Baring your breasts online in Egypt can get you in a lot of trouble.
In December, Aliaa Elmahdy participated in a public nude protest outside the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. Despite the freezing weather, she stood sandwiched between two other, also naked, members of the radical feminist organisation Femen with the words “Sharia is not a constitution” in red paint across her chest and stomach. In the photo of the three-person rally above, she doesn't look uncomfortable at all, or even angry – she seems more amused that someone's taking her picture than anything.
This wasn’t Aliaa’s first time making headlines for nudity: In 2011, while living in Egypt, she uploaded photos to her blog in which she wore nothing more than a flower in her hair, red shoes and thigh-high polka-dot stockings. This was, she claimed, a form of protest against “the oppression of women in Egypt.” After the image went viral and she began receiving death threats and was kidnapped, the 21-year-old was given political asylum in Sweden, where she linked up with Femen – the international activist group founded in Ukraine best known for their topless protests across Europe on behalf of women’s rights and against religion and the sex industry.
Femen has succeeded in gathering a lot of attention for, among other things, protesting the inclusion of Islamist countries in the Olympics and taking a chainsaw to a cross in Kiev, Ukraine that was a memorial to victims of Stalin’s murderous regime. The group has been criticised for many things, including being “inarticulate about what it stands for.” But regardless of how you feel about the organisation, it’s undeniable that Aliaa had to have some balls to pose nude in Egypt, and her actions have made her a pariah in her homeland. Even though that Stockholm protest was 2,000 miles away from Egypt, the Egyptian interior ministry is still bringing charges against her for “blasphemy” and “damanging the country’s reputation.” After finding out that she’s recently started up a Femen branch in Egypt – a country that has become notorious for committing violence against women – and has asked Egyptian women to email nude photos for her to post online, I got in touch with her to see how much progress had been made.
VICE: Hi Aliaa, how’s your work with Femen coming along? What do you guys do?
Aliaa Elmahdy: We make nude protests – like the one we made in Stockholm. We protest about many issues, about gay rights, about prostitution. In Egypt, and maybe everywhere to some degree, when a woman claims her body – when she’s naked but not for sex – it just annoys people so much that she’s not covered. They think there’s something wrong with her.
Do your parents approve of your work with Femen and what you’re doing?
They know what I’m doing, but we’re not in contact.
So they disapprove?
Tell me about Femen in Egypt. How is that going?
After I protested with Femen, I thought about making a branch of Femen in Egypt and then I made a Facebook page. In Egypt we are treated like goods, exactly like goods. They even use expressions like “used” and “opened” [to describe women]. When a man marries a woman he says, “I will take her,” like, “OK, I will take this skirt.” Like he owns them. Even my parents told me, “Now you’re cheap, you’re doing this for free,” when I had a boyfriend.
What do you hope to accomplish in Egypt?
I hope it encourages others to break from this fear and talk openly about rejecting Sharia or the constitution – nobody dares to do this. I hope that one day there will be Femen everywhere.
So what made you pose nude the first time you did and post it online?
At first I took the photo on my camera and after some time I was uploading photos from my camera and thought about posting it as a way of expressing something.
That I’m not ashamed of my body. And I expressed that with every item I was wearing. For example, the flower in my hair – my mother used to tell me, “No, this is too much, don’t wear it,” [because] in the street people would comment about my appearance. They tell girls in Egypt things like, “Don’t laugh, don’t walk in the street… don’t do anything.”
Did the Egyptian government threaten you?
The first time when I posted the photo there was a case [against me] and I don’t know what happened to it. Now there is another case against me and someone wants to have my nationality revoked.
How have people been reacting to your efforts to start Femen in Egypt?
Some boys sent me messages like, “Leave Egyptian girls alone.” Even when a woman sends me something and I publish it, they say leave them alone or, “You’re forcing them to do what you want.” No, I’m just letting them have a voice and say they are forced to do what you want them to do, not what they want.
I read on your blog that you are asking Egyptian women to send you nudes –
Yeah, I didn’t get photos from Egyptian women. But I got photos from men. Some of them had good messages like “Women are also free” and things like that, but no women have participated. Some also sent photos from porn sites. I got some stupid photos.
So men are participating in it too then?
The message was directed to women but men responded to it, not women. In Egypt, when a woman loses her phone she is terrified that someone will see her photos, even just a photo of her face.
Why did you have to flee to political asylum in Sweden?
If I was in Egypt right now, I would be jailed, and I got many death threats and was kidnapped before I came here.
How did this kidnapping happen?
I was staying in Alexandria, and a girl I know through Facebook kept pushing me to come and stay with her. I took my cat with me, and she took him away. I thought he jumped out the window, so I posted ads with his photo and my phone number. Then some people called, and when I went to meet them I discovered that they knew details about my life that no one would know – like I got in a fight with a girl earlier that morning and I was planning to travel for a conference. They told me they knew this girl I was staying with, and she took my cat because she didn’t like what I do.
So she stole your cat because she didn’t like the work you were doing?
At first she acted like my friend and I thought she thought the same way I do. Even though her mother didn’t like me, I didn’t think she would go that far.
Who were these people that called you?
Someone who was in contact with this girl and her mother. When they kidnapped me, they put on a mock trial – it was two men debating. One of them was like, “We will not use violence,” and one of them wanted to rape me. They said that I didn’t live in my father’s house and that I had a boyfriend. One of them said, “Someone else fucks her, so why don’t I?” And they said things about my nude photo. I don’t think they saw it, but they were talking about it being posted on Facebook. These men can have sex without marriage and they can sleep with prostitutes and do whatever they want, but I can’t?
How did you end up escaping them?
They said maybe we can take her pants off and see if she’s a virgin or not. If she’s a virgin we’ll leave her, and if not we will rape her. They let me go because one of them thought I was a virgin.
That sounds terrifying. Do any of your friends in Egypt share the same views as you?
Yeah, although many of them are hypocrites and some are jealous when someone fights for her freedom and want to hurt her – like the girl that helped kidnap me.
Would you like to return to Egypt?
Yeah, I’d like to but I don’t think Ill be able to return now.