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

PHOTO: Activist from the womens movement FEMEN, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy of Egypt poses after a protest in front of the embassy of Tunisia, in Paris, June 5, 2013.

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.

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