With a crimson-colored ribbon in her hair, and wearing nothing but black, thigh-high pantyhose and ruby red flats, Aliaa al-Mahdy transformed her body into a site of radical cultural politics last week after posting a nude self-portrait on the Internet.
Some critics labeled the 20-year-old Egyptian an attention-seeking “sexual deviant;” the sick consequence of a generation accustomed to airing out its dirty laundry—and genitals—on Facebook. For many, Mahdy’s actions symbolize social decay and moral bankruptcy; for others, it is a sign of progress.
But it is not the image—which has been viewed over 4 million times online—that matters; it is what it represents. The very fact that people have a problem with the photo is what makes it important. In a single gesture, the self-described “secular-liberal-feminist-vegetarian-individualist” generated a conversation about the role of women in a society attempting to transition from the oppressive grip of a 30-year dictatorship under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, into a nation aspiring toward the ideals of democracy and the right to freedom of expression for all its citizens.
To be certain, access to meaningful political change can come only through participation in mass movements contesting the status quo. But even if Mahdy’s actions were misguided, even if this debate is the unintended consequence of a dramatic, thrill-seeking sensationalist, the bold move remains, at the very least, a foundation for protest built on democratic behavior.
The price of freedom is that we must accept not only what we love, but also what we hate. Freedom of speech is not defined by measures of taste or decency; it's not about what is “right” or “wrong.” It's about the right to choose for yourself what is “right” or “wrong.”
The fantasy that we can “save” the world be sanitizing it is a myth procured by self-righteous figures who want to control how people think, desire and behave. Individuals who value their own opinions and beliefs above others—while maintaining they, and they alone, have the authority to define the boundaries of decency and decide what is acceptable for society—are usually the same individuals who believe they can end a debate through force.
In Lebanon, we often confuse the media-fueled façade of sexual liberation (in the steady supply of mini-skirts and fake breasts) with solid, democratic advancement. Marital rape is legal, there is not a single female serving in the current government, and women cannot pass on citizenship to their children or husbands. They are constrained by laws, practices and restrictions that habitually confirm the notion that a woman’s body belongs to a man—whether it is her father, husband, cousin, uncle, brother or son. And this is true across the political divide. “Pro-West” forces pressure women to be sexual and seductive, a commodity for foreign consumption and tourism, while “traditionalists” dictate that a modest, conservative image is a religious imperative. Both perceive the female body as a dangerous, exclusively sexual object.
We can't all expect to agree on what is offensive. I find it obscene that Lebanese people respect the authority of their leaders while consistently being denied basic rights under a government that is no longer acting civilized and hypocritically touts the principles of “dialogue, consensus and unity,” while spewing hate-filled, divisive and inflammatory rhetoric.
Aliaa al-Mahdy glares into the camera lens with a daring expression, eyes taunting—if only slightly—with the insinuation that by presenting herself fully naked, she is disrupting expectations of what a woman’s body should mean and how it should be presented. Her message is imbued with a striking contradiction: She is claiming the sole right to represent her body and experience, while also reducing it to a piece of raw, passive flesh for others to see in what amounts to a form of subjugation. But to be naked is not just to expose the entirety of the “self,” it is to affirm oneself.
Call it what you want: shameful, pornography, an exercise in sexual liberation, a cheap political stunt, but Mahdy succeeded in making a statement about the necessity of addressing the pressing need for freedom of the mind and body from repression. Women can and should choose their own sexuality and representation.
The majority of ordinary people make the perilous mistake of assuming someone else will accomplish their demands for them. Not Mahdy. A person with the strength of conviction and courage to defy the rigid mores of the social order is a rare and special individual, worthy of recognition.