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

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

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