Where Nudity is Still Protest

In this country PETA frequently makes headlines for putting naked to near-naked girls in cages pretending to be tigers or what have you as a means of protesting the circus and other forms of animal exploitation.

I have no problems with PETA as an awareness raising group and conversation starter, but let’s be honest, the nakedness used by the group is nothing more innovative as “sex sells,” a concept that stretches as far back in time as does sex.

But in some parts of the world that “the personal is political” is a concept that still carries a lot of heft. Not to disparage in anyway the feminists in the first world, the work remains yet unfinished here; but, there’s just no denying that some countries just aren’t as far along the path toward equality, let alone liberty.

Take for example the uproar caused by a handful of tame, amateur nudes self-released by Egyptian activist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy. (You’ll have to click over to her site to see them.)

Elmahdy used a simple digital camera, a blogspot-hosted website, and twitter to highlight the continuing injustices of a post-Arab Spring Egypt. Sure, Egypt, as one upset commenter has noted, is still discussing what a “civil society” really means, and so perhaps Elmahdy is premature in fighting for gender equality. But the old protest saying couldn’t be more apt for an Egypt with a blank slate to write their political future upon: If not now, when?

Photo from the Washington Post's Lifestyle section

In any case, what can’t really be denied is that to create a protest that Americans are talking about in their hometowns, all Elmahdy needed was enough cash for a camera and a mountain of intestinal fortitude.

Erik Loomis and Matt Yglesias among others have noted that Twitter and the other social media tools shouldn’t be considered catalysts of the Arab Spring or OWS or other movements, and they are right to do so. It is easy to fall prey to the lure of novelty. But in folding social media up with other forms of communication, we shouldn’t overlook the unique characteristics that make social media powerful not just in terms of organizing protests but in other areas as well, like awareness raising. I think this was probably more true during the Green Wave when protesters in Iran had few other options to get their stories out than through Twitter. But it’s true here too. In the 50s, in order to use nudity to spark even a nationwide conversation, let alone an international one, Elmahdy would have had to connect with a like-minded publisher who was, despite his profit motive and fear of reprisal, willing to promote her and her cause.

Elmahdy’s is a particularly important move now, because so many in this country view our own revolution so positively that we tend to see all revolutions as binary. If Nasser was bad and is overthrown, things will definitely be better with him gone. This is just simply not necessarily the case. Political scientists and reporters have never been purely optimistic about Egypt’s outlook, and political observers of the upcoming elections there are even more pessimistic now.

It may well be that Elmahdy’s voice will be much quieter in the Egypt to come and so it’s important that we remember that beneath whatever sheen of civil order the next government manages to project, people like her will still be there hoping, and fighting for real change.

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