In November, I wrote about Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, the Egyptian student and atheist who posted nude photos of herself as a protest against Islamist suppression of women’s bodies and voices. Her explanation of what she was seeking to achieve is so perfect, I have to quote it again:
“Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.”
In a society where religious morality police presume to dictate what is and isn’t an acceptable means of self-expression, this was an incredible act of daring, and it’s still not out of the question that the theocrats may succeed in punishing her for it. Ironically, by trying to get Elmahdy hauled into court for demonstrating that she possesses the same body parts as other human beings, they’ve proved both the point and the effectiveness of this manner of protest.
In a show of support and solidarity, the human-rights campaigner Maryam Namazie put together a Nude Photo Revolutionary Calendar (potentially NSFW), which has just been released for purchase or free download. Twelve prominent female writers, bloggers and activists posed for the calendar, each with a statement explaining why they chose to participate. (From what I understand, the submission process was open to men as well, but they didn’t get any suitable entries. If you’d prefer a male calendar, there’s always this one (definitely NSFW)).
This project has its detractors, of course, like this person who complained that the calendar is “encouraging people to sexualize women”. This criticism makes the elementary mistake of confusing nudity and sex. You can be blatantly sexual while fully clothed; you can be naked without being sexual at all.
There were also these comments from I Blame the Patriarchy, which took a similar but more subtle tack:
I allege that, in a patriarchy, all images of women, particularly but not limited to those that involve nudity… are inherently pornographic. I allege this not because I believe that women are themselves inherently degraded pornbot livestock, but because the imagery is always realized under the auspices of — and for an audience acclimated to — a culture of pornsick patriarchal oppression. Images of women can only be interpreted from within a framework of misogyny that universally defines women in terms of male desire, male fantasy, male incontinence, and male power.
The argument from IBTP is that, even if a woman’s body is depicted with no erotic intent, it will still be interpreted as pornographic, because that’s the way our society is conditioned to view any image of a woman. I acknowledge there’s some truth to that, but this argument strikes me as far too pessimistic: it seems to be saying that it’s impossible to fight sexism, because men will always view women as objects for their gratification and there’s no way to change that.
The whole point of Elmahdy’s protest, and of this calendar, was to defeat this prejudice that women’s bodies are always and intrinsically sexual. This belief leads Islamists to demand they wear veils, burqas, and other smothering clothing designed to dehumanize them and make them invisible, so as not to tempt men into uncontrollable lust. Ironically, this is the same belief that in our society exerts a constant pressure on women to be sexy – the same belief, but two very different manifestations.
If this calendar were like most images of women in the mass media – depicting only women who are drawn from a tiny and statistically unrepresentative slice of the population, encouraged to starve and mistreat themselves to maintain an unnatural weight and highly idealized body shape, and even after all that, digitally altered to remove all the blemishes and imperfections of actual bodies and promote a standard of beauty that no human being could ever realistically achieve – then complaints like these would have a point. As it is, I saw nothing in the calendar other than normal people, with a variety of ages and body types. No one viewing it could seriously believe that it was created to inspire lust.
The theocrats, who despise their own bodies and their own sex drives, are fervently against lust and view it as the responsibility of women to avoid provoking them to it. On the other hand, there are some circles within our society that are obsessed with sex, that pursue it far more than is healthy, and view it as the responsibility of women to be as sexy as possible, to dress and display themselves solely for men’s gratification. In either case, the burden is put on women to conform to society’s expectations. Protests like this one are clever because they confound both sets of unreasonable expectations at once: nude without being sexual, showing their bodies without acquiescing to inflexible, reductive and harmful standards about how to do that.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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