The photograph of twenty-year old Aliaa El-Mahdi took Egypt and much of the Internet world by storm in October 2011. A domestic photograph posted to a personal blog went viral in hours sparking praise and even death threats. Egypt was sobering up from the spring uprising and trying to establish where the boundaries are in turbulence of political change. The timing of her photographic act was significant: discontent with the lack of real social progress was exposing the paradoxical nature of freedom encased within revolutionary fervor. If one issue can uncoil the loose patchwork of groups trying to affect change in Egypt, gender could be that fissure.
El-Madhy’s self-portrait depicts a naked young woman, returning our stare, reminiscent of much preceding visual culture. On this level, the image itself would barely raise an eyebrow in the West, or Egypt for that matter, where there is no censorship of the Internet.
This amateur self-portrait is aware of art history and the red tinted motif draws attention to some artistic aspirations and embellishments. Indeed, she categorises the photograph under “Nude Art” on her blog. However, the cultural charge of the image lies in the transgression of social boundaries it represented for the majority of women in Egypt. The deep-rooted traditional mindset of Islamists who embraced the removal of the thirty-year corrupt regime with gusto felt outraged and betrayed by El-Mahdi’s freedom of expression; for this was not their definition of freedom. More extreme voices threatened violence and, in December, a female lookalike was beaten up inTahrir Square. Other detractors came from the liberal side, criticising her for personalising the revolution at a politically sensitive time.
The majority of El-Mahdi’s support came from an external audience who saw the negative reaction to the image as an infringement of womens’ rights and, perhaps, a chance to highlight conservative Islam. The blog received four-million hits and the image circulated across the world in an appropriated storm, in part, no doubt, driven by voyeurism. A campaign of solidarity photos launched by Israeli women didn’t do El-Mahdi’s case much good in Egyptian eyes. Fearing for her safety, El-Mahdi eventually went underground in Cairo. Her image became briefly iconic, stenciled onto the walls of the Ministry of Interior near Tahrir Square alongside those of other revolutionary figures. This attempted alignment altimately failed, however, as even the April 6th activists distanced themselves from El-Mahdi, stating she was not a member, as had been rumored on social media.
Certain clues about this overwhelmingly negative reaction in Egypt can be discerned from the image itself and, most importantly, from its public distribution. The image is not only a feminist statement, and this complexity represents a highly provocative position for an Egyptian woman to asume. El-Mahdi’s gaze expresses a shy confidence, slightly unsure of her own erotic capital, but assured there is something to be exchanged as the pose and props invite or succumb to a sexualised gaze. The photograph is encased in the contested politics of now, that has so far failed to put gender issues firmly on the reform agenda.
El Mahdi’s act complicates the revolution myth, piercing the bubble of optimism for those hopeful for progressive social change. Unlike other photographs documenting the violent treatment of women protesters, this image transgresses victimhood, probing deep-rooted paradoxes in Egypt during a time when it faces some hard truths about the roles available to women in the eyes of the traditional majority. In the contested space of Tahrir Square, women have been raped by groups of men in uncontrolled sexual frenzies, while the police have carried out highly questionable ‘virginity tests’ on women arrested during protests in 2011. Such violent incidents are a dark mirror that few contemporary political figures choose to address.
Implicit social values shape gender divides in Egypt and create a cultural distinction between private and public behavior. In this light, a minority communicate to the West and, perhaps, tend to misrepresent the political landscape in the aftermath of Mubarak and transition into Muslim Brotherhood rule. This goes some way to explaining why the El-Mahdi image provoked this reaction with few in Egypt ready to defend her in public. The lack of responses from other Egyptian women is also telling, with none of them following El-Mahdi in fusing the body with the body politic. Her act has left her empowered but isolated in a society in flux, struggling to define gender issues in a post-revolution quagmire.
See El Madhy’s Blog here: http://arebelsdiary.blogspot.com/2011_10_01_archive.html