“In a culture that believes the devil’s lure and the route to hell lie in the naked face and eyes of a woman, stark nudity could very well be a revolutionary cry and a suicidal choice.”
For me the news is what we see on the streets and not what we read in the morning papers or watch on the TV news.
I believe that the street is the honest reflection to our economy, behavioral sociology, politics, faith, and sexuality, to our education, our sense of beauty and our respect for freedoms and human rights, or our lack of respect for them, for that matter.
If you want to figure out what the community you’re living in looks like, the street will be the mirror for you.
It is all there in the street, obvious as day light, staring us in the face, but perceived only by those who have the right eye, the eye that could behold what lies beneath the surface.
If you asked me what to look for, or specifically focus on while you’re on your street discovery, I would say (Cherchez la femme -look for the woman) .. but not in the criminal sense.
The status of women-their socially accepted code of dress, their participation in civil life and their ability to freely express themselves- is a decisive criterion in evaluating the modernity of any community or society.
Of all that I’ve read about the Egyptian revolution, I particularly found the speculative question “where is the role of the Egyptian woman in the revolution?” by Prof. Youssef Zidan, one of Egypt’s top scholars of history and comparative religion, profoundly significant.
One of the fears most political analysts, especially in the west, expressed when asked about the most likely scenario to be implemented in post-Mubarak Egypt was that the prospects for a secular and a true democratic governing system would be undermined if the Islamists were to be the ruling majority.
It took no Genius to come up with such a prophecy, as a matter of fact, the Islamist tide- and when I say Islamist I specifically mean fundamentalism and obscurantism- have been building up over the last 50 years or so in Egypt.
Historically speaking Egypt emerged from the Nineteenth century as a nation eager to embrace pluralism and liberalism while struggling to free itself from the long colonial era – the lyrics of the Egyptian national anthem in 1919 celebrated the Muslim, Christian and Jewish tributaries for Egypt citizenship.
Egypt feminist movement
The feminist movement emerged in Egypt as early as 1919 when the Egyptian women took to the streets and joined the anti-British protests. Leading the women’s rally was Hoda Shaarawi, a pioneer feminist and a political activist who advocated the rights of the Egyptian woman to education and free speech.
In 1919, Shaarawi and Safia Zaghlul helped organize the largest women’s anti-British demonstration. In defiance of British orders to disperse, the women remained still for three hours in the hot sun.
In 1922 Shaarawi made a decision to stop wearing her veil in public, this was the first public defiance of the restrictive tradition. In 1923 Shaarawi founded and became the first president of the Egyptian Feminist Union, after returning from the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome.
It is common knowledge now that the women’s liberation, worldwide that is, is intrinsically related to their socially accepted code of dress, and I don’t certainly mean that the more liberal a woman becomes the less clothes she needs to wear.
I’m simply referring to the paradox whereas modern men or rather men living in modern times, of all ethnicity and religious backgrounds, especially Muslims, have the right to wear the modern western outfits and even indulge in the latest fashions while women are denied that right simply because they are women.
Following the 1930s, women in Egypt began to leave the harem, take off their veils and participate in the society movement as equal to men in most of the civil rights and responsibilities without sacrificing the cultural and religious legacy of modesty and high virtues.
Doria Shafiq was one of the ladies who led the women’s liberation movement in Egypt in the early 1950s. As a result of her activities, Egyptian women now have the right to elect and nominate in the Egyptian constitution.
In February 1951, she led a demonstration, accompanied by 1500 Egyptian women, during which she broke into the Egyptian parliament and spoke to the council to consider the issues and demands of Egyptian women. After a week, the Council granted Egyptian women the right to vote and stand for parliament.
From the mid 1980s the Egyptian street began to witness women and more importantly the young girls starting to wear Hijab– the Saudi style of veil once again.
At the beginning it was not so popular, not all women and definitely a lot of the youngsters rejected the idea of covering up after decades of liberation and struggle to get where they were then.
Obscurantism sneaks in
But thanks to long years of exposure to the fundamentalist doctrine of Islam of the Arabian Peninsula, deluge of well financed hard-line wahhabi preachers reaching out to wider audience of simpletons through mass media and persuading them that wearing hijab is god’s favorite route to paradise and also due to years of political dictatorship the fundamentalist ideas began to appeal to the minds and hearts of Egyptians.
All of her body should be covered up in some long and dark grab- for that would ensure that the woman would not cause any “ Fitna-temptation.
This is a naïve assumption that simultaneously gives the impression that Muslim males are some freak sex maniacs who are apt to get sexually excited and turn into wild rapists, on the mere looking at any naked part of the woman’s body be it her heels or hands.
Succumbing to this all-together radically ignorant doctrine, one of the Saudi sheikhs has lately come up with a fatwa- binding religious decree- that the temptation lies in the woman’s eyes and hence he called upon the Muslim women to even cover up their- Bette Davis- eyes.
After the revolution of 25 January, which has been launched by a group of courageous secular youths the tables are being turned in the favor of Islamists.
And no matter how hard the liberal front try to hold back this fundamentalist tide they will not succeed, not under the current situation anyway. And no, I’m not being defeatist here, I’m only being realistic
This is not only about some well organized and resourceful group as in the case of the Muslim brothers and their newly-formed political party ironically dubbed “freedom and justice”.
Nor is it about the inherently violent and obscenely funded- by the wahhabis in Saudi Arabia- Salafist groups and their new party ludicrously called “The light”.
Rather it is about the disturbed collective mindset of the Egyptian common people who after decades of dictatorship cloaked in secularism are now ready to support an Islamist government cunningly cloaked in democracy in the hope that it would be less brutal and corrupt.
Invisible Candidate and herded sheep
To know how those Brothers and Salafists stand on the hot issues of the freedom of expression and women’s equality, we only have to take a look at one of their electoral banners which displayed photos of 10 candidates, 9 bearded men and one woman.
The one woman candidate was an inevitable prop in this travesty of democracy, but since they believed that the face of the Muslim woman shouldn’t be exposed naked for everyone to watch they replaced their female candidate’s photo with the logo of the party (as if she didn’t exist)
In one of their latest rallies where they protested the alleged detention by the Egyptian Orthodox church of a Christian woman who, as the rumors went, had converted to Islam a group of women draped in back niqab joined the Salafist rally.
But since they were not allowed to mingle with men, the sexual stimulation and temptation thing you know, they were encircled by a rope like a flock of sheep and herded by a man who held the leash/rope and dragged them all the way through the protest.
In the midst of all that surrealistic situation where most of the secular and educated youths who set this whole uprising in motion are now being hunted down and put behind bars by the military council and as the liberals are watching the revolution, they have been dreaming about for ages, being hijacked by the Islamists.
And some of the hidden hawks of the old regime one could imagine the frustration, the broken dreams, the tears and the hidden cries of all those once starry-eyed revolutionaries who occupied the Tahrir square for glorious and unforgettable 18 days.
But not everybody can live with a muted cry. There is always an exception to every rule.
As the precipitating forces on the socio-political scene have been so violent, unpredictable and flagrantly extreme, so was the reaction of Aliaa Magda el- Mahdi, a 20-years-old Egyptian college student who dared to post a photo of herself in full nude on her blog last week.
In a culture that believes that the devil’s lure and the route to hell lie in the naked face and eyes of a woman, stark nudity could very well be a revolutionary cry and a suicidal choice.
On her Facebook page Aliaa explained that she posted this nude picture to defend her freedom that is being hijacked by ultra-conservatism. She wrote that she was “echoing screams against a society of violence, racism, sexual obsession, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.”
In her self-portrait she posted on her blog, A Rebel’s Diary (warning: X-rated), which has received almost 2 million page views till now, she faces the camera with absolutely defiant eyes wearing only a red ribbon in her hair, thigh-high tights, and red ballet shoes.
The same photo appears on her blog a second time, now with a yellow rectangle covering her crotch. “The yellow rectangles on my eyes, mouth and sex organ resemble the censoring of our knowledge, expression and sexuality,” she writes.
Aliaa’s unprecedented act shocked the moral vanity of the Egyptian society and somehow helped stoke conservative Islamist sentiments that many liberals fear will undermine their prospects in the country’s parliamentary election next week.
Her action not only raised eyebrows, but also questioned her sanity and morality. But the young rebel defended herself and her freedom of expression.
“I have the right to live freely in any place,” She wrote on her blog. “I feel happy and self-satisfied when I feel that I’m really free.” Under the picture she wrote one word … “Revolution”
With Egypt now on the threshold of a new era, that could turn out to be a real democracy or a disguised theocracy,or even a military fascism one could not, or actually should not judge Aliaa’s nudity. But I wonder if her daring statement, that leaps past the fringes of the society values into the taboo, is another step in Egypt’s feminist (R)evolution or is it the last chapter of the movement?
For more articles by Dr. Ashraf Ezzat visit his website
Editing: Jim W. Dean
Ashraf Ezzat is an Egyptian born in Cairo and based in Alexandria. He graduated from the faculty of Medicine at Alexandria University.
Keen not to be entirely consumed by the medical profession, Dr. Ezzat invests a lot of his time in research and writing. History of the ancient Near East and of Ancient Egypt has long been an area of special interest to him.
In his writings, he approaches ancient history not as some tales from the remote times but as a causative factor in our existing life; and to him, it’s as relevant and vibrant as the current moment.
In his research and writings, Dr. Ezzat is always on a quest trying to find out why the ancient wisdom had been obstructed and ancient spirituality diminished whereas the Judeo-Christian teachings and faith took hold and prospered.
Dr. Ezzat has written extensively in Arabic tackling many issues and topics in the field of Egyptology and comparative religion. He is the author of Egypt knew no Pharaohs nor Israelites.
In 2013 his short The Pyramids: story of creation was screened at many international film festivals in Europe. And he is working now on his first documentary “Egypt knew no Pharaohs nor Israelites”.