From Icon to Exile: The Price of a Nude Photo in Egypt

By Takis Würger

Photo Gallery: From Revolutionary Icon to Lost Exile Photos
Jonas Bendiksen / DER SPIEGEL

Egyptian Aliaa Elmahdy became an icon of the Arab Spring after she posted a nude photo of herself online. Then she fled to Sweden after receiving death threats from Islamist extremists. What and whom did her statement serve?

When this story is published, Aliaa Elmahdy will have wiped away the traces of her former life and will be living in a location unknown to us. She will continue to flee and fear the day when one of the men from her native Egypt tracks her down and stands in front of her to take her back.

For the last two years, 22-year-old Egyptian Aliaa Magda al-Elmahdy has been a hunted woman because she used the delayed-action shutter release of her digital camera to take a photo of herself, which she then posted online. She is only wearing stockings and shoes in the photo.

The image made Elmahdy an icon of the Arab Spring. Millions of people saw the photo in the first few days after it was released. Even at the time, it wasn't clear whether viewers were interested in the message or her naked skin, but nevertheless, Elmahdy was a star for a few weeks. She gave an interview to CNN, but then she received death threats, forcing her to flee from her country and go into hiding.

Some say that Elmahdy ridiculed the laws of Islam, and that she is a whore and a disgrace to Egypt. Muslims from around the world have sent her death threats. A radical Muslim attempted to have her Egyptian citizenship revoked. Since then, though, Elmahdy has been a hero for many others.

Her story raises several questions. Was the photo an act of protest or therapy? Is she a hero or naïve? Elmahdy remained silent for a long time. But now she is providing the answer that could be the key to many questions, the answer to the question: Who is Aliaa Elmahdy?

Most recently, she lived in a Swedish village that could be reached after driving for an hour through a coniferous forest. It's a place that rarely sees outsiders. It was difficult to contact Elmahdy. Many people have attempted to write her emails or messages on Facebook. But Elmahdy ignores messages from strangers, because most strangers berate her.

Beaten and Caged

Elmahdy has chosen a café for our rendezvous. She sits with her back to the window and orders a glass of strawberry juice. She doesn't like to look people in the eye.

She says that she grew up in Heliopolis, an affluent neighborhood of Cairo. When she thinks about it today, she says, she misses the smell of the sun on the streets, the cats climbing through the garbage, and kushari, an Egyptian dish made of macaroni, rice and lentils that her mother used to make for her. Her parents, she says, were not strictly religious and didn't go to the mosque. Her father and mother are cousins. Her mother is a bookkeeper and her father an officer in the Egyptian army. She says that her father had been beating her for as long as she could remember.

Sometimes he would hit her, she says, for contradicting him or not wearing a headscarf, and sometimes for no reason at all. Her mother would stand there and say: "Beat her, but don't injure her." Once, when Elmahdy came home from school, her father told her that she was disgusting because she was too small. Once he crushed her glasses with his fist. This is her version of her story. Her parents aren't speaking to the press.

Elmahdy attended a private school, and when she came home from classes, her parents would lock her into the house. She wasn't allowed to go outside because they feared that she would lose her virginity if she did. She was kept like a precious calf, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder one day.

She asks for a pad of paper. "I don't know how you say this in English," she says. She draws a rod with a sharp tip, a weapon that looks like a spear. "He hit me with that."

Her parents told her that a decent woman shouldn't pose for photos, wear a flower in her hair, stand with her legs apart, show the skin of her legs or wear tight clothing or lipstick.

At 13, Elmahdy decided that there could be no God. She learned to lie and draw up a fake class schedule, just to gain a few moments of freedom for herself. She says it was easy to lose her virginity.

After graduating from high school, Elmahdy was accepted at the American University in Cairo, where she studied art. Her parents picked her up from the campus every day. When her mother said that she wanted to check to see if she still had her hymen, Elmahdy grabbed a kitchen knife and said that she wanted to move out. Her father changed the locks in the house to keep her inside.

Elmahdy says that she felt suffocated at home. It was as if she couldn't get any oxygen into her lungs.

Once, when she was alone, she placed a camera onto a stack in her room, painted her lips a pale red and undressed. She slipped into a pair of strapless stockings and stuck flowers into her hair. She took photos in various poses. She says that she took the photos for herself, as a form of silent protest against her parents. Then she forgot about them.

Liberation and Censorship

A few weeks later, Elmahdy walked left the classroom in the middle of a lecture. She was carrying a backpack into which she had packed a few articles of clothing that morning. She took a bus into downtown Cairo, where she walked along the banks of the Nile and breathed deeply. She knew that she would never return to her parents' house. She had proven that she would not allow herself to be kept like an animal. First she lived with a female friend, and then she moved in with a man. She was 19 and felt liberated.

It was 2011, and the Egyptian people were rebelling against their dictator. Elmahdy went to Tahrir Square a few times. She experienced her personal liberation in parallel with the liberation of her country, and she must have felt as if the two things were related. That was where her misfortunes began.

In October 2011, she transferred some photos from her digital camera to her laptop. She found the naked photos she had taken of herself and picked out the most attractive one. Although she knew that nudity is a taboo for some people in her country, Elmahdy decided to post the image on her Facebook page.

When someone opens a Facebook account, he or she is required to click on a box to indicate acceptance of the site's "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities." A statement in a section marked "Safety" reads: "You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence."

Facebook was created in the United States, and it bans photos like the one Elmahdy took of herself. Apparently nudity is still a taboo in some places in the West. For the first time, it became apparent to Elmahdy that the world is a more complex place than she would have liked.

The Facebook administrators deleted the photo a few hours after Elmahdy had posted it. But Elmahdy, determined that no one would ever forbid her from doing anything again, posted the same photo on her blog, so that everyone could see it.

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1. Elmahdy is a fighter for justice
brianmpa 12/17/2013
Takis Wurger clearly likes to editorialize about this woman and makes judgements about this woman's choices in fighting against the male dominated society of Egypt. Her life is ruined, the author keeps reminding us, nothing has changed! Jesus himself wanted to be more than a nobody in ancient Palestine. He just wanted poor people to know that God still loved them. But look what he got for his troubles -a slow death, the sine qua non of Rome, crucifixion. He didn't change the world, so why would Elmahdy and her brave fight against an extreme male dominated society be any different? Changing societies takes generations, but it starts with one person saying, I will not put up with this any longer! Elmahdy wants wholesale liberation for women everywhere and she puts her body on the line to underscore her demand. The author is clueless as to Elmahdy's message. I would like to think the editorial board of Der Spiegel might exercise some control over blatant and rather ignorant opinions being voiced in what initially appears to be an article by a 'journalist'.
2. Vietnamese Girl
Udom 12/18/2013
The Vietnamese girl in the famous photograph was Phan Thị Kim Phúc, who now lives in Ajax, Canada. The photograph was taken by Nick Ut, who was working for the Associated Press.
3.
rechtsami 12/18/2013
Isn't the double-standard priceless?! When we speak of immigrants in, for instance, Germany, it is to speak of how the native population should change and learn to accept the immigrants. When we speak of a young lady who has been compelled to flee her native land because of threats made by fanatics, the tables turn. Now, we no longer hear about "accepting" an immigrant, but rather, we hear, faintly, that this young lady is somehow to blame for desiring the same freedoms we enjoy. Odd.
4. Aliaa Elmahdy
elderlee1 12/18/2013
The Spiegel writer is full of all kinds of pompous judgments of Ms. Elmahdy. The article would have been better without his asinine moralizing.
5. Aliaa Elmahdy
bumbleboo 12/18/2013
I agree with elderlee1, the writer is full of judgments and totally unsympathetic to the causes of women's freedom from domination by religion and men! This young lady is brave and I salute her courage. She deserves the support of all free thinking people and countries. Thank you Sweden for the hand of friendship and protection.
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