When Aliaa Elmahdy wanted to protest about the repression of women in Egypt, she published a naked photo of herself, prompting a storm of Islamic outrage.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, April 16, 2013 - 21:32
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SBS

When Aliaa Elmahdy wanted to protest about the repression of women in Egypt, she did it in the most provocative way possible; by posting a photo of herself naked on the internet.

It prompted a storm of outrage in the Islamic world, including death threats, but also mobilised feminists worldwide in support of her.

They want to see Egypt's political revolution followed by a social revolution, with many saying that women's rights have actually taken a step backwards under Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Aliaa speaks candidly on Dateline about her rebellious campaign, which has ultimately forced her to leave Egypt and apply for asylum in Sweden.

But being abroad hasn't silenced her, as she protests naked in front of Stockholm's Egyptian Embassy with only a fake copy of the Koran to cover her modesty.

WATCH - Apologies, but Dateline's profile of Aliaa Elmahdy, narrated by Victoria Strobl, is no longer available for copyright reasons. You can however still read the transcript.

UPDATE (MAY 2013) - Tunisian Amina Tyler, who also featured in this story, says she's since been kidnapped and beaten, received death threats, and also been forced by women in her family to undergo a virginity test. She's now in hiding and wants to escape to France, but has vowed one last demonstration before she departs.

EXTRA - Look at Aliaa's Blog and follow her on Twitter by using the links under 'resources' on the right-hand side of the page.

ARAB UPRISING - Look back at Dateline's coverage of the changing politics across North Africa and the Middle East.

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Transcript

Tonight, the inspiring story of a young woman whose provocative call for freedom of expression has unleashed a firestorm of protests amongst hardliners in her home country, Egypt. Aliaa Elmahdy took photos of herself naked and then posted them on her blog. Her point? To take aim at attitudes surrounding the portrayal of the female form in Muslim communities. Her photo set off a national scandal that spread to the rest of the Arab world. She also sparked an international outcry from feminists who have rallied to her cause. This report is narrated by Vicky Strobl. A warning - it does contain full-frontal nudity.

NARRATOR: Victoria Strobl

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): It was at night, yes. I used the timer on the camera and I took the photo.

When Aliaa Elmahdy posted this photograph of herself on the internet, she hoped it would provoke outrage. It did. So much so that she was forced to flee from Egypt to escape the fury of Conservative Islamists. But she didn't go into hiding. To goad her attackers even further, she went to Sweden, where she staged a protest outside the Egyptian Embassy. Aliaa had taken the cause of feminism in a revolutionary direction.

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): I've never been scared of those in power. Or of objecting to the things they do.

MAN (Translation): She is a cretin. She's worthless. Please don't ask me about this obscenity. How is this whore important? Why is she important?

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): As long as I'm not harming anyone, I have the right to live the way I want.

Aliaa Elmahdy is 22 years old. She grew up in Cairo in a conservative family but, in her teenage years, rebelled against her parents' strict discipline. When she fell in love with Karim Amer, they made it clear they didn't approve.

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): When they found out about my relationship with Karim they wanted to repeat what they'd done for years. Not allowing me to go out by myself. Talking to me in a way... They thought they could fully control my life.

Young lovers in Cairo have to be discreet. Walking the street, hand in hand, is an offence. At the end of the day, they head for the banks of the Nile for some private moments. It was while Aliaa and Karim were out together in a public park that their simple affection turned into an act of rebellion.

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): We were once walking in a park with our hands over each other's shoulders. And they wanted us to be tried in court for it.

REPORTER (Translation): Who did?

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): The park security. It happens everywhere. It's on video.

KARIM AMER (Translation): I went with him to the park security office. There was a man behind the desk.

OFFICER (Translation): Turn it off.

KARIM AMER (Translation): I will not.

OFFICER (Translation): Turn it off.

KARIM AMER (Translation): No.

OFFICER (Translation): Call the police.

KARIM AMER (Translation): He shouted. I was meant to get scared and turn it off.

OFFICER (Translation): Where is your ID?

KARIM AMER (Translation): Why?

OFFICER (Translation): Where is it? What's happening? Why are you filming, son?

KARIM AMER (Translation): He was talking to her rudely, calling her a doll.

OFFICER (Translation): What is it? Your ID, please. That's all.

KARIM AMER (Translation): Here.

OFFICER (Translation): And the doll's.

KARIM AMER (Translation): What doll?

OFFICER (Translation): You. Talk properly. - Lower your voice.

It was only a few months after her confrontation with the police that Aliaa decided to take the photo that would scandalise the Arab world.

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): Is freedom about nudity? No, it is not. But it's about... this is my body and I've decided to post the photo. It's about having the freedom to post or not, about not imposing things upon me.

On the internet, Aliaa's photo was viewed over five million times. But the reaction was not all supportive. Her blog enraged conservative Islamists and she became their hated target.

BLOG: O God, burn her body on Earth and Hell. - O God, inflict torture upon her.

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): Even many of them made comments like... Wasn't there a man in my family who could have stopped me or killed me for doing it? They blamed my family then the whole country.

REPORTER (Translation): Do you consider yourself a revolutionary?

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): I don't want to praise myself but... I think that a person shouldn't... just accept what infringes on his liberty and should rebel when his freedom is affected.

Away from Egypt, there was a wave of support for Aliaa. In Paris, women posed topless in solidarity. The Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN were there, as well as French women of North African origin who sympathise with Aliaa's situation.

SAFIA LEBDI, FEMEN PARIS (Translation): It's a beautiful photo. Artistic...And it denounces the frustration, the sexual misery... All the taboos around it. I think it's... You couldn't do it or say it better. It says it all. And it's important to communicate her courage. She's very courageous to have done this. We can't leave this woman all alone. Her voice should be heard around the world.

In Tunisia, another young woman followed Aliaa's lead. 19-year-old Amina Tyler posted topless photos of herself on Facebook, with slogans attacking Islamic conservativism. Thousands of activists posted naked images of themselves in support. In Tunisia, she was threatened with death by stoning.

AMINA TYLER (Translation): I must... leave Tunisia because I've received many death threats. I fear for my life and that of my family here. I've had threats on the phone and on Facebook. You will die. We'll throw acid on your face.

But for Aliaa, the woman who started it all, the threat from Islamists in Egypt became increasingly difficult to ignore. She fled to Sweden, where she requested asylum. Then in December last year she prepared to stage a controversial protest against the Egyptian regime. Joined by two women from the FEMEN movement, Aliaa held a fake Koran. Friends held fake copies of the Bible and the Torah, as they headed for the Egyptian Embassy. There, they posed naked to protest the new Islamic Constitution, put in place by Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): I read the constitution, there are some articles paving the way for other things... more discrimination, more oppression and more interference in people's personal lives. Religion... being inscribed in the constitution. And everything being derived from religion.

Images of Aliaa's protest in front of the Stockholm Embassy weren't shown in mainstream Egyptian media. But that didn't stop millions seeing them on the internet and for many religious leaders, the reaction was one of anger and disbelief.

RELIGIOUS LEADER (Translation): This whore - Aliaa Elmahdy. Who stripped off, covering her genitalia with God's verses. So when some sheikhs come and speak of kindness and of what you're speaking of, saying the honourable sister... She's a whore, a criminal and detestable.

In a working-class district of Cairo, Mahmoud Abdel Rahman decided to take legal action against Aliaa. He wrote to Cairo's Chief Prosecutor, demanding she be stripped of her Egyptian nationality. Mahmoud's wife shares his outrage.

MAHMOUD ABDEL RAHMAN (Translation): What do you think when you see such a photo?

WIFE (Translation): It's a terrible photo. It's terrible. You can't appear like this. You can't.

MAHMOUD ABDEL RAHMAN (Translation): When I asked that she be stripped of her Egyptian nationality it was because she did go against Egyptians' morals and customs. Their morals and customs.

WIFE (Translation): How is she oppressed? How has she been oppressed? Here in Egypt, women go work, they move about freely, no one is oppressed. Even if she had been, she can't express herself this way.

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): The country doesn't just belong to him. He doesn't get to decide who's Egyptian and who isn't, just because he might like someone's views or not. That's discrimination.

The revolution may have ended Mubarak's rule, but Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has imposed a new constitution that does little to advance women's rights.

CROWD (Translation): People of Egypt, wake up. Wake up and look at the thieves. The Brotherhood is a faction seizing control - total control. We call for freedom. We take part with men and society as a whole.

These activists are in Tahrir Square to mark the second anniversary of President Mubarak's fall. Their leaflets call for a more just and equal society, where religion and the state are separated, a society free of discrimination against women.

WOMAN (Translation): If my mother had fought for me 20 years ago, had she demanded her rights back then, I'd have had them today. In 20 years my daughter will have these rights. If I fight for her today, in 20 years she'll be in a world where she has these rights. She won't have to call or fight for them.

In the crowd is a veteran of the Arab feminist movement, Nawal Al Saadawi - a writer with an international reputation. She's now 81 and comes here to debate with the people every day. She supported the protesters on Tahrir Square from the start of the revolution.

NAWAL AL SAADAWI (Translation): We fought against military dictatorship. Now we're fighting against religious dictatorship.

REPORTER (Translation): When you saw Aliaa's photo, what did you think?

NAWAL AL SAADAWI (Translation): It's a cry from a woman. A cry, a cry against the regime. That's all.

The Swedish authorities have granted Aliaa a passport with refugee status. And she has a scholarship to continue her studies. Her internet images have stirred up an angry debate in Arab societies, who find her public nudity confronting and even some liberals believe she's gone too far. But that's what revolutionaries do.

ALIAA ELMAHDY (Translation): I achieved something I wouldn't have achieved otherwise. If I hadn't done what I did, I'd still be living with my parents who would be dictating my every move. From the beginning of my fight nothing has been more precious than making my own decisions. Being able to express myself the way I want and not being subjected to all that oppression.

ANJALI RAO: Well, you've got to admit she's very brave to bare all, not least in that freezing European weather! Well, there are links on our website to Aliaa's blog and her Twitter profile. Plus, tell us what you think of her naked protest at sbs.com.au/dateline.

Narrator
VICTORIA STROBL

Written By
SID AHMED HAMMOUCHE
PATRICK VALLÉLIAN

Director
PIERRE TOURY

Producer
ALLAN HOGAN

Editor
DAVID POTTS

Translations/Subtitling
DALIA MATAR
JOSEPH ABDO
BRUCE MCINTYRE

An ARTE - LCP National Assembly - PREMIERES LIGNES Co-production

16th April 2013