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

On a fall day in 2013, Elmahdy made an appearance at a book fair in the Swedish city of Göteborg. Security guards had been hired for protection. There was a panel discussion on a small stage in which four women talked about feminism. The moderator asked whether bare breasts could be hiding the real message. Elmahdy placed her microphone on the table, pulled up her sweater and stood topless in front of the moderator and the audience. The audience members held their smartphones above their heads and snapped her picture. "The body is merely a symbol," Elmahdy said to the moderator.

When asked what she achieves with her protests, Elmahdy replies: "People become more courageous and express their feeling. The goal is to break the taboo."

A taboo performs a function. It is based on an understanding that people tacitly accept, and it binds a society together. A taboo can be bad, but it can also be good. In Cairo, Göteborg and Berlin, it is a taboo to undress on the street. It doesn't mean that women are being oppressed, or men, for that matter.

Elmahdy's supporters respect her for her courage, most of all, but perhaps we should ask ourselves what she has achieved with her protests. In Egypt, some men are now confusing feminism with nude photos. There are Arab feminists who say that Elmahdy has done more harm than good to women's equality in Egypt. In Sweden, the operators of a mosque filed a complaint against her for harassment of the public, while visitors to a book fair came away with souvenir photos of a topless woman. There is probably only one person who derives at least some benefit from Elmahdy's displays of nudity: Elmahdy herself.

When asked what her message to Egyptians like Rahman is, she replies: "Egypt is not your fucking country, and who are you to decide, who gets citizenship."

Perhaps Elmahdy was never interested in results, or in achieving something concrete with her protest. Her great achievement is the message she sent to her parents and the Salafists with the help of the photo. The image of Elmahdy in the nude says: I'm still alive.

Destroying a Life with Defiance

Rahman receives the message from Elmahdy in Cairo with a smile and says that he too has a message for her: "If you have problems, I can stand by your side. We Egyptians must stick together. I wish you the best."

When asked whether she regrets taking the photo, Elmahdy replies that she had to do it because she wouldn't have been herself otherwise. Her words illustrate the tragedy of her story. From the beginning, people expected Elmahdy to be something other than what she is, and when she finally had the confidence to be herself, she destroyed her life in the process.

There has been much speculation over what the look on Elmahdy's face meant when she undressed and gazed at the camera. The liberal Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung wrote: "Those who look at the picture lustfully and spit on it should look at her expression. A prostitute never has an expression like that." The Frankfurt daily Frankfurter Rundschau wrote: "The 22-year-old student Elmahdy isn't looking at the camera lasciviously, but curiously and defiantly." And the German monthly magazine Cicero wrote: "She doesn't have a particularly sexy look in her eyes. It's more of an inquiring gaze."

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