It starts on October 2011. Egyptian blogger Alia Magda Elmahdy posts a photo of herself nude, along with a barrage of nude artwork and a message:
“Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.”
At the time, street harassment was at a fever pitch, the military was forcing “virginity tests” on female dissidents, and there was no organizing around it.
What she did was comparable to the actions of Mohamed Bouazizi, the man whose self-immolation in Tunisia a year earlier started Arab Spring. Both used their bodies to shock society out of complacency and towards change. After Elmahdy’s statement, Egyptians began holding rallies against sexual violence, and demanding greater accountability. Virginity tests are now over.
However, while Bouazizi has been lionized across the Muslim and Arab world, Elmahdy was vilified (even by liberal secularists), received death threats, and was forced to leave the country. Egypt still has a long way to go with women’s rights.
Let me be frank: I’m a first generation Egyptian-American. My entire extended family lives in Egypt, including aunts, cousins, nieces, and in-laws. The issue of how women in Egypt are treated is a very personal one. Because of this, I supported Aliaa Elmahdy, and hated the craven way Egyptian liberals disavowed her in a cheap bid for votes. I may never live to see her get her due in Egypt, and that’s shameful.
The following year, she joined Femen, a Ukraine-based feminist organization, which specializes in “sextremism” as a means of political action. And, earlier this year, Amina Tyler, a Femen activist in Tunisia, posted a nude photo of herself online, with the message “My body belongs to me, and is not a source of anyone’s honor,” on her chest.
There’s been growing anxiety about the rise of (often violent) jihadism in Tunisia, as well as the increasing censorship of the Islamist government. Like Elmahdy, Tyler also received death threats, while a leading cleric called for her to be flogged and stoned.
A solidarity protest was called for April 4. Femen declared it Topless Jihad Day. Activists posted topless pictures of themselves from around the world to Femen’s facebook, and held topless rallies across Europe.
In response to Femen, Muslim women created a Facebook page called Muslimah Pride Day, and Muslim women sent pictures of themselves holding up index cards with a simple message.
“Femen does not represent me. I don’t need liberating.”
The page was covered by al Jazeera. Pamela Geller denounced it. And it was supported by countless Muslims, including many queer and progressive Muslims.
Unpacking this issue relies on understanding one thing: Muslims are not monolithic. Muslims in the West (Europe, Canada, America) face a different set of challenges than those in the Middle East.