by men who know nothing about sex or the importance of a woman,” Elmahdy told CNN during an interview Saturday.

Since the early 1970s, Egypt has become one of the most conservative countries in the Middle East and Africa.  Its majority-Muslim population frowns upon nudity, even as an art form.  Most women wear veils to cover their heads.  Even those who go bareheaded generally keep their arms and legs covered.  In a Facebook post, Elmahdy described her actions as “echoing screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.”  Continuing further, she opined that women wore veils and covered their bodies due to religious and social pressure.

“The women with head veil[s] that I know wear [them] because of their families or because they don’t want to be beaten in the streets,” she wrote in another Facebook post.  “I don’t see why they always dictate to women, and not to men, what they should wear.”

Another example of such a view of women took place during a Tahrir Square sit-in after the fall of ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak’s regime.  After breaking up the protest with a series of mass arrests, security forces subjected female dissidents to virginity tests, which Elmahdy likened to rape.  Human Rights First has issued a report that decries “a pattern of targeting politically active women” in Egypt.

“Local activists report being assaulted, stripped, sexually baited, and threatened with charges of prostitution and virginity tests,” said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley.  “There appears to be a polic