From Icon to Exile: The Price of a Nude Photo in Egypt

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.

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