Naked in Egypt

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy is an Egyptian student who posted nude pictures of herself on the internet in the name of women’s rights. Here’s an article about it, and here’s Elmahdy’s blog, which now has many pictures of naked people. It’s caused a surprising amount of backlash: surprising to me, at least.

The comments on her blog are in many languages, so I’m stuck with using Google Translate to get the gist of most of the discussion. And most of them are from outside Egypt, outside the Mid-East, even, and are overwhelmingly supportive.

That gives me some hope, maybe the hardline Muslims will look at that and have a moment of introspection. Maybe they’ll think “If the rest of the world sees our policies as oppressive and archaic, relics of a dark age, could we be mistaken?” I know that’s pretty unlikely, not only because religious fundamentalism leaves little room for introspection but because these movements to expand religious power and take rights and freedoms away from people are expanding.

Not just in the Middle East, but here in the United States. The names are different, the titles are different, but the core is the same. Submit to authority, don’t think for yourself. Be ashamed of your body, be ashamed of your instincts, be ashamed of your desires. Speak as we tell you, dress as we tell you, think as we tell you. Be a cog in the religious machine. Have only approved types of fun. Anyone who dissents is not merely mistaken, but actively bad. People who refuse to join aren’t even people anymore, they’re things and they’ll suffer a terrible fate, and deserve it.

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy is one of the bravest people I’ve ever heard of. To make that statement in a climate increasingly hostile towards personal expression in general, and women in particular, and especially anything to do with women’s bodies or sexuality had to take the kind of courage we usually associate with fictional characters. From what I could make out the comments from Egypt itself were mostly either condemning her in the name of Islam, or saying that she’s doing more harm than good by infuriating those who condemn her in the name of Islam. So even the people nominally on her side aren’t really supporting her.

There’s a lesson here, it’s one we should have been slowly learning in the U.S. for over a decade now. You have to be willing to piss off your opponents. If you hold back out of a fear of offending those who oppose you, you are ceding your own power to them. Compromise is only possible if all sides are willing to give ground, otherwise you get one group bringing everything to a halt as it childishly stamps its feet and refuses to participate until everyone has recognized its petty power tantrum. If you censor yourself to try to appease the opposition you’re only enabling that behavior and granting them credibility not only in their own eyes, but the eyes of those who might yet decide to join you.

I’ve seen several comments asking what she can accomplish with a blog post full of naked people. Well, if nothing else she’s gotten the world to take a look at Egypt, but there’s something else there. One of the things we can do to enact social change is to act as if things already are the way we think they should be. (This has been frighteningly effective for Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem) Elmahdy is doing that, too, and is an example to us all of moral courage. Something about this reminds me of a scene from some show where the hero is being tortured and brainwashed to say useful things for the evil party. When the torturer asks him if he can win he answers, “Every time I say no.”

About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on November 18, 2011, in Daily Post and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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