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The Naked Bodies of Alia

[Grafitti of Alia al-Mahdy and Samira Ibrahim in Cairo, Egypt. Image from suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com] [Grafitti of Alia al-Mahdy and Samira Ibrahim in Cairo, Egypt. Image from suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com]

Just as we started thinking that Alia al-Mahdy’s nude portrait was a thing of the past, new images surfaced on the web. On 20 December 2012, FEMEN—a Ukrainian women’s movement known for its controversial nude protest actions—posted photos of Alia and two FEMEN members posing naked in front of the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm on their Facebook page. The Facebook group cover photo was updated on the same day, showing a nude Alia raising the Egyptian flag, photo-shopped against a black, red, and white background representing the Egyptian national colors. The photos were stills from a one-minute-and-thirty-seconds-long video posted online that opens with the following description: “everydayrebellion.com present: Aliaa Elmahdy & FEMEN protesting against Egyptian constitution by Mursi [sic]."

Alia had made her transgressive debut back in 2011. In early November of that year, twenty-year-old Alia posted a nude picture of herself—wearing nothing but thigh-high black stockings, red patent leather shoes, and a red flower in her hair—on her blog, “Diary of a Rebel.” The photo received millions of views, it was quickly condemned by Egyptian Islamists and liberals alike, and the April 6th Movement issued a statement denying claims that al-Mahdy was one of its members. Therefore, Alia’s new gig is bound to be read as a kind of follow-up. The timing of both the 2011 photograph and the 2012 video is significant as well as controversial. While the former stirred debate in the critical period leading up to the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, the new video was posted before the scheduled referendum on the new Egyptian constitution. However, while both the photo and the video purportedly carry the same message of sexual liberation through a transgressive (staged) act of public nudity, we must be attentive to their differences. Beyond Alia’s naked body as a signifier, the texts to be analyzed are the mediated representations of that body. It is by stressing the distinctions between the different naked bodies of Alia that we can offer a critical reading of her transgressions, readings that could not be fitted in simply being “for” or “against” what she has done. In other words, the political meaning of a particular image or set of images is not given for all time, but varies significantly depending on the conditions and contexts of enunciation.

The video, unlike the photograph, is much more explicit in its anti-Islamic, anti-religious rhetoric. There is a clear message in favor of “secularism” that is articulated through phrases like “Sharia is not a constitution,” “No religion,” “Religion is slavery,” and “No Islamism, yes secularism” painted on the women’s bodies and the signs they carried. Alia herself is described by FEMEN as an anti-Islamist Egyptian activist. As we have seen, Arab Islamists, liberals, seculars, and leftists condemned Alia’s previous photograph. Some feminists also criticized Alia. Labeling sexual freedom and gender equality as “secular” political causes is misleading. Such a tendency points to an urgent need to flesh out what is meant by “liberal” and “secular” in Egypt and its broader Arab context. Seculars are not necessarily anti-religious. Quite the contrary. Also, they are not necessarily progressive on issues of gender and sexuality. Many seculars were in fact the first to denounce Alia’s photograph as evidence of her immaturity, of her disrespect for social, cultural, and religious norms, and of her mimicry of the West. Even secularists who might be supportive of sexual rights might not prioritize them in the hierarchy of battles to be fought, or even as pressing concerns, on their revolutionary agenda.

Demands for sexual freedoms are not part of the mainstream secular discourse in the contemporary Arab world, which is why Alia’s first intervention was seen as unnecessary and untimely. But, as Maya Mikdashi summed it up, Alia was not “waiting for the ‘right moment’ to bring up bodily rights and sexual rights in post-Mubarak Egypt. She is not playing nice with the patriarchal power structures in Egypt. She is not waiting her turn.” In fact, these patriarchal power structures, in their different ideological manifestations, have constantly evoked “cultural traditions” as that which must be safeguarded against imperial onslaught, or savage capitalism, or loose secular morals. Cultural traditions are to be protected from religious obscurantism by some and from satanic liberalism by others.

It is therefore misleading to cast Islamist discourses as the only obstacles in the struggle for social change and the demands for sexual rights. While much academic and intellectual effort is put in explaining Islamism, its different local manifestations, its relationship to liberalism, and the peculiar role of gender within it [2], an equal amount of energy should be spent on elucidating what a “secular” or “liberal” discourse in the Arab world today is really all about—particularly when it comes to personal liberties and freedoms. In the aftermath of the 2011 photo controversy, Lebanese feminist blog Sawt Al Niswa published a post entitled “Who’s afraid of Alia’s nudity?” While such blogs presumably cater to a particular audience (educated, liberal, middle/upper-middle class), reactions to this post puncture the assumed unity of “secular,” “liberal,” and “feminist” discourses. This is all to say that bearded men, while an easily-identifiable target, are not the only detractors of Alia and her nudity. By explicitly identifying shari’a and Morsi as the protest targets, Alia’s naked body carries a specifically anti-Islamic message.

A contextual analysis also clarifies the different nudities of the video and the photo. In an interview with CNN, Alia stated "the photo is an expression of my being and I see the human body as the best artistic representation of that. I took the photo myself using a timer on my personal camera."

As the end credits show, the new video is part of a series entitled “Everyday Rebellion,” a cross-media project produced by Golden Girls Film and Mira Film, and directed by the Riahi brothers, Arash and Arman T. Riahi. “Everyday Rebellion” is an initiative within ARTE’s—a Franco-German TV network—a new project to document the uprisings in the Arab world through character-driven portraits. The difference between the two media productions is therefore huge. While the photo is an individually accomplished project, the video is a well-planned collective action in coordination with a renowned Ukrainian non-governmental organization, FEMEN, and a media establishment. That these new partners are European further complicates the issue. Upon releasing her first nude photo, Alia was accused of mimicking the West, of imitating the experience of Western feminist movements by using protest methods “alien” to the Arab world and its cultural sensitivities. Alia’s move to cooperate with a European self-identified sextremist  women’s movement is therefore bound to provoke further similar accusations. While in the previous instance it was her method of protest that was critiqued as inauthentic, it is her collaboration with FEMEN that would spur similar accusations. Not only is FEMEN notorious for its anti-Islamic stances (they staged a protest against “bloody Islamist regimes” participating in the London Olympics this past August), but the video itself is staged in a Europe that has seen its fair share of sanctioned public Islamophobic rhetoric often concretized in discriminatory laws.[3] Context matters. In the video, Alia is no longer a naked Egyptian female body; it is the naked body of an Arab Muslim woman, painted with an anti-Islamic message in English, in an Islamophobic Europe. Alia’s sanctioned nudity in Europe must then be read against a list of European bans: of minarets, of veils, and of male circumcision.

Finally, in terms of the content itself, a certain unsettling trope emerges. In the beginning of the video we see Ukrainian FEMEN activist Inna Shevchenko painting words on Alia’s chest. Shevchenko was recently chosen by French magazine Madame Figaro as one of the top twenty iconic women of 2012 (at number 13, Shevchenko was three steps ahead of the Queen of England). We also see, in the following scene, Alia sitting in the middle, between the two FEMEN activists, in the backseat of a moving car. A close-up of her face shows the young Alia, looking at the camera, a crown of flowers in her hair. When they get off the car in front of what we assume is the Egyptian embassy, the three women form an inverted triangle, with the two FEMEN activists standing behind Alia and undressing first. Alia begins to disrobe after the other two were already in position. As she takes off her coat, we hear the flickering of cameras and we see the flashes. Throughout the staged action, Alia is the only one whose crotch is exposed, the other two women covering theirs with “Bible” and “Torah” effigies.

What emerges in these sequences is a certain maternal pattern between Alia and her FEMEN companions. Evidently, Alia is the “star” of an act staged explicitly against the Egyptian constitution and the Egyptian president. But we do get a sense, throughout the video, that she is being chaperoned by her adult, more experienced, feminist older sisters/mothers. Evidently, this is one among many interpretations, and the video lends itself to differently situated readings, but it is particularly susceptible to being read within the trope of imperial feminism. From beginning to end, Shevchenko comes across as a maternal figure to Alia. She writes on Alia’s body, she points out where the women should stand in front of the embassy, and when they return to the apartment, we see her amused by the sight and sound of a laughing Alia who is ecstatically celebrating a successfully subversive performance. Her serious look, as an experienced activist and veteran “sextremist,” is juxtaposed with Alia’s innocent expressions. Have Alia and her cause been adopted or downright hijacked by FEMEN?

This point is taken up in one article in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, where Sara Salem fleshes out what she describes as FEMEN’s “neocolonialist feminism.” Focusing on the group’s “unveiling” actions carried out in different European cities, she locates such initiatives within a pattern extending back to former colonial discourses. The colonizers, such as the French in Algeria, saw the Islamic veil as symptomatic of the backwardness of Arab and Muslim cultures. Through unveiling, imperial forces sought to enlighten Arab women, confirm their own superiority by uplifting these women from the shackles of primitive tradition. This was also, as Frantz Fanon has shown, about penetrating and domesticating Algeria through its women. FEMEN are accused of perpetrating the same kind of symbolic violence by upholding the equation that a veiled woman is an oppressed woman. Feminist credentials, once again, are based on women’s sartorial choices. As such, the staged unveiling of Alia, sponsored by her European sisters, bears an unsettling resemblance to the symbolic unveiling of Algerian women by their French sisters in public squares to the cries of ¨Vive l´Algerie Française!¨ FEMEN’s call ¨Muslim women unveil!¨ is an invitation that is at the same time a prescription for what these women should want. It is this prescriptive tendency that conjoins FEMEN and imperial feminism.

This may come across as a paranoid reading, as proof that we read for colonialism and neocolonialism ignoring other historical forces at play. While such critiques (including my own) are needed, they often tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Alia’s “unveiling” with FEMEN in Stockholm is problematic; but, as an Egyptian woman, Alia’s choice to strip in the name of politics retains a transgressive edge. While Alia’s naked body, as this piece attempted to show, does not exist in absolute terms, its nudity must constantly be read against its socially-conservative and repressive Arab context just as it is read against its neocolonial, Islamophobic context. We must be weary not to lose sight of the former in our critiques of the latter. In other words, seeing Alia’s different naked bodies is also about accounting for its diverse audiences. The power of this mediated body, circulating as it is online and through multiple media discourses, is its interpellation of differently positioned audiences. In this hyper-mediated environment, the Western gaze is not the only gaze. Furthermore, when we read for neocolonialism to highlight the limits of a universalist feminist discourse, we tend to reify difference as one between East and West. Yes, not all (Arab or Muslim) women wish to unveil or undress to express a political opinion or signify their emancipation; however, we must retain a critical space for women such as Alia who wish to do so. They are also different from the mainstream. In an environment that is hostile to these differences, we must rightfully question Alia’s feminist credentials without stripping her body of its “authentic” Egyptian or Arab credentials.

The goal here is not to condemn as instances of neoimperial cultural politics those North-South or European-Arab political collaborations on issues of gender and sexuality. However, such collaborations must be carefully calculated, particularly in light of persistent Orientalist, Islamophobic, and neoliberal tropes. Equally important is an evaluation of transgressive gender politics in light of a religiously-inflected social conservatism that is tightening its grip on a post- Arab Spring official public discourse. The purpose is not to discredit Alia or belittle her. Clearly, she has the right to use her body as she pleases. However, a naked body is not just—and not always—a signifier of political transgression, cultural resistance, and sexual liberation. Read in context, a naked body has multiple meanings, some of which may be contradictory to the intended message. Alia’s naked body in Cairo is not the same as her naked body in Stockholm, even if she retains her signature black stockings and red shoes. Supporting Alia’s right to stand naked wherever she wants and interpreting her nudity differently are not mutually exclusive.

On a final note, we must recognize that Alia’s naked body, then as now, never fails to incite discourse. One cannot but wonder: had Alia written a blog post instead, would she have been recognized? In today’s ocular economies, attention is a scarce resource. And Alia has managed to capture ours, even if for a second.

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[1] Kobeissi, Farah (18 November 2011). “Today, today and not tomorrow: In defense of Alia.” Sawtalniswa.com. Retrieved from http://www.sawtalniswa.com/2011/11/defending-alia-al-mahdi

[2] Saba Mahmood’s The Politics of Piety (2005), Lara Deeb’s An Enchanted Modern (2006), Margot Badran’s Feminism in Islam (2009), among others.

[3] For a good discussion of Islamophobic discourse in Europe and France in particular, see Joan W. Scott’s (2010) The Politics of the Veil.

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