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

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.

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