From Icon to Exile: The Price of a Nude Photo in Egypt
Egyptian Aliaa Elmahdy became an icon of the Arab Spring after she posted a nude photo of herself online. Then she fled to Sweden after receiving death threats from Islamist extremists. What and whom did her statement serve?
When this story is published, Aliaa Elmahdy will have wiped away the traces of her former life and will be living in a location unknown to us. She will continue to flee and fear the day when one of the men from her native Egypt tracks her down and stands in front of her to take her back.
For the last two years, 22-year-old Egyptian Aliaa Magda al-Elmahdy has been a hunted woman because she used the delayed-action shutter release of her digital camera to take a photo of herself, which she then posted online. She is only wearing stockings and shoes in the photo.
The image made Elmahdy an icon of the Arab Spring. Millions of people saw the photo in the first few days after it was released. Even at the time, it wasn’t clear whether viewers were interested in the message or her naked skin, but nevertheless, Elmahdy was a star for a few weeks. She gave an interview to CNN, but then she received death threats, forcing her to flee from her country and go into hiding.
Some say that Elmahdy ridiculed the laws of Islam, and that she is a whore and a disgrace to Egypt. Muslims from around the world have sent her death threats. A radical Muslim attempted to have her Egyptian citizenship revoked. Since then, though, Elmahdy has been a hero for many others.
Her story raises several questions. Was the photo an act of protest or therapy? Is she a hero or naïve? Elmahdy remained silent for a long time. But now she is providing the answer that could be the key to many questions, the answer to the question: Who is Aliaa Elmahdy?
Most recently, she lived in a Swedish village that could be reached after driving for an hour through a coniferous forest. It’s a place that rarely sees outsiders. It was difficult to contact Elmahdy. Many people have attempted to write her emails or messages on Facebook. But Elmahdy ignores messages from strangers, because most strangers berate her.
Beaten and Caged
Elmahdy has chosen a café for our rendezvous. She sits with her back to the window and orders a glass of strawberry juice. She doesn’t like to look people in the eye.
She says that she grew up in Heliopolis, an affluent neighborhood of Cairo. When she thinks about it today, she says, she misses the smell of the sun on the streets, the cats climbing through the garbage, and kushari, an Egyptian dish made of macaroni, rice and lentils that her mother used to make for her. Her parents, she says, were not strictly religious and didn’t go to the mosque. Her father and mother are cousins. Her mother is a bookkeeper and her father an officer in the Egyptian army. She says that her father had been beating her for as long as she could remember.
Sometimes he would hit her, she says, for contradicting him or not wearing a headscarf, and sometimes for no reason at all. Her mother would stand there and say: “Beat her, but don’t injure her.” Once, when Elmahdy came home from school, her father told her that she was disgusting because she was too small. Once he crushed her glasses with his fist. This is her version of her story. Her parents aren’t speaking to the press.
Elmahdy attended a private school, and when she came home from classes, her parents would lock her into the house. She wasn’t allowed to go outside because they feared that she would lose her virginity if she did. She was kept like a precious calf, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder one day.
She asks for a pad of paper. “I don’t know how you say this in English,” she says. She draws a rod with a sharp tip, a weapon that looks like a spear. “He hit me with that.”
Her parents told her that a decent woman shouldn’t pose for photos, wear a flower in her hair, stand with her legs apart, show the skin of her legs or wear tight clothing or lipstick.
At 13, Elmahdy decided that there could be no God. She learned to lie and draw up a fake class schedule, just to gain a few moments of freedom for herself. She says it was easy to lose her virginity.
After graduating from high school, Elmahdy was accepted at the American University in Cairo, where she studied art. Her parents picked her up from the campus every day. When her mother said that she wanted to check to see if she still had her hymen, Elmahdy grabbed a kitchen knife and said that she wanted to move out. Her father changed the locks in the house to keep her inside.
Elmahdy says that she felt suffocated at home. It was as if she couldn’t get any oxygen into her lungs.
Once, when she was alone, she placed a camera onto a stack in her room, painted her lips a pale red and undressed. She slipped into a pair of strapless stockings and stuck flowers into her hair. She took photos in various poses. She says that she took the photos for herself, as a form of silent protest against her parents. Then she forgot about them.
Liberation and Censorship
A few weeks later, Elmahdy walked left the classroom in the middle of a lecture. She was carrying a backpack into which she had packed a few articles of clothing that morning. She took a bus into downtown Cairo, where she walked along the banks of the Nile and breathed deeply. She knew that she would never return to her parents’ house. She had proven that she would not allow herself to be kept like an animal. First she lived with a female friend, and then she moved in with a man. She was 19 and felt liberated.
It was 2011, and the Egyptian people were rebelling against their dictator. Elmahdy went to Tahrir Square a few times. She experienced her personal liberation in parallel with the liberation of her country, and she must have felt as if the two things were related. That was where her misfortunes began.
In October 2011, she transferred some photos from her digital camera to her laptop. She found the naked photos she had taken of herself and picked out the most attractive one. Although she knew that nudity is a taboo for some people in her country, Elmahdy decided to post the image on her Facebook page.
When someone opens a Facebook account, he or she is required to click on a box to indicate acceptance of the site’s “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.” A statement in a section marked “Safety” reads: “You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.”
Facebook was created in the United States, and it bans photos like the one Elmahdy took of herself. Apparently nudity is still a taboo in some places in the West. For the first time, it became apparent to Elmahdy that the world is a more complex place than she would have liked.
The Facebook administrators deleted the photo a few hours after Elmahdy had posted it. But Elmahdy, determined that no one would ever forbid her from doing anything again, posted the same photo on her blog, so that everyone could see it.
Wars and revolutions like the one in Egypt demand symbols: photos like Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” from the Spanish Civil War, the image of a Vietnamese girl running away out of a village that had been bombed with napalm, or that of a boy raising his arms in the Warsaw ghetto. Photos like these simplify the world. They reduced politics to emotions: fear, horror, hope.
But does anyone know the name of that Vietnamese girl? What these icons have in common is that they are bigger than the fate of the individual. And something else, too: They depict victims.
Elmahdy’s photo felt like a rebuttal. She wasn’t a victim. She also differed from the Vietnamese girl and the falling soldier because she had taken her own photo and published it herself. Elmahdy soon realized that the photo was making a bigger and bigger impact.
Supporters of the Egyptian revolution, both the liberals and the deeply religious, distanced themselves from the photo. It was a young art student’s personal act of protest against mistreatment at the hands of her parents. Every detail — the flower, the pose, the stockings — relates to a rule her parents had made. Those who didn’t know that, and hardly anyone did, saw their own message in the photo. The image lends itself to multiple interpretations, and therein lies its power. The photo only became an icon because the West made it into one.
It appeared in newspapers in Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and Denmark. In Germany, it was printed in SPIEGEL and in the newspaper Die Zeit. It corresponded to the notions many Europeans had initially had about the revolution in Egypt. They called it the Arab Spring and thought that what was happening in North Africa could be compared with the French Revolution. They hoped that when the protests were over, people would be more enlightened and build democracies, and that women would find their way to a more self-confident role in society.
Kidnapping and Flight
Elmahdy says that she liked the attention, but that she was also receiving messages from men on Facebook who threatened to kill her. The threats were unsettling, but it was also an exciting time. She had no idea what it meant when her cat disappeared a few weeks after she had published the photo.
A man called her to say that he had found the cat. She was alone when she went to see him, but the man was waiting for her with a friend. The friend locked the door to the apartment, and the man tried to pull Elmahdy’s pants off, saying that it was what she deserved for posting a naked picture of herself. But when Elmahdy kept fighting off the men, they stole her wallet and mobile phone and released her the next morning.
After that night, Elmahdy sensed that the photo could destroy her life if she stayed in Egypt. Ten days later, she boarded a plane in Cairo and fled to Sweden. That was in March 2012.
Elmahdy had become a threat, because she was encouraging other women to imitate her. In the CNN interview, when asked how she sees women in the “New Egypt,” she said: “I am not positive at all unless a social revolution erupts.”
Islam, Women and the West
The role of women is the most fateful point of contention between Muslims and the rest of the world. The lives of women serve as a symbolic setting for this culture war.
Some pious Muslims are worried that their women will become like US singer Miley Cyrus. And people in Europe and the United States look to Egypt with concern, because they believe that it is their duty to rescue the veiled woman from the oppressive clutches of a male-dominated society.
In the West, it’s easy to play the moral teacher when talking about women’s rights in Egypt. But we should remind ourselves that, until 1958, it was illegal for a married woman in Germany to open her own bank account without her husband’s consent. Less than 100 years ago, women were not allowed to vote in Germany. And women have only been permitted to serve in combat units in the German armed forces since 2001.
The conflict between the cultures is being waged with blunt instruments, a conflict over headscarves in German classrooms, burqas in France, high heels in Afghanistan and women driving cars in Saudi Arabia. In Pakistan, the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai, a schoolgirl, in the head because she had fought for the right of girls to go to school. Dutch activist and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali lives under police protection because she criticized the violence committed against women by Muslim men in a short film.
And now Muslim preachers of hate have also set their sights on Aliaa Elmahdy. One person wrote on the Internet: “Her body should roast in hell.”
Eager for Punishment to Set an Example
One of the men who accuse Elmahdy of committing sins is Mahmoud Abdul Rahman. He is a 32-year-old lawyer who works as a bookkeeper in the Egyptian finance ministry. Some 3,500 kilometers (2,190 miles) away from Elmahdy’s hiding place in Sweden, we meet with Rahman in a café in the old section of Cairo. At the beginning of the interview, he says that he knows how strange his arguments must sound for a person from Europe. When he hears the call of the muezzin, Rahman interrupts the conversation to pray.
He believes that Sharia law should be applied in Egypt. He says that he loves Egypt the way he loves his mother, and that his love would be even greater if all women in the country wore veils.
There is a dark spot on his forehead. It comes from placing his head onto the floor five times a day to pray.
When he returns to the table in the café after praying, and says that men must protect women because they are weak, the lights suddenly go out in the entire neighborhood.
“I was sad when I saw Aliaa naked for the first time,” says Rahman. When he found a video online last spring in which she was standing naked in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Stockholm, holding a Koran in front of her genitalia, Rahman knew it was his duty to God to take action. He sat down at his desk at home and wrote a letter to the Egyptian attorney general, asking that charges be brought against Elmahdy for waving around a Koran while she was naked. He wrote: “I ask Your Excellency to undertake all legal actions to deprive her of her Egyptian citizenship.” The next morning, Rahman went to the office of the attorney general and filed his complaint. He hasn’t received a response yet and doesn’t know whether his letter will lead to a trial.
Rahman says that Elmahdy must be punished as severely as possible because he fears that if she is not, his daughters could imitate her actions one day. There are tears in his eyes when he pulls his mobile phone out of his pocket and shows us pictures of his daughters. He says that his wife died of a heart attack a month ago, and that it is now up to him to raise his two little daughters.
There is a film on the Internet that depicts reporters from the ARTE television network visiting Rahman at home. In the film, Rahman’s wife speaks with the reporters and, referring to Elmahdy, says: “She stood there naked with the Koran. What did the Koran do to her?” Rahman’s wife didn’t make the impression that she wanted to be liberated.
The positions are irreconcilable in the dispute between Elmahdy and Rahman. Elmahdy invokes her personal freedom and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rahman invokes God. Perhaps it would be easier for Elmahdy if she knew that Rahman is waging his war on his own, but Egypt’s Salafist bloc, the “Party of Light,” captured about a quarter of votes in the country’s parliamentary elections about a year ago. Elmahdy will not change the centuries-old traditions of these people with nude portraits.
Searching to Join a Cause
After fleeing from Egypt, Elmahdy applied for political asylum in Sweden, where she hardly left her apartment for six months. She kept the curtains drawn, and whenever she heard a loud noise, she was afraid that her pursuers had come to get her. Sitting behind her closed curtains, she wondered what would become of her.
She no longer had a family, was no longer a student, and she had no job or home to return to. She had no friends in Sweden. Her boyfriend, who she sees only occasionally, lives in Norway. Her life is in tatters.
It would be understandable if Elmahdy were to change her name and try to forget the past. Instead, she decided to do the opposite. She searched for an organization to join and found the group Femen, which originated in Ukraine and fights against religion and for more equality for women. The women of Femen became famous for their topless protests. They are trying to construct icons in series.
Elmahdy joined the Femen women in a topless protest for the rights of homosexuals in Russia. On another occasion, she snuck into a Stockholm mosque disguised in a burqa, undressed and staged a protest against Sharia. Elmahdy had learned that only a small group of people knew about these protests in advance, which made her feel safe from her pursuers. Once, the Femen activists set fire to a flag with the Muslim profession of faith on it. Elmahdy says: “I fundamentally do not respect religion if it is misogynistic.”
When she published her nude photo in 2011, it was difficult to do justice to Elmahdy because no one knew what she stood for. Today, it is difficult to do justice to her because she seems to stand for so many different things: for gays, for hatred of Islam, for the right to free expression, but also against the right to free exercise of religion. She seems to have lost her way in the clash between cultures.
On a fall day in 2013, Elmahdy made an appearance at a book fair in the Swedish city of Göteborg. Security guards had been hired for protection. There was a panel discussion on a small stage in which four women talked about feminism. The moderator asked whether bare breasts could be hiding the real message. Elmahdy placed her microphone on the table, pulled up her sweater and stood topless in front of the moderator and the audience. The audience members held their smartphones above their heads and snapped her picture. “The body is merely a symbol,” Elmahdy said to the moderator.
When asked what she achieves with her protests, Elmahdy replies: “People become more courageous and express their feeling. The goal is to break the taboo.”
A taboo performs a function. It is based on an understanding that people tacitly accept, and it binds a society together. A taboo can be bad, but it can also be good. In Cairo, Göteborg and Berlin, it is a taboo to undress on the street. It doesn’t mean that women are being oppressed, or men, for that matter.
Elmahdy’s supporters respect her for her courage, most of all, but perhaps we should ask ourselves what she has achieved with her protests. In Egypt, some men are now confusing feminism with nude photos. There are Arab feminists who say that Elmahdy has done more harm than good to women’s equality in Egypt. In Sweden, the operators of a mosque filed a complaint against her for harassment of the public, while visitors to a book fair came away with souvenir photos of a topless woman. There is probably only one person who derives at least some benefit from Elmahdy’s displays of nudity: Elmahdy herself.
When asked what her message to Egyptians like Rahman is, she replies: “Egypt is not your fucking country, and who are you to decide, who gets citizenship.”
Perhaps Elmahdy was never interested in results, or in achieving something concrete with her protest. Her great achievement is the message she sent to her parents and the Salafists with the help of the photo. The image of Elmahdy in the nude says: I’m still alive.
Destroying a Life with Defiance
Rahman receives the message from Elmahdy in Cairo with a smile and says that he too has a message for her: “If you have problems, I can stand by your side. We Egyptians must stick together. I wish you the best.”
When asked whether she regrets taking the photo, Elmahdy replies that she had to do it because she wouldn’t have been herself otherwise. Her words illustrate the tragedy of her story. From the beginning, people expected Elmahdy to be something other than what she is, and when she finally had the confidence to be herself, she destroyed her life in the process.
There has been much speculation over what the look on Elmahdy’s face meant when she undressed and gazed at the camera. The liberal Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung wrote: “Those who look at the picture lustfully and spit on it should look at her expression. A prostitute never has an expression like that.” The Frankfurt daily Frankfurter Rundschau wrote: “The 22-year-old student Elmahdy isn’t looking at the camera lasciviously, but curiously and defiantly.” And the German monthly magazine Cicero wrote: “She doesn’t have a particularly sexy look in her eyes. It’s more of an inquiring gaze.”
After the conversation in the café, Elmahdy is standing on the shore of a lake outside the Swedish village. She watches the ducks, and when she discovers a playground, she climbs onto a jungle gym and sits on a swing. The icon of the Arab Spring giggles as she swings back and forth. What was the meaning of her gaze in the photo? “It means that I am not ashamed to be proud to be the woman I am.”
From now on, Elmahdy could very well change her address every few months. Fleeing from others threatens to become the focus of her life. But unlike the screaming child on the photo from Vietnam, little of Elmahdy’s deed will remain in the world’s collective memory. The symbolic power of the image will gradually fade away. The photo hasn’t changed anything — not Islam, not Egypt, not the city of Cairo and not even Elmahdy’s parents. Before long, her naked breasts will be nothing more than naked breasts.