REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- A 20-year-old Egyptian feminist and political activist has startled the nation by posting a nude self-portrait on her blog, calling her action a scream “against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.”
The protest by Aliaa Mahdy was viewed as a provocative move against the ruling military council and the rising influence of Islamist parties that are expected to win a major share of seats in upcoming Egyptian parliamentary elections. The images test the bounds of expression in a Muslim-dominated nation that considers itself moderate but prides itself on piety.
The blog of photographs, including one showing Mahdy facing the camera wearing only thigh-high stockings, red shoes and a red bow in her hair, reportedly has had more than 1.5 million hits since it was posted this week. While winning praise in some quarters, it has also been condemned elsewhere and has raised concerns that it needlessly incites Islamists against secularism at a time of intense political turmoil.
“I bow my head in respect,” wrote Sami on Mahdy's site. “There is a little to no point in you arguing with fellow Egyptians, brainwashed since birth by a vile religion and a deep rooted hypocrisy ingrained in them. Just please be extra cautious. . .we don't want to see you stabbed by a pathetic ‘jihadi’ or hear that you had to flee Egypt to asylum. Best of luck.”
Others criticized Mahdy for jeopardizing the civil freedoms young activists called for during the uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak this year. The post was unprecedented in a country where about 90% of the population is Muslim and most women wear headscarves.
Mahdy wrote on the blog, titled "memories of a revolutionary: nude art," that she was practicing her right of freedom of expression.
"These photos have nothing to do with neither art nor the revolution," wrote Twitter user AhmdAlish.
Magued Ghoraba wrote: "We are defending secularism for innuendos and then we get this #NudePhotoRevolutionary. Stop shocking people to the point of repulsion."
Mahdy's protest was the latest sign of frustration among secular activists increasingly convinced that the Egyptian revolution has stalled and left the nation far from democracy.
Weeks ago, activists posted their wills on Twitter after thugs and military police killed more than 20 demonstrators. This frustration has been heightened by the widening political voices of ultraconservative Islamists who want to expand the role of Islamic sharia law in the country's constitution.
Egypt practiced a relative liberalism during the early decades of the last century until the early 1970s, when millions turned to conservative Wahabi and Salafi Islamic beliefs in the face of political, social and economic setbacks. Nowadays it's unacceptable for many Egyptians to see a girl "dressed inappropriately" in the streets of the capital, much less posting nude self-portraits.
Mahdy, an atheist, was defiant, telling her detractors: "Get rid of your sexual complexes for good before directing your ... abuses towards me or deny me the right of freedom of expression."
-- Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo