Naked Revolutionaries in the Middle East

Egyptian nude protester, Magda al-Mahdy

For French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), a philosophy that answered the questions of modernity could emerge only outside of the West. The era of Western philosophy had already drawn to a close. He had said as much on a visit to a Zen Buddhist temple in Japan in 1978. But before the end of the year, Foucault would be pursuing unfolding events in Iran that promised to usher in a new “political spirituality.”

He traveled to Iran in September, and then again in November. Between the two trips, Foucault visited Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been granted asylum by France, and was then resident outside of Paris, from where he was able to encourage protesters against the Iranian regime, transforming sporadic demonstrations into outright revolution. Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, 1979, with the BBC estimating that up to five million people had turned out to welcome the Imam.

Egyptian nude protester, Magda al-Mahdy
Naked Revolutioary Magda al-Mahdy.

Foucault wrote several articles on events in Iran for the French newspapers Corriere della Sera and the Left-wing Le Nouvel Observateur in which he appeared to welcome the Revolution and to revel in Islam’s power to mobilize the masses. However, the gay philosopher’s “Orientalist” views were colored by his belief that Islamic culture was more tolerant of homosexuality than French culture.

Like Aleister Crowley – who wrote his own homoerotic pseudo-Sufi volume of poems, The Scented Garden of Abdullah, The Satirist of Shiraz – Foucault knew that historical Sufi literature about the “beloved” did sometimes have a soft homoerotic tone, or at least could, from a certain perspective, be interpreted in such a way — rightly or wrongly.

Like many gay French men, Foucault had often holidayed in Tunisia, where homosexual sex with fellow tourists and with local male Arab prostitutes was readily available. Foucault, claim Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, seems both to have turned a blind eye – intentionally or not – to the homophobia and sexism of Tunisia, and to have imagined that his impression of the North African country typified Muslim society.

Some young women who joined the Islamic Revolution of Iran did in fact find that the new Islamist society offered them the opportunity to go to college, and to choose their own husbands. Such opportunities had been denied to them in Iran’s more traditional, conservative, tribal society.

Nevertheless, instead of a society more relaxed in its approach to sexuality, post-Revolutionary Iran quickly began instituting laws regulating dress — requiring women to wear highly conservative clothing that covered the head and body, and in somber colors, such as brown or black — and even prohibiting single men and women meeting in public. Homosexuality itself would be punishable by execution in the new Iran.

Inventing Islamism

Islamism is sometimes understood as a fusion of different influences, especially from the modern, ultra-conservative Islamic ideology of Wahhabism and Salaifism (which regards Sufis, Shi’ites, and even ordinary Sunni Muslims as apostates) and the revolutionary ideology of Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). Other, lesser influences can include early 20th century European-style anti-Semitism. Third Worldism, and Marxism.

Islamism is perhaps best understood as a radical, new interpretation of Islam, not as a matter of faith or relationship to Divinity, but specifically as a political ideology to be imposed on others. In this sense it shares something with Christian Zionism.

It is interesting to note that, Qutb — who might be considered the father of Islamism, though the movement has roots in the 19th century — himself had actually spent time in Greely Colorado, in the USA, but his time spent there only made him more radical. Though a sleepy town, where alcohol was prohibited, for the Egyptian, it was a den of iniquity. Attending a church dance, Qutb was shocked and disturbed to see young men and women dancing together:

”The dance hall convulsed to the tunes on the gramophone and was full of bounding feet and seductive legs. Arms circles waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion,” he later wrote.

For Qutb, this was a scene from Hell. But the gramophone and men and women dancing were not the only things he found shocking. He Jazz music considered “primitive,” and claimed it evoked “animal instincts.” Football, likewise, revealed to him America’s “love for hard-core violence.”

As such, opposition to both sexuality and sensuality, and to the body, lie at the roots of Islamism.

Death For Nudity

After the revolutions and uprisings of the “Arab Spring” of 2011 – through Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain – and the subsequent backlash by Islamists, some human rights and women’s rights activists began to use nudity to protest the new clampdown on freedom by the latter movement. In November, a then 20-year-old Egyptian student, Aliaa Maghda al-Mahdy, posted photographs of her naked body on her blog, A Rebel’s Diary.

Visitors were warned on the otherwise blank front page that the content’s of al-Mahdy’s blog contained material suitable only for adults. Entering the site meant pushing a button, to indicate that the visitor understood the nature of the contents. Within days, the formerly obscure blog – which used the free Blogger platform – had been viewed over a million times. Al-Mahdy also began receiving threats of imprisonment, rape, and murder by angered Islamists.

The Naked Revolutionary calendar
The Naked Revolutionary Calendar, font (left), February (center), and back (right).

A Facebook page titled “Nude Revolutionary Photos,” was soon set up by supporters. A note on the page declared: “We will support Aliya by posing nude and posting our pictures here to show the world, and specially the ultra-conservatives who might very well harm Aliya without our support.” Al-Mahdy’s photographs exposed more than hostility toward women, however.

Some journalists detected an element of hypocrisy in the outraged guardians of other people’s morality. “People, who criticized her [al-Mahdy’s] provocative body protest, also ogled her nude protest picture she uploaded to the blog,” wrote Manar Ammar in Al Arabiya News.

Another female journalist, Rime Naguib, commented in Egypt Independent, “But what some described as the ‘pornographic’ nature of Aliaa’s photo is not what was most shocking about it. According to the latest ‘Google trends’ statistics, Egypt ranks fourth worldwide in the highest web search requests for the word ‘sex.’ ” So much for the notion of Egypt as nation of religious piety.

For Naguib, what upset people about al-Mahdy’s photos was not that she was naked, but that she herself had chosen to undress, to break the rules, and to proclaim that she was not afraid of those who would be angered by her action. And, moreover, that she was not ashamed of her body.

Al-Mahdy, and the harassment of the twenty-year-old Egyptian blogger, soon inspired support outside the Middle East. In December, British-based human rights activist Maryam Namazie announced that she would publish a “Nude Revolutionary Calendar.” The official launch date turned out to be March 8, 2012 – International Women’s Day.

In theory, at least, the calendar was launched in Egypt, in a show of solidarity with al-Mahdy, and in an attempt to turn nudity from a “tool of oppression” into a tool of liberation and empowerment. The calendar had twelve photos of twelve different women, including Namazie, FEMEN activist Alena Magelat, We Are Atheism Founder Amanda Brown, and atheist bloggers Greta Christina and Emily Dietle.

Even before the calendar had been released, however, nudity had become an issue once again. In January, Golshifteh Farahani, an Iranian actress living in Paris, received word that she would not be permitted to return to her home country.

Farahani had left Iran the year before, in response to the state’s restrictive and conservative policies in regard to cinema and the arts. Now the regime in Tehran was upset that she had appeared naked in Jean-Baptiste Mondino’s short black and white movie Corps et Âmes (Bodies and Souls) as well as in the French magazine Madame Le Figaro. As with al-Mahdy, Farahani’s nudity received both condemnation for an act deemed highly immoral and praise for breaking the cultural taboos of the Middle East

In Egypt, the Arab Spring had ousted long time dictator President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. He was sentenced to life in prison in early 2012. The man now called “President” was Mohammed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political party founded by Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

There had been plenty of signs that the pro-democracy movement was in rapid retreat to the country’s far-more organized Islamists. In November, though, the worst fears of the opposition were recognized. Morsi awarded himself new powers, including freedom from judicial oversight. He also fast-tracked the country’s new constitution, sparking rioting across Cairo, at the prospect of Egypt soon having an “Islamist” constitution that would limit the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities.

Nudity As Protest

On Thursday December 20, as rioting continued in Egypt, three female women’s rights activists were protesting naked outside the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm. These three were hoping to draw attention to the proposed constitution, and to rally Egyptians to vote against its implementation. Two of the activists were members of the Ukrainian group FEMEN.

FEMEN had quickly won worldwide attention for its naked protests against the treatment of women in Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, and under sharia, as well as other religions, such as Christianity, and other regimes they regard as oppressive of women. The third activist in Stockholm was Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda al-Mahdy, The three women each held a fake holy book – a Torah, a Bible, and a Koran – and had written slogans on their bodies denouncing religion. On al-Mahdy, in red, were the words: “sharia is not a constitution.”

The Egyptian constitution was voted into law only two days later, on December 22, 2012. Morsi was later deposed by the military, which also cracked down — many say violently — on the Islamist faction, dragging the country further into turmoil.


Politically, nudity is a shock tactic, designed to disrupt the status quo. It has the obvious potential to spread across news channels very quickly, and, as such, to get the protesters’ message out. It invites sympathy since it suggests that the protesters have no power, and no other way of getting attention for their cause. They have not armed themselves, committed acts of violence or terrorism, or hired expensive PR companies to get their message out, but have in fact exposed themselves and made themselves more vulnerable.

Still, nudity has not been the only form of protest, or way of challenging convention, in the Middle East. As in Europe, the USA, and elsewhere, fashion and subculture play a large role in identity, and in helping to formulate what kind of society young people want. Whether they will get it remains a very large question.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

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