Like Hirsi Ali before her, Aliaa Elmahdy has had to flee her country following her protest. although Aliaa chose a radical departure from discourse, much like Hirsi Ali, her naked picture should not equal a death sentence, but that is what is in store for her, if some Islamists have their way.
Many death threats have been leveled at the young Egyptian. She has been forced to seek refuge in Sweden. But her life will always be overshadowed by the threat of radicalized Muslims seeking revenge for her 'act'.
The usual backlash followed her youthful protest: that she was a disgrace to Islam and violated the basic tenets of the religions. For many others she is a hero.
But the question remains as to what was the true intention behind that naked picture. Was she just crying out for attention for the resolution of personal conflicts? or was she making definite statements against oppression in Islamic societies? The answer is probably both, but some of it, if not all, may have been lost to the hoopla it generated.
A strange family history preceded the act that scandalized Egypt. Aliaa is from a good family, but was physically abused by her father, who is her mother's first cousin. The abuse was not only physical but also psychological, and it continued until she was an adult. She was treated badly by her military father for just about everything.
She was also imprisoned in her house at all times she was not in school, because her parents feared she would lose her virginity. When she faked her class schedule and did have a relationship with a man, her parents locked her in the house permanently.
She finally escaped in 2011. She also joined the protest in Tahrir square. For a moment her life seemed to be full of possibilities.
In October of that same year, however, she transferred some of her pictures to her computer, and that is when she posted one that she particularly liked. Although Facebook prohibits hate speech and other violations, the response was quick and hateful, even though the pictures was taken down only a few hours later by Facebook administrators.
The photo however, survived, probably copied by someone, and soon became a symbol detached from the person it represents. It also has become larger than the very personal message Aliaa was trying to convey when she took the naked picture of herself.
The West in fact, adopted her as a symbol of protest. But they missed the real person behind the picture.
Although Elmahdy hopes that women do rise to protest the oppression of strict mores in Egypt, she does not think change will come unless there is outright civil unrest.
The problem with women in the Islamic world, is that they are the symbol of how Islamic rules is observed, much more than the men. Muslim men see it their right to enforce the strictest rules on women, even when they do not directly reflect Koranic law, whereas no such parallel imposition might exist for themselves. In general, women are oppressed by the system, because it is rife with the possibility of abuse, and not always because of tenets and their observance. Power corrupts, sometimes absolutely. If there is a law that says that men can beat women, there is inherently a possibility of abuse. It is a system that condones beatings, virtual imprisonment, and many other restrictions that make life lived precariously and vicariously. And they do not need be. They have been constructed over interpretations of interpretations, because the construct of strict Islamist societies cannot survive by allowing even a semblance of universal freedom.
Although egregious examples of women oppression cover the news from fore to aft, the real struggle, and oppression of women in the Muslim world is in the restrictions that leave women without choices, such as the inability to chose a spouse, of not being able to avail themselves of education in certain countries, or the ability to circulate liberally and drive as in Saudi Arabia.
The problem with protest, aside from the obvious death threats, is that it quickly becomes strumentalized by the West, but does little to help advance the cause of women's rights in the Muslim world. The backlash is not just a form of affirmation of an Islamic Identity, but a sort of damage control aimed at limiting the amount of change that could occur if it went unpunished, and also a way to consolidate entrenched positions. In the Muslim world all change is taken as a form of Westernization. And that is where the problem is. If the West did not seize so quickly on these particular cases, like Aliaa or Hirsi Ali, or Malala, there could be a chance that others would pursue some form of protest. The stronger the spotlight from the West, the larger the cry for revenge and calls for fatwas.
In fact, one of Cairo's leading clerics stated just that: that if Aliaa is not punished, he fears that his daughters could follow her actions.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Islamists' views of Islam. The fear of unleashing women, by offering them even basic freedoms, is at the heart of all the issues of women's rights. They see the possibility of change as a direct challenge to Islam, to its very survival. But that is an excuse, because faith is not achieved through beatings or imprisonment. Many women in Islamic countries chose to wear a veil, but many others do not. Is it really the role of women to be the single pillar on which Islam rests? Is the ability of women to achieve a modicum of freedom really the evil way that could destroy Islam? Not so. History has taught us that this strict interpretation is more a product of a backlash against the West or the product of archaic, ignorant socities within the larger context of Islamic countries, and is what is driving the quest for further entrenchment and regression.
Aliaa however, has continued her protest strictly directed at Islamist excesses. What started as a personal outcry is now a full fledged protest against the restrictions of a male oriented society, which wants to leave no space for women's ability to share 'power'.
Religions that are skewed unfairly against women, and most are, cause an imbalance in society that creates dystopian societies. Just the idea that women cannot drive, as one cleric in Saudi Arabia declared due to the fact that they could damage their ovaries, is emblematic of how a male dominated society can create new rules to limit or block any protest or freedom that could lead to an 'awakening', that dangerous state when a woman realizes that indeed she is equal to her counterpart, and should enjoy all the freedoms and perks of the other half of society.
Some women in Muslim society see this kind of radical protest, nudity in particular, as a form of protest that soon runs aground. It is counterproductive because it reiterates the negative stereotypes that are inherent in strict Islamic society.
The problem is that, as much as Aliaa's protest was strong and powerful, and empowering, it has done little to change the condition of women in Egypt. That alone is the epitaph of her action: the reaction of Egypt and even the women in Egypt is that radical departures cannot function in entrenched societies and no effect in bringing about meaningful change.
What then, is a woman to do? Not take naked pictures, but try to demand for basic rights withing a society that slowly proves that women can manage their own slice of power sharing without abusing or subverting sacred beliefs.
Partial Source : Spiegel Intl/ 1216.13