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Egyptian girl naked photo. Is Egypt ready for nude art?

“All art is propaganda; on the other hand, not all propaganda is art.” (George Orwell)

A young Egyptian girl, Aliaa ElMahdy, who claims to have among the protesters in Tahrir Square, posted naked photos of herself and a male friend on her personal blog. She calls this section of her blog “nude art” and displays the photographs behind a disclaimer. The backlash as intended was nothing short of a disaster.

As a physician by practice, nudity doesn’t really shock me. As a Muslim who was brought up in a relatively conservative family I understand the concerns of many fellow Egyptians. It raises some important questions.

First of all I’m not here to defend what Aliaa did. Aliaa also insults Islam in several of her comments,therefore I’m not a great fan of hers. Aliaa claims to be exercising her rights and that’s what I want to focus on here. At the heart of this debate is the difference between natural rights and legal rights. For a brief glossary please refer to my article: Natural Rights, Human Rights, Legal Rights, Civil Rights

Is this what happens when you give people their freedom?

The question itself contains a fallacy. We don’t GIVE people their freedom. People are BORN free. The challenge is how people choose to use that freedom. Freedom comes with many headaches because of what people do with it.

What it means to defend a citizen’s rights but not their acts

Because rights are not granted, it is in our interest that no one takes them away from us. That is what we mean when we say we defend our natural rights. However, that does not mean we can’t oppose the act. We need to be cautious when someone uses his/her rights to do something we may consider stupid or wrong. The more laws we create and enact, the more powerful and potentially abusive our government becomes and the less free we all become as a result. Bearing in mind that laws are tricky: the more specific the laws are, the easier they are to challenge; the less specific they are, the easier they are to abuse (by government).

Does Aliaa have any natural rights to display nudity?

As a human being she has a natural right to freedom. She can do whatever she wants with it. That’s something she’s had since the day she was born. No one can take that away from her. That’s what Rights Advocates mean when they defend someone’s rights.

These universal rights include the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery, the right to a fair trial, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Natural rights are not dependent on any particular culture or religion. The best way to debate whether someone’s rights have been breached is probably through the courts.

People use their freedom to do all sorts of things. Some of these things are really nasty (e.g. murder or theft) and some simply controversial. Most of the time people use their freedom to reflect their cultural and religious background.

In her blog, Aliaa alludes to her natural rights here…

“Freedom and limits cannot be put in one sentence. Individual freedoms should not be restricted by social norms … Humans are humans anywhere in the world and have the same rights.”

Does Aliaa have any legal rights to display nudity?

In contrast to natural rights, legal rights differ from one region to another and reflect their specific cultures and governments. Legal rights are enumerated in constitutions, in statutes (by a legislative body), in case law (especially in countries with a common law tradition), in treaties, and in administrative regulations.

Miss Aliaa seems fully aware that the way she is using her natural rights may be at odds with her legal rights in her country. She states that she knows she may become imprisoned / ostracized from her community as a result of her actions.

الحرية ليست في أن أفعل ما يسمح لي بفعله, لكن في أن أفعل ما أريد طالما لم أتعدي علي حريات الآخرين سواء وافقني أو عارضني المجتمع و لا أخاف من العواقب. أنا باعمل اللي عايزاه داخل و خارج حدود المدونة و مدركة إني ممكن أدخل السجن بسبب ما أنشره علي مدونتي

Are Aliaa’s nude photos acceptable?

Of course not! It’s not meant to be acceptable, especially in a conservative country. Both Christians and Muslims in Egypt will find the whole concept offensive and that is the whole point.

Nudity and Protest

Public nudity has been used to attract attention to a particular cause such as anti-War campaigns “Naked For Peace”, and animal rights campaigns “I’d rather go naked than wear fur!” Of course those protests, and these campaigns do not reflect our conservative society, please read on…

Indecency and obscenity laws

Cultural and legal acceptance of public nudity varies regionally. What constitutes indecent exposure depends on the standards of decency of the community where the exposure takes place. For example, breastfeeding in public does not constitute indecent exposure under the laws of the United States, Canada, Australia, or Scotland.

In Europe, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 is worded to allow skinny dipping, nude sunbathing, and similar activities. It applies only to genital exposure with intent to shock and comes with a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. Australia and Canada have similar laws.

In the United States, obscenity laws (e.g. pornography) raise issues of limitations on the freedom of speech and of the press which are otherwise protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Supreme Court has found that obscenity is an exception to the constitutional rights under the First Amendment, and is usually limited to content that directly refers to explicit sexual acts that are publicly accessible, though it has at times encompassed other subject matters, such as spoken and written language that can be publicly transmitted and received by the general public.

What should we do with Miss Aliaa?

Just as liberty comes with its headaches, it also comes with it’s advantages. Since democracy allows self-rule we get to call the shots. So, what do we do with Aliaa. The answer: There are several options. In the end it all depends on the country you want to live in.

If you want to live in the Middle Ages you’d burn her at the stakes, stone her to death or something to that effect.

If you want to live in an advanced, more powerful country you’d consider legislation. Depending on how much of YOUR freedom you want to give up in order to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future, you can empower government to create and enact new laws that restrict that kind activity happening again.

Personally, I believe the whole thing has been drastically blown out of proportion. It’s an exaggeration to believe this constitutes a breakdown in the country’s moral and cultural values. It’s an exaggeration to believe this is a national insult. Small unique incidents should remain small and unique.

If, however, the public finds all this too offensive, she is entitled to a fair trial in which she would be able to make her case.

What I find incredible is the extent to which these young individuals are willing to to go to make their point. From what I gathered Aliaa, is barely twenties. Surely, we need to make decisions that reflect public culture, but we need to choose them sparingly and wisely. Many of us have lived abroad and even though nudity is more tolerated and their culture differs from ours, it has not affected our own values or religious commitments. Egyptians need to be brave and mature when dealing with challenges like this in the future.

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About T. Fouad, MD

Blogging on Egypt, Middle East Politics. Economics. Oncology. Egyptian Liberal, Doctor. كتابة عن مصر والشرق الأوسط, سياسة واقتصاد, طبيب مصري ليبرالي. تابعوني على تويتر @FouadMD


25 thoughts on “Egyptian girl naked photo. Is Egypt ready for nude art?

  1. Well written post, good job. My personal opinion is that she posted the picture on her blog and hence has not stepped on anyone’s personal freedom, they may chose to view or not view her blog at their own discretion. That being said I feel this is not necessarily the proper time to convey such a message given that we have bigger issues such as actually transitioning into a democracy to begin with.

    Posted by TarekNasr360 | November 13, 2011, 7:50 pm
  2. She is free to do whatever she wants, her blog is not on a billboard, people who don’t want to see it, shouldn’t look at it. Salute & respect young people of Egypt pushing for the freedom

    Posted by AA ايمن (@2imen) | November 13, 2011, 9:28 pm
    • She is young and brave. She is brave enough to t take the risk, She is full of life and beauty. People around her need to use all these artistic, and bravery talent, embrace it, and give her support to express it in a safe environment and be as expressive as possible. Madona became Madonna buying starting to show her naked body, and now is one of the biggest celebrators and a fame, and working for charities. Dear Alia, I love you! Look after your self, and expose your beauty, your heart, and your art in a safe place.

      Posted by Simin | November 25, 2011, 1:29 pm
  3. I don’t wanna know how many of this hippocrites who blame her for her photo are masturbating to internet porn on a regular base.
    People should be free to do what they want with their body. Period.

    Posted by uprisingworld | November 13, 2011, 11:10 pm
  4. Correction in your blog post: The photo of the man in her blog is NOT her bf Kareem Amer. It is a friend of Aliaa’s named Kevin. Kareem Amer confirmed this on his twitter today (@Kareemamer)

    Posted by M | November 14, 2011, 1:23 am
  5. What we do about her? U asked
    Nothing if we talk more about her , we will
    Turn her into a heroin.
    There r thousands or even millions of naked
    Women on the web site, did they make their
    Keep it to life, life will teach her.

    Posted by Heba Taher | November 14, 2011, 7:17 am
  6. This young woman is already a herione in my book. To step up to an ultra-conservative society where women have little voice is incredibly brave. She has risked so much for what she believes in. Take away her blog, but anything more than that would be extreme. I don’t care whether or not you are a fan of what she has to say, she has helped give her country a voice to the West and shown that something else, something interesting is happening there besides violence, terror and revolution. I pray that she will be safe and protected now and that more women step out of the word work, be it in a more conservative manner.

    Posted by Vesna | November 15, 2011, 3:08 pm
    • Thanks Vesna for your input as it gives me an opportunity to respond to the many criticisms I’ve received over the past few days. So my response isn’t just to you, please don’t take this personally.

      I find it ironic that I’ve been attacked by guests from the “West”, as you put it, more frequently than by my own countrymen. That was unexpected but in a good way, since this article was written primarily for Egyptians.

      First off, I agree fully that nothing should done to her, in fact that’s what I state but I’ve been misquoted as having a plan to imprison her as well as calling for her stoning.

      Frankly, I do not care if this girl has given her country a voice in the “West”. Nor would she I presume. It does sound a little elitist in my opinion but I won’t quote you for it. A Freudian slip I’ll presume and I explain why your missing the point: Egyptians are embracing self rule for the first time in modern history. Whether it was through direct Western occupation, or through support for corrupt dictators. Egyptian bloggers, me included, are not posing themselves as armchair experts. We do not have that luxury. This blog as well as many others is part awareness, part opinion and part reflection and debate. That is how Egyptian political blogs should be read in my opinion.

      Posted by T. Fouad, MD | November 15, 2011, 4:09 pm
      • Relax T Fouad please. You did attack VENSA (politely) in a passive aggressive way. When you said “Frankly, I do not care if this girl has given her country a voice in the “West”? it seems that you took offence and your pride kicked in. No need to ignore the fact that you and all of Egypt do not live in the world alone. Dismissing the opinions of others as if they are not welcomed or irrelevant to you is not really the best image you want to give to Egypt – considering that you say Egypt has found democracy. Well, an essential aspect of democracy is freedom of speech. It would be ironic if you are using this freedom but condescending others when they express their opinion by saying that you don’t care. It may indeed take time for democracy and freedom of speech to be appreciated by Egypt and Egyptians.

        Finally, if you get offended as you seem to be, why have a blog at all?

        Posted by Sam | November 15, 2011, 7:20 pm
      • No no… what I said was a play on VENSA’s statement 🙂
        “I don’t care whether or not you are a fan of what she has to say she has helped give her country a voice to the West.”
        If the statement is offensive then VESNA is to blame. 🙂

        Sam, Egypt has not found democracy, Egypt is finding democracy. There is a point I was trying to make here that’s more important than all this. This whole thing is really about finding our own way not about giving a voice to the west. To be honest maybe I was irritated by the whole “voice to the West” phrase. I don’t like that type of dichotomy. If Egypt doesn’t live alone as you say then let’s not apply labels that really have very little meaning.

        As for dismissing her opinion, I really thought I supported VESNA’s opinion and earlier I mentioned that I was not responding to VESNA alone but to all the unfounded attacks that I have received.

        My belief in freedom of speech is why her statement appears on my blog in the first place and the reason why I responded. If VESNA found me condescending then I apologize. That was not the intention. I am grateful that she posted 🙂

        Posted by T. Fouad, MD | November 15, 2011, 7:39 pm
      • What I don’t understand is why this is causing such an uproar. If you don’t like it, simply ignore it. Many of the practices and customs of other cultures ( and even a few of my relatives ) make me uncomfortable.
        But, that is my problem, not theirs. Either I learn to tolerate it or I avoid those situations ( or merely avert my eyes ).
        By some miracle, this has caused neither myself nor them any harm or impacted the quality of our respective lives.

        It’s not as if she hung posters of herself in public places or was photographed naked in front of a national monument;

        “If you want to live in an advanced, more powerful country you’d consider legislation” – Really??!! For this!! There are faded century-old French postcards that are more shocking.

        Wouldn’t an “advanced, more powerful” society (that disagrees with her) be one that says “This isn’t constructive, and I hope you find more productive ways of expression, but you’re not harming anyone”, and then get on with making things better for its citizens?

        Posted by DerekM | November 19, 2011, 3:31 pm
      • DerekM, Thanks for stopping by! All the points you make are valid but my statement was taken out of context. The next sentence states: “Depending on how much of YOUR freedom you want to give up in order to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future, you can empower government to create and enact new laws that restrict that kind activity happening again”… and then I go on to state my personal opinion of this: “Personally, I believe the whole thing has been drastically blown out of proportion”.

        You need to see this in light of the current situation in Egypt. We live in a country where Naguib Mahfouz, the celebrated Egyptian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature was physically attacked because of one of his works was seen as disrespectful to religion. We’re also transitioning towards self rule and have an election ten days from now. Depending on the results the parliament responsible for writing our first pro-democracy constitution will be composed of a mixture of Islamists and liberals. Half of the Egyptian electorate are still undecided. They do not favor an Iranian style theocracy but also fear an extreme liberal society that could threaten their way of life.

        I am in the liberal camp.

        Posted by T. Fouad, MD | November 19, 2011, 4:47 pm
      • Point taken. A society that is emerging from oppression should tread carefully regarding restrictive laws because they are easy to distort for the wrong ends and hard to overturn.
        And I think fears of “extreme liberalism” are probably overblown as deeply entrenched societal mores take a generation to change significantly.

        I hope your countrymen will keep in mind that, for a democracy to be heard, they must raise their voices, not let others do the talking for them.
        The fringe elements understand this and take advantage; for the majority moderates, the “mushy middle” to win, they must stand fast and speak up, lest they be pulled one way or the other.

        I, too, would be classified as a liberal, in my own social circle, but as a great comedian once said, “I’m very liberal about some things, and deeply conservative about others” – I take that as a warning to not let a label prevent me from doing what I believe to to be right or to hold on to an idea that’s no longer relevant.

        Posted by DerekM | November 20, 2011, 1:11 am
  7. Wow, I did not expect my itty bitty comment to cause such a stir. I thank you, author, for taking the time to actually respond to me. I can see now how I came off as seeming elitist with the remark I made. I guess as a European I just see other countries in relation to me, just as you do too I assume. This act just really made me realize how little I ever hear from women in Islamic countries. I feel like they have been censored and really this almost seems like to me the only way that she could have gotten any attention, and it certainly worked. i think we should worry less about what we should do with her and was this appropriate or not and deal with the real issues at hand; even if this as you said is an inopportune time, this woman helped to create a stage for women to voice their opinions about how their lives are today. It doesn’t matter to you if we are stopping to listen or not, but for me, in my otherwise Egyptian-ignorant part of the globe; it seems to be a step in the right direction.
    She is quoted in The International Business Times as saying:
    “The yellow rectangles on my eyes, mouth and sex organ resemble the censoring of our knowledge, expression and sexuality. I am echoing screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy,”
    This is hard stuff. I would be interested in what comes of this, I hope you keep us updated. Very good writing, by the way.

    Posted by Vesna | November 15, 2011, 11:04 pm
    • Thank you very much for your kind words. Isn’t it amazing how we are all beginning to realize we have much more in common than we think.

      We are fighting many things all at the same time in Egypt right now. We need the support of all our friends in the West for sure. Please follow this website for updates on Egypt’s challenging journey towards democracy.

      Posted by T. Fouad, MD | November 16, 2011, 1:17 pm
      • Thank you T Fouad for explaining your views to me. I appreciate it. Indeed we are thinking about the same thing. We, people of the world, want the same thing – I think. I shouldn’t speak for everyone but I am sure (I have hope) that the majority of people need peace and want to live their lives in peace. The average person like you and me want to be free.

        Whether the East hate the West or the West hate the East or the North hate all of them, who cares. Who cares what politicians say with their political agenda. I hope that our brothers and sisters in Egypt look at us in the west as people – just like you.

        Good luck Egypt. Hard times but with your will and desire for freedom and justice, you will succeed. All the best!

        Posted by Sam | November 16, 2011, 1:51 pm
  8. Hi, I enjoyed reading your view of this matter. I don’t know if you heard of the Chinese artists called Ai WeiWei did the same to protest against the Chinese government, and as far as I know the country doesn’t take well to explicit public nudity. Since this he has gotten considerable coverage in the media and support for his political struggle in the West. Perhaps she was hoping for this?

    Anyway If you don’t mind, I’ve added a link to this post on a article on my blog. If you have any objections please let me know.



    Posted by Dhakshi | November 15, 2011, 11:15 pm
  9. Dear Dr. Fouad
    I found your blog by mere chance. This subject of freedom and how people should interpret it keeps coming up as if it is hard to answer. Freedom is the outcome of democracy and enlightenment. Egypt does not have enough of the two at this point in time. The girl might have been frustrated by the high-jacking of the revolution by traditional forces of the society. It will be a sad thing to see these forces taking full control of the country and at that time this girl will actually become over-dressed! My advise is not to pay too much attention to individual conduct as though it represents a current or a group point of view. If you want to see someone acting respectfully to society then you should give him his dignity in his choices and secure his privacy.
    mustafa abuelgasim
    Please do not forget to post the link to the girl’s blog or kindly email it to me. Seeing is believing!

    Posted by mustafa | November 16, 2011, 9:49 pm
    • Dear Mustafa,
      Thank you for your post. You make some great points. I’m terribly sorry regarding the link but I made a decision not to post a link when writing this post. If the purpose of this girl was to start a debate regarding freedom & rights then that is what I hope we have done on this blog. I’m sure you understand. Thank you.

      Posted by T. Fouad, MD | November 16, 2011, 10:19 pm
  10. It’s a great shame that Muslims are dividing themselves in two extremes, one extreme consider everyone as KAFIR and worth of killing (Al Qaida group) the other extreme group is like her really thinks that “SUCCESS OF WEST” is concealed in NUDITY, KISSING & SEX.instead of RESEARCH & in EDUCATION?

    There are still more moderates than Taliban or Liberal Talibans.


    Posted by Syed Arbab Ahmed (@SyedArbabAhmed) | November 16, 2011, 10:11 pm
  11. Interesting article!

    It takes time for new democracies to be able to tolerate other views even if its is only a personal blog with no harm to others.

    Posted by PM | November 18, 2011, 3:16 am
  12. Lovely Aliaa Elmahdy! Blessings on you for striking a blow against the patriarchy! Women must own their own bodies. Noone should be able to tell you how you may use it, display it or adorn it. Great evil is in the eye of the beholders who refuse to see your beauty and the righteousness of your cause! May the Goddess bless you!

    Posted by Charles Elliott | November 19, 2011, 8:14 pm


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