Hijab is sexism not anti-racism

4.Aliaa_Elmahdy.Hijab.16.Aliaa_Elmahdy.Hijab.Hijabis.1Aliaa Elmahdy, the human rights activist under received death threats for being “the naked blogger” from the Arab spring in Egypt, who since then got asylum in Sweden and who made several discussed Femen actions, today announced her topless message at the hijab-event in Fiitja.


Aliaa Elmahdy

When I saw the event titled “Hijab som politiskt motstånd” (Hijab as political resistance) and read its description, I realized the importance of demonstrating in front of the place where it would be held so that other voices from Muslim majority countries are heard, and the propaganda presented in the event is not the only information about the subject.
The event has been held on the 6th of March, two days before International Women’s Day, in Mångkulturellt centrum (Multi-cultural center) in Fittja. It presents hijab as feminist and anti-racist. I think marketing hijab as such is harmful to women from Muslim families, to the status of women in general and to non-Muslims in Muslim majority countries.

Hijab is marketed in a different way in Muslim majority countries, than it is in the West. Women are compared to objects to be consumed and owned by men. They are compared to wrapped candy or precious hidden diamonds, while men are questioned on how they can cover their cars, but let their women go uncovered. But women are people not objects. Women are ordered to cover up not to arouse men, get themselves raped and corrupt society. The more the sexist ideology behind hijab spreads, the less safe it becomes for all women living in the same society, because women and their bodies, unlike men who are viewed as “users of women”, are viewed as sexual objects, and the more they cover up, the more they are blamed for being abused, and are required to give up their rights.

When I talk about hijab, I don’t talk about a piece of cloth, but about a complete set of rules for how women should behave, hide and withdraw. A veiled woman wouldn’t for example have freedom of movement or sexual freedom.

Since women are viewed as properties and honor of men, women’s families, relatives, husbands and families of husbands interfere in how women dress. Women are even treated as public properties, so if a woman’s direct family failed to control her, strangers would step in to correct her appearance and behavior, with sexual violence.

I met countless women who were forced or pressured to wear hijab, who wanted to take it off but feared incarceration, beatings and/or social rejection. My best friend was locked up and tortured in a mental institution after she took off the hijab she was coerced to wear as a child, and was only considered sane enough to be let out when she wore it again against her will. I also know a woman who was locked up at her parent’s home and jumped from the second floor to escape the threat of being murdered by her family after she took off the hijab. And countless other women who were locked up, beaten, had ”virginity”-tests, had their hairs cut and had their books torn up, for resisting the obligation to veil. Some women only wear hijab in front of their families, while others only wear it while taking public transportation. In a society where veiling is the norm, non-veiled women cannot dare to deviate much from that norm without taking a risk. Adding to that being brainwashed since childhood that they must wear hijab or they will hang in hell by their hairs – how much choice do women living in Muslim majority countries or with Muslim families in the West have?

Most people tend to adapt to social norms, and know their places in a social order. That’s why there are women defending sexism, and why there were black people defending slavery or at least living by humiliating rules which took away their dignity. It’s especially true for women to accept sexism, since a society of only women never existed, and most people would rather be accepted in a group than stand up for themselves. That some women defend oppression doesn’t mean it’s fair or that it doesn’t hurt women. The fact that more women defend it than oppose it, especially in public, is also associated with the risk of doing the later. Women who take off hijab, or reject living under the control of their countrymen in any other way, such as living alone, not with a male guardian, end up living in shelters or protected addresses, and are threatened and harassed both by family members and strangers. Those who chose to speak out and help others are at even greater risk. I receive messages from women who complain to me about the oppression they live under daily, but most of them are too scared or considerate about what people would say, to change their lives or speak out themselves.

Hijab is an extreme and strict version of the sexist culture Western feminists are fighting, but many of these feminists make an exception for hijab and even view it as feminist. Women who demand the same rights for all women are considered to adapt a “Western feminism”, but I don’t think such division in feminism is necessary. Instead of focusing on current issues for non Western women such as ”virginity”-tests, the so called “Islamic feminists” focus on issues that are not specific to women, such as racism, which is an important issue, but it shouldn’t be prioritized over women’s rights. They argue for preserving some forms of discrimination against non Western women, since according to them they don’t need the same rights as their Western sisters. Feminism is a movement for change, but why then are they more conservative than progressive?

When Egypt was colonized by Britain, same women who fought British occupation began to defy the rules to veil, and started a feminist movement, just as Western women who began to demand their rights during the industrial revolution. Yet the event in Fittja presents veiling as anti-colonial. Such arguments lead to that people who are fighting for women’s rights, or who have divergent beliefs in Muslim majority countries, are labeled as traitors. This makes it harder for these societies to develop. But not only Western societies should have rights to continous development.

While Western racists attack Islam and hijab out of rejection of other groups, although they share similar sexist views with those they are attacking, other people including people from Muslim majority countries, attack the same things out of caring about the rights of women and individuals in conservative societies and communities. Individuals inside groups from other countries shouldn’t be trumped over in an effort to understand or accept these groups. Some people may think they are then accepting diversity in Western societies, while in reality they are standing against those who are fighting to make conservative societies more diverse and individualistic.


I will be nude, I will protest, and I will challenge you to your core!


8 March Nude Protest in Paris. Photo of Amina Sboui, Maryam Namazie and Aliaa Magda Elmahdy

All religions have a disturbing view of the female and her body. Islam is no different.  Given that Islamism – a regressive political movement with state power and political influence in many places – is using Islam as its banner, however, women’s sexuality and bodies are policed and criminalised and misogyny is encouraged and imposed by the state.

In Iran, under Sharia law, for example, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, she can’t travel without the permission of her “male guardian”, and there’s segregation based on gender. Certain fields of study and work are closed to women; girls from puberty onwards can be “married”; veiling is compulsory and women who transgress these norms can face imprisonment, flogging, and even stoning to death.

The idealised woman is obedient, properly veiled, submissive, and accepting of her assigned “place” in society. The rest of us are whores, often compared to unwrapped sweets – covered in flies and free for the taking. We are the source of fitnah in society and blamed for every calamity and natural disaster, as well as the disintegration of the family and society, and deserving of punishment in order to maintain national and Islamic values, pride and honour.

You don’t have to look far for evidence of this. Women protesters in Tahrir Square were given virginity tests and routinely blamed for the rape and sexual assault they faced. In Tunisia, Islamists use violence to “correct” the behaviour of women. And in Iran, women are routinely arrested or harassed for acts against chastity and morality.

Islamism’s obsession with women’s bodies and its insistence that women be veiled and hidden from view means that nudity becomes an important form of public resistance. Islamists want us bound in body bags, not seen and not heard. We refuse to comply.

A nude woman is the antithesis of the idealised veiled and submissive woman. Whilst nude protest is not the only way to resist Islamism and the veil, it is a very modern, practical and appropriate way of doing so. It also challenges discrimination against women and a system which profits from the commodification and sexualisation of women’s bodies.

Detractors argue that nude protests play into the hands of sexists by further commodifying the female body. Their erroneous conflation of nudity and obscenity, pornography, vulgarity, and immorality buys into the attitude that female bodies serve only as titillation for the male gaze. They see a nude protestor and cannot see beyond her “tits and ass”.

The idea that the female body is shameful, dishonourable, gross and crude fits within this debased view of women’s bodies. The shocked outrage at nudity reflects the discomfort with the female body rather than any problematic related to nude protest.

There is nothing wrong with nudity in and of itself. That the female body is used for profit, sexualised and commodified does not make the female body obscene just as it does not make breastfeeding in public vulgar.

Commodification relies on an objectified image that is separate from the reality of women’s bodies, minds and lives and which is used to regulate, control and suppress. Whilst Islamists often portray their rule as a prescription for the debasement of women in western societies, their image of women is the ultimate in objectification.  In fact from early on, girls are over-sexualised with the imposition of child veiling. (This viewpoint also sees men as rapists unable to control their urges.)

The actuality and frankness of women’s bodies as a form of protest challenges this negative image of females, turns it on its head and undermines the limits of what is deemed socially acceptable. It’s subversive and threatens the status quo.

This is different from pornography which is widespread in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, the more overtly religion and the state intertwine, the more chauvinistic the society and the more pervasive and blatant are pornography, sexual assaults, harassment and violence against women.

It’s nudity as protest and outside these socially accepted limits of the woman as either whore or submissive that so enrages.

As Soraya Chemaly writes: “when women refuse to sexualise themselves and use their bodies to challenge powerful interests that profit from that sexualisation, the words we should use aren’t ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’; they’re ‘threatening’ and ‘destabilizing’. Women who use public nudity for social commentary, art and protest are myth-busting along many dimensions: active, not passive; strong not vulnerable; together, not isolated; public, not private; and, usually, angry, not alluring.  The morality offense is misogyny, not nudity”.

Nude protest makes women visible in the public space and redefines who controls the female body. It’s the reclamation of a tool used for suppression and an insistence that our bodies are our own, not “owned” by anyone, nor the source of honour, shame, national embarrassment…

Reclaiming nudity by women has special meaning under circumstances where women’s bodies have been abused or raped as weapons of war or repression. In Iran, for example, young virgins were raped before execution to prevent them from going to heaven. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) carried out mass rapes in the 1990s in Algeria as part of its terror campaign. In response, nudity has been used to confront armed and repressive forces from the Indian subcontinent to Africa.

Nude protest is not confined to the west. Some of the most famous examples of nude protest are from elsewhere. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy in Egypt and Amina Sboui in Tunisia are cases in point. In China, supporters of Ai Weiwei have been posing naked after the Chinese government accused the artist of pornography for a series of nude photos. Hundreds of women in Niger Delta staged a topless protest against non-implementation of an existing agreement by Shell. Late last year in Argentina, an estimated 7,000 women, some of whom were topless, stormed a cathedral demanding women’s autonomy. A “bare buttocks” women’s protest took place in Swaziland in 2000 to oppose evictions by the king’s brother. In March last year, a women’s group in Orissa, India staged a semi-nude protest against land acquisition for a proposed steel plant… There have been nude protests in many places for everything from opposition to war to a defence of the environment.

An incidental positive outcome of this form of protest is a more open and relaxed attitude towards nudity but nude protest is a means of political protest that goes beyond the issue of nudity. Nude protest challenges discrimination with important implications for other aspects of women’s lives – much of which have to do with control and suppression. Those who say that there are more important fights for justice other than nudity miss this important fact. A woman’s control over her own body translates into her being considered a real and distinct human being separate from the men who “own” her. This translates into more freedoms such as the freedom to study what she wants, work where she wants, visit friends and family when she wants, travel without permission, mix freely with members of the opposite sex, have the right to divorce and child custody, marry whom she wants, choose to be an atheist if she wants, have sex when she wants, and refuse sex when she wants, as well as to have the right to food, clothing and healthcare irrespective of how she is perceived by her male guardian or the society.  In a society where women have ownership of their own bodies, everything from veiling to Female Genital Mutilation, stonings and honour killings become impermissible.

Nude protest aids in the fight for women’s liberation in one of the key battlefields – her body. Whilst women’s oppression is fundamentally a product of the economic and social system, which benefits from the commodification and objectification of women as well as sexual division in the production process, it is also the product of religious values and chauvinistic traditions and beliefs. Nude protest challenges the status quo.

Those who say nude protest is not the task of Communists and the Left have no clue about the role and responsibility of the Left. Class struggle does not take place in factories alone. Workers also include women with a myriad of problems many related to the control and suppression of their bodies. Women’s inequality springs from the same system that is responsible for workers’ inequality.

If the measure of a society’s freedom is based on women’s freedom, then nudity’s political challenge is an important one. Detractors who argue that nude protest pushes the women’s liberation movement backwards, including those who consider themselves progressive, Left and “veteran” women’s rights campaigners, equate women’s nudity with obscenity and indignity and cannot see its political, revolutionary, taboo-breaking, liberating and deeply humanising effects.

And the closer the nudity, the more uncomfortable. For many Egyptians, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy was said to embarrass the Egyptian revolution. Amina Sboui was blamed for pushing back the Tunisian women’s liberation movement. I have been accused of pushing back the women’s liberation movement in Iran and putting women’s rights campaigners in Iran at risk. No repressive regime needs excuses to suppress and deny the rights of women. It is absurd to blame the Islamic regime of Iran’s misogyny on those of us who resist. I have also been accused of embarrassing the Left which will apparently face further accusations of “immorality” as a result of my nudity.

Nothing brings out the misogynists from their hiding places like nudity.

This discomfort means that the same rules don’t apply when it comes to an analysis of nude political protest. The Ukrainian revolution is not denigrated for being “white” and “western” but FEMEN (whatever your opinion on the group) is often referred to in this way.  The relatively small numbers of nude protestors are highlighted when what matters are not numbers per se but significance and effect. Many taboo-breaking protests and demands were raised and organised by a minority, an avant-garde who first led the way. Also, geographical location not politics is stressed when it comes to nude protest. Distinctions are made, for example, between Aliaa’s nude protest in Egypt versus her actions in Stockholm and our 8 March nude protest in Paris. The actions of Islamists have a global impact and so does nude protest irrespective of where it takes place. Our nude protest on 8 March in Paris has been hotly debated amongst Iranians from Tehran to London and Islamists have rioted in Kalkata when photos of our protest were published in a local paper.

If Occupy Wall Street can take the form and content of Tahrir Square, why not nude protest? In fact, the material bases of the protests, including nudity, are similar. Those who fail to see the importance of nude protests addressing deep-rooted discrimination against women don’t see the deep-seated discrimination in the first place.

Even in a majority of western countries, women still cannot appear topless in beaches or parks as can men. Breastfeeding in many public places is considered taboo. Facebook doesn’t allow nipples to be seen. Earlier this year, Facebook temporarily shut down a French museum’s page after it uploaded one such image. Recently, a French politician called for censoring a children’s book “Everybody Get Naked” , which shows people from all walks of life taking off their clothes in an aim to calm children’s fears about their own bodies. At our 8 march nude protest with Amina Sboui and Aliaa Magda Elmahdy we were kettled in, with a large number of police brought to arrest us. We were shouted at, grabbed, and arrested. At the station, the police wrote down all our personal details as well as the slogans we had on our bodies, what we chanted, and what flags we carried… We were held for several hours and chastised for wasting police time. This gives nude protest universal significance.

Detractors who criticise nude protests taking place in the west ignore the real risks involved for those who do it in places like Egypt or Tunisia. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy and Amina Sboui were forced to leave their countries because of it.

Critics have dared me to hold my 8 March Paris protest in Iran. If I could, I would do it in Tehran’s Azadi Square – and like in Paris cut out the “Allah” from the Islamic regime of Iran’s flag and put my vulva in its place (pussy riot, Iranian style according to one) but that would mean a death sentence. This type of criticism is akin to telling exiled political opponents that they must either remain silent or dissent in their countries of origin even if means death. It ignores the repression that many of us have fled from and the real risks involved with any form of protest against Islamism, especially nude protest, even when it is done outside of the Middle East and North Africa.

Opponents have called our nude protest “offensive” and “culturally inappropriate” but anything that breaks taboos and demands fundamental change will offend existing sensibilities and will be deemed inappropriate for its time.

Even so, not everyone is offended. Whilst there are many who condemn it, there are also many who vehemently support it. No culture or society is homogeneous. Those who consider nude protest as “foreign” and “culturally inappropriate” are only considering Islamism’s sensibilities and values, not that of the many who resist. In the same way that there are opponents of nude protest and supporters of the veil in the west, there are also supporters of nude protest and opponents of the veil in the east. In fact more so because there is no greater opposition against Islamism and religious misogyny than from those who have lived under, survived and resisted it.

The call for free, equal and autonomous women is also a call for a free Iran, Middle East and North Africa. No society can be free without women being free.

When it is a crime to be a woman, nude protest is an important public political challenge. It says loud and clear: “Enough! No More”! “I will be nude, I will protest, and I will challenge you to your very core!

The above is being published in the March 2014 issue of Fitnah’s Unveiled.

Nude protest for Intl Women’s Day

Today, 8 March, International Women’s Day, Amina Sboui, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, Solmaz Vakilpour, Safia Lebdi, Meriam Russel and myself protested nude in support of women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa at the Louvre in Paris.

I didn’t want to just hold the Islamic regime of Iran’s flag so I cut out the Allah in the centre of the flag and let it show my vagina instead. Much better, don’t you think?

Below are some photos, video coverage and links. We were arrested when 100 police converged on the area and took us away. We were released after several hours. I managed to catch my Eurostar train 1 minute before it took off with the help of Waleed Al Husseini wearing “Free the Nipple” t-shirt Amina gave us each.

Long live International Women’s Day…

8 marchamina


[Read more…]

Reminder: Call for submissions for Nude Photo Revolutionaries Calendar

I just wanted to give everyone an update on the Nude Photo Revolutionaries Calendar in support of Egyptian student, atheist and blogger, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, 20, who posted nude photos of herself on her blog to show her ‘screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy’.

As I mentioned before, there has been a huge amount of interest in the project. Those who have already agreed to submit nude photos include SlutWalk co-founder Sonya JF Barnett, blogger Greta Christina, campaigner Maryam Namazie, comedian Shabana Rehman, philosopher Daniel Salvatore Schiffer and columnist Joan Smith.

There will be a panel of judges, including the ‘Muslim Madonna’ Deeyah, to decide on unsolicited entries. [Read more…]

I say burn the veil

The wonderful atheist Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy has called on men to veil in solidarity with women. Men in Iran have done this before as well [see featured photo – man’s T-shirt says: down with patriarchy].

The veil’s oppressive; it’s a form of control. Rather than having men wear it too, we need to get rid of it. [Read more…]

Calling All Nude Photo Revolutionaries

Remember Calendar Girls when a group of women posed nude to raise money for charity? As a follow up to the photo of Israeli women who stripped in solidarity with Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, why not make a calendar of Nude Photo Revolutionaries in homage to Aliaa and also to raise awareness on free expression and women’s rights and against misogyny and Islamism. [Read more…]

Nude photo of Egyptian blogger is a scream against Islamism

Student, atheist and blogger, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, 20, posted naked pictures of herself on her blog to show her “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy”. Showing her body particularly at a time when Islamists in Egypt are trying to secure power is the ultimate act of rebellion. Don’t forget Islamists despise nothing more than a woman’s body. In case you didn’t know, women are the source of corruption and chaos and must be covered up at all times and not seen and not heard. [Read more…]