The Anatomy of Oppression
Aliaa Elmahdy, an Egyptian activist, posted a photo of herself on her blog standing provocatively with one foot raised on a stool, wearing nothing but thigh-high stockings, red shoes, and a red clip in her hair. Publishing the photo in October 2011, Aliaa challenged the expectation that women should feel shame in their nakedness and sexuality, especially under the gaze of other women.
This post was Aliaa’s response to the rebuke of a religious woman who had seen her standing in public, fully clothed, with her leg propped up on a step, and chided her for her seductive stance. It is the kind of photo that makes an impression right away, and I was a bit sickened that my immediate reaction was one of embarrassment. And then embarrassment turned to shame. As a fellow woman, I was disappointed to discover that I was an unwitting colluder in the cycle of oppression.
I became acquainted with this particular image while assisting in a lecture that took place at Tel Aviv University as part of the WVN 2013 Global Tour. As the lecturer—Dr. Samir Ben-Layashi, an expert in health and sexuality in North Africa at the turn of the nineteenth century—was giving his presentation on women’s bodies in public and private spaces, he asked me to click on the first image. Aliaa’s photo popped open. I caught the eye of my fellow female intern, and we both reacted visibly and audibly. To an extent, the photo is, of course, shocking. I would probably wonder more if I had not reacted in some way, but it was in that first five seconds of looking at the photo that I came face to face with the extent of my own repression.
I grew up in a religious environment, which is not necessarily synonymous with “conservative.” I was taught to appreciate and celebrate the human body as well as the life and love that sex can bring, but it was contextualized: Sex is a beautiful expression of love for a partner, but only if it is within the framework of marriage and open to the possibility of children; bodies are beautiful, but they should be covered in public. To be fair to those who find no tension between their sexuality and their religion, I am not claiming that my religion alone repressed me; rather, I interpreted religion in such a way that I found myself, twenty-four years later, staring at a projector screen of a naked woman, wondering when I would be asked to move on to the next photo.
According to Ben-Layashi—speaking specifically in this forum about women in Egypt—women are oppressed, not only in the public sphere by Egyptian societal norms but also in the private sphere by other women. Societal norms imposed from the outside, whether by the government, men, or media, are internalized and perpetuated by women so that in the private sphere, women are complicit in their own oppression. This is not to blame the victim, so to speak, but to explain how the notion of sexual shame takes root and gains ground in a woman’s psyche, so much so that she sees fit to contribute to the oppression of other women.
That moment when I was asked to switch the image never came. The photo of Aliaa stayed on the big screen for a full 25 minutes at least, and the more I stared at it, the more normal it became. The photo lasted throughout the full lecture and subsequent discussion, witnessing the evolution of arguments and conversation from participating audience members. One woman thought Aliaa’s photo fell short of its goal, merely encouraging the sexualization of women instead of challenging it. Another woman used the photo to launch into a conversation about the sexual revolution in Iran currently flying under the global radar, wondering if more aggressive tactics would gain the movement international attention. Meanwhile, Aliaa’s photo was drifting out of its original context in Samir’s lecture and moving into the background, becoming an expected fixture and sometimes reference point in our discourse. The odd moment would be when I was asked to take it down.
As I continued to stare at the photo, I slowly realized that I was examining its aesthetics. Any photo of a naked woman would be sensational, but this photo was well crafted to intimate more than mere nudity. Sure, her stockings were sexy, but upon closer examination, their dark color helped her legs blend into the black background so that the white of her exposed trunk immediately drew the eye. It was almost baroque, the way she had played with light and dark to direct the viewer’s attention. And the red accents of her shoes and hair clip—they were secondary points of interest. Red is certainly a seductive color, but the shoes she chose to wear looked to me like little girl’s shoes, and yet that hair clip could belong to a Spanish flamenco dancer. That both the hair clip and the shoes were red stayed with me. I thought I understood the hair clip, but the prepubescent look of her shoes made me wonder if Aliaa wasn’t also trying to say that girls as well as women should embrace their bodies in a non-sexualized manner, and assert that they deserve to be viewed as such. Women can wear a flashy hair clip and innocent shoes and not be a walking contradiction. What is that expression on her face? It isn’t one of aggressive seduction—she almost looks innocent, a little nonplussed that someone should consider her worthy of being photographed at this instant.
These thoughts played in my head as I listened to Dr. Ben-Layashi expound on the virtues of shock value to mobilize society into reform. And here he was, proving his point. Aliaa’s photo was more than just a seduction. It was an assertion of a woman’s right to seduce.
Not being asked to take the photograph down forced me to look at it, to deal with it. And I did. It was nothing I hadn’t seen before; it was just where I didn’t expect to see it. For some reason, because nudity was not in the context of a private space, I immediately reacted with shame—shame for Aliaa, and shame for myself as a fellow woman. The longer the photo lingered, my shame turned to disappointment. I was not as liberated as I had previously thought.
I may be reading too much into this photo, but the fact that I am bothering to read anything into it at all is a testament to Aliaa’s victory. While I doubt Aliaa is advocating public nudity or denying the inherent provocation of a naked woman, I do believe she was aiming to break the barrier of shame that permeates the private sphere by challenging it in public.
Perhaps the most compelling force at work here is the power of suggestion. Aliaa’s casual stance in public earned disapproval from a fellow woman for what it suggested rather than what it actually was. Curiously, the suggestion of sex and nudity can be more exhilarating and forbidden than the reality. When the mystery dissipates through exposure, there can be a sense of anticlimax. I wondered if, with the posting of her naked photo, Aliaa was trying to quite literally remove the shroud of secrecy surrounding women’s bodies to disempower whatever curiosity drove their repression in public. Or maybe she was asking us to confront our most basic selves, challenging the barriers we have erected individually and as a society to separate our most intimate nature from the rest of the world. What makes us so uncomfortable with nakedness, whether it be our own or that of others? What are we afraid of?
Above all was my appreciation of context. My shock was the surprise of experiencing a known thing outside of its known context. The reaction that shock generates is, in my opinion, more revealing than years of analysis can ever be.
Given my shock, and the follow-up time I have had to process it, I have considered the context of this photo on another level. Did I assume that the analysis of nudity is a luxury that only the developed world can afford? Lipstick feminism is the third-wave feminist reclamation of traditional trappings of womanliness—such as makeup—to assert that empowerment is not incompatible with a feminine and/or sexualized appearance. But this concept originated in societies that have the wiggle room to risk the potential setback of associating sex with female empowerment. In developing societies where women often have to struggle for more basic human rights than such feminism talking points as equal pay for equal work and access to birth control, is the overt sexuality folded into this photo more damaging than helpful to the feminist cause worldwide? No one can decide that for any woman or group of women, I suppose. Moreover, an unequivocal imperative in this conversation is to refrain from judging women who live in societies different from our own and have consequently made personal choices that we might disagree with or consider incompatible with our personal definition of feminism. Instead, we must establish and maintain a free space where these matters can be discussed openly and, most importantly, without shame.
If a woman from California can learn about sexual liberation from a woman in Egypt, then the paradigm of the liberated Western woman vis-à-vis the oppressed Eastern woman is blessedly defunct. Aliaa strove to break the cycle of repression of women, especially by other women. Whatever your opinion on Aliaa’s shock tactic, I encourage you to look at the photo. I thought I knew what I was seeing, but there was so much more than met the eye.