This is a long piece (please tell me I don’t need to apologize for it), so I have erred on the side of caution and split it into three parts which I will post over the course of the next few days.
Two episodes back-to-back--Alia Magda al-Mahdi’s nude stare beckoning a challenge to Egyptians and their uprising, and the beating of columnist Mona Eltahawy in the Interior Ministry that smacked of sexual assault—have thrust women back into Egypt’s burning arena after months of fade out.
Eltahawy’s is the very old and depressingly familiar story that Arab women have been living on the streets, at home, in the fields, at work, in jail...: sexual intimidation or violence for the specific purpose of humiliating, demeaning, and finally dehumanizing. Of course, this is an argument that almost every society has long had with its women; in some places the method is restrained, in others it is ferocious. But Arab society’s spat with its own comes with a nasty twist. Call it the female and the question of identity.
Which makes Alia’s subversive act among the most provocative—and frankly weird--instants of the Egyptian revolt. If the attack on Mona jolts us backward, the unusual audacity of Alia is egging us forward. She might not belong anywhere in the political fervor of Tahrir Square, but she certainly has crashed the party and forced the supposedly revolutionary discourse to take notice.
She poses naked; her expression is neutral, almost childlike. There is no come-hither look, no call for quick love--just a nude model’s posture playing its part for the lens. Only the red hair clip and shoes are a concession to color in an otherwise black and white world, as if she is harking back to a forgotten past.
At first look, Alia’s mischievousness seems self-indulgent, distracting. And yet, the remarkable boldness of the photo and its author compel a second look. Hers is at once a statement against hypocrisy--“Put on trial the artists' models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity”—and a combat-ready attachment to “freedom of expression.”
Through this photo alone Alia has reminded us of the very generous meaning of revolution--and our own very stingy definition of it.
Among Egypt’s liberals, there is as much rage against Alia as there is against the SCAF. And therein may lie her point. That sexual harassment has become a particularly acute problem in an increasingly conservative, if not downright Islamized, Egypt is one of Islamism’s most bitter and telling ironies. But there is not much to debate about female nudity with the Muslim Brotherhood. There is, however, plenty to mine and expose in a liberal’s fury. Alia transcends politics and reaches for Egypt itself. She is speaking to life’s many tyrannies, of which politics is but one.
I really doubt the saboteur in her will go far. Not now. Not here. Alas, she is way, way, ahead of her times, and with that, history has taught us, comes a very heavy price.
These are the incidents surrounding Mona Eltahaway and Alia, and they are just the latest in a series that, combined, help tell the fascinating story of the modern Middle East and its women, a story that is at its most nervous in Egypt and its most daring in Iran.
You could tell by the evening’s debris that Tahrir Square on that day, March 8, was not in the mood for liberation. Strewn here and there was the litter of a demonstration gone wrong. On some placards, the furious in the crowds wrote “Not Now,” on others they settled for shoe prints and the X sign. Had you been there earlier, you would have heard words and witnessed behavior to match the harsh verdicts on those posters.
Out in Tahrir, in rather small numbers to mark International Women’s Day and declare their cause a daughter of the Egyptian revolution, women activists were heckled, harassed and then chased out of the Square. A few were cuffed and sent off to jail. “Go back home and cook mahshi!” (stuffed Zuchini), was the stalest of the insults. A forced virginity test for the arrested single women was arguably the most alarming, not to mention demeaning.
The implication of the encounter was clear enough: yet again, women were called in for a people’s freedom and called out for their own. This revolution would leave her behind, much like revolutions before it. And, of course, because of who and where we are, no revolution is resonating louder to the skeptics today than the Iranian one of 1979. For the power of the Persian example lies not only in that initial inspired moment that brought the Pahlavi dynasty down, but in the three decades that came after it, a time as emblematic of radical change as it is of retreats and letdowns, none more so than for the daughters of Iran’s uprising.
So, now that it is our turn in the Arab world to flip the page, eyes look back at Iran as they look now at Egypt for any hint of what might come. Because serious as the differences are between the two countries—and they are serious—at first look the similarities are one too many, especially on that incessant question of women and identity.
Much is at stake here, and not only for Egypt’s female gender. As the pendulum threatens to swing everywhere in this East, nervous talk of counterrevolution is actually outpacing upheaval itself. Egypt is standing at the door of an Arab reformation as it has at that of every contemporary Arab cause--good or bad. The way Egypt goes, so very likely shall many in the region.