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Aliaa’s Naked Body: What Did It Matter Anyway?

January 24, 2014

Can the debate over Aliaa's naked body reveal "the reconfiguration of political dissent—its forms, channels, and actors—and the tensions around national identity that animate the contemporary Arab public sphere"? A new article says yes.

Can the debate over Aliaa’s naked body reveal “the reconfiguration of political
dissent—its forms, channels, and actors—and the tensions around national identity
that animate the contemporary Arab public sphere”? A new article says yes.

Aliaa al-Mahdy’s naked body has been an interesting problem for the semiotic study of the revolution. She posted a picture of it on her blog in Nov. 2011 and it received over 1.5 million hits within a week.

I’m blogging about it now because I just read an article on it by  Sara Mourad in the Journal of Communication.

With elections looming, it was a tremendous public provocation that ushered in a moral panic. Spokespersons from the salafist and Muslim Brotherhood groups found in it proof of what they feared, that liberals intended the revolution to overturn the nations collective morals. Many spokesmen for liberal political parties sought to ward off this critique by  issuing condemnations of her action. The April 6 Youth Movement publicly denied Aliaa was a member.

Many artists and intellectuals–especially abroad–rushed to support Aliaa’s claim that her act “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy”. Women’s groups in Israel, Germany and elsewhere published naked photos of themselves in solidarity.

Egyptians being the humorists they are, parodic images also quickly appeared (I’ve reprinted a few below).

One report claimed she received two million comments, for and against, and several Facebook pages have been created to support or condemn her actions.

Aliaa herself has said her activities are an act of freedom, aimed at demanding freedom:

Freedom means doing what you want and making your own choices so long as you don’t hurt others.  Real freedom to me is not a gift.  I can say I’m free because I practice my freedom even though I know I can be hurt for doing so.  –Aliaa al-Mahdy, Nov. 30, 2011 cyberdissident interview

A video that purported to show her beaten and bloodied turned out to be a fabrication, but she did go into hiding after receiving large numbers of rape and death threats. Ultimately, she sought–and apparently received–asylum in Sweden, where she continues to engage in nude protests with a group called Femen, according to a recent news report.

I’ve always considered doing a research paper or blog post on Aliaa’s case, but the discourse is so rich that I wasn’t sure where to start–or if I’d have time to finish.

Fortunately, Sara Mourad, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, has released an article on Aliaa al-Mahdy’s provocative performance and the discourses that surround it. The article is entitled “The Naked Body of Alia: Gender, Citizenship, and the Egyptian Body Politic” and appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Communication Inquiry (I only get it for the articles).

Here’s the abstract:

In November 2011, 20-year-old Egyptian blogger Alia al-Mahdy posted a nude picture of herself on her blog. The photograph received 1.5 million hits within a week of its posting and drew condemnations from conservatives and liberals alike in the critical period leading up to the deeply polarized first post-Mubarak parliamentary election. How was Alia’s nudity framed in mainstream public discourse and by Alia herself? Drawing on a corpus of primary sources, 60 articles from mostly Egyptian and Arab newspapers, this article argues that the public controversy transcends contentious media representations of women to reach into the heart of Egyptian revolutionary citizenship. While mainstream Egyptian and Arab media discourse framed Alia’s nudity as “merely cultural” and “Westernized,” Alia described it as an artistic social commentary. These rhetorical frames reveal the reconfiguration of political dissent—its forms, channels, and actors—and the tensions around national identity that animate the contemporary Arab public sphere.

And here are the photos I mentioned:

This photo is part of a protest series created by Aliaa after she sought asylum in Sweden. The parodist has replaced Aliaa's face with that of President Morsi, who is the target of the protest.

This photo is part of a protest series created by Aliaa after she sought asylum in Sweden. The parodist has replaced Aliaa’s face with that of President Morsi, who is the target of the protest.

In this piece, a stencil of part of Aliaa's body is presented, with a political message neatly covering the genitalia. Note how the artist uses red highlights, mimicking the way Aliaa herself produced black-and-white images with only red items in color.

In this piece, a stencil of part of Aliaa’s body is presented, with a political message neatly covering the genitalia. Note how the artist uses red highlights, mimicking the way Aliaa herself produced a black-and-white image with only red bow and shoes in color.

Aliaa is "nominated" for Miss Egypt in this mock poster.

Aliaa is “nominated” for Miss Egypt in this mock poster. Note how, once again, the layout of the parody is designed to ensure that breasts and genitalia do not show.

Here Aliaa is interpelated into a tryptich that invokes the widely circulated "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" but uses a yellow "censored bar" and replaces the covering of the ears with the covering of the genitals.

Here one of Aliaa’s images is transformed into a tryptich that invokes the widely circulated “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” symbol, but uses a yellow “censored bar” and replaces the covering of the ears with the covering of the genitals.

 

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References:

Mourad, Sara. 2014. The Naked Body of Alia: Gender, Citizenship, and the Egyptian Body Politic. Journal of Communication Inquiry 38(1): 62–78.

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