The Revolution stripped bare

By taking off her clothes, did a young Cairo blogger prove that the Egyptian revolution was also nak

About a month ago Alia Magda Elmahdy, a 20 year old student from Cairo, posted a photo of herself online. In the full-length black and white image she appears naked apart from a pair of stockings. Her shoes and a bow in her hair are highlighted in red. In the context of the internet, a medium notoriously replete with naked female flesh, there's nothing especially remarkable about the image, even allowing for her nationality. But Elmahdy chose to display her body as an avowedly political gesture. She has described her action as a protest against sexism in Egyptian society and a demand for artistic and sexual freedom. Here's what she wrote on the blog:

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.

According to the New York Times, "it is hard to overstate the shock at an Egyptian woman's posting nude photographs of herself on the Internet in a conservative religious country where a vast majority of Muslim women are veiled and even men seldom bare their knees in public."

That may be an exaggeration. But certainly everything about Aliaa Magda Elmahdy seems calculated to annoy Egypt's increasingly powerful Islamists -- and embarrass moderate secularists. Not only is she unafraid to break taboos by posing naked, she describes herself as an atheist and lives openly with a boyfriend who himself was imprisoned for writing things critical of both Islam and the former president, Hosni Mubarak. In an interview with CNN this weekend she defended gay rights, spoke openly about her sex life and called for a "social revolution", declaring that "women under Islam will always be objects to use at home."

If provocation was her aim then she has succeeded, though at considerable personal cost. Her blog post -- which also displays several other images, including a full-frontal shot of a naked man -- has received well over three million hits. While many comments have been supportive, others accused her of confusing freedom with "degradation and prostitution". A group of Islamic law graduates have launched a legal action against Elmahdy and her boyfriend, accusing the pair of "violating morals, inciting indecency and insulting Islam."

She hasn't had much support from liberals, either, many of whom fear that actions like hers play into the hands of Islamist social conservatives who favour the imposition of Saudi-style restrictions on women in the country. A spokesman for the April 6 Youth Movement denied reports that she a member by asserting that "We are conservative youths, and we always encourage our members to be role models as far as ethics are concerned . . . How can we have accepted the membership of a girl who behaves like this?"

"Where is the democracy and liberalism they preach to the world?" was Elmahdy's response to that remark. "They only feed what the public wants to hear for their political ambitions."

By exposing herself, Aliaa Elmahy may also have exposed the shortcomings of a political revolution that is certainly unfinished and may turn out to be stillborn. In the CNN interview she described sexism in Egypt as "unreal" and suggested that many women wore the veil "just to escape the harassment and be able to walk the streets." There's little evidence that events since January have improved that situation. The alliance of convenience between secular liberals and Islamists seen in both Egypt and Tunisia has temporarily masked deeper tensions about the nature of society. And it is on the bodies of women that these debates so often seem to play out.

Her gesture also poses a challenge to Western liberals. Her very existence as a young, sexually-active, atheist feminist questions widely-held assumptions about the fundamentally conservative nature of Islamic societies. Perhaps, for that very reason, she is likely to provoke more embarrassed shuffling of feet than open support. And some may consider her methods questionable, not merely because she thereby puts herself in danger.

For there's something curiously old-fashioned about Elmahy's action. It seems like a harking back to that brief moment (approximately between the Lady Chatterley and the Oz trials in the UK) when sexual liberation and nudity were part and parcel of revolutionary politics. We've moved on from that. Today, displays of naked (especially female) flesh no longer look politically radical. Instead they tend to be deplored on the Left as sexualising and objectifying, symptoms on the one hand of crass commercialism and, on the other, as merely the exploitation of vulnerable women for male delectation. It's a view that (for different reasons) our own religious conservatives are happy to endorse.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Beyonce. Credit: Getty
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Beyoncé at Coachella was a joyful, subversive celebration of Blackness

It was more than just a superlative performance: her blockbuster headline set had enormous cultural significance in the midst of Trump's America.

Beyoncé was the first Black woman to headline the Coachella festival – and she did not want you to forget it.

During her historic, almost two hour long headlining set on Saturday, she provided a masterclass in Black American history and musicology, coursing through the history of Black music across the diaspora and decades, from Nina Simone, to Juvenile, to Fela Kuti. With the backing of a marching band that paid tribute to the culture of historically Black universities and colleges in America, she played a set list of some of her biggest hits, from a Destiny’s Child reunion to her latest single with DJ Khaled, “Top Off.”

Beyoncé set the tone for the night with a parade of dancers again reminiscent of historically Black colleges’ prolific dance teams, making her grand entrance costumed as an ancient Egyptian queen to the tune of the New Orleans’ Rebirth Brass Band’s “Do Whatcha Wanna”.

She reappeared in a sweatshirt emblazoned with Greek letters, establishing her own fictional Black Greek student organization (the system of US university fraternities and sororities is known as Greek) of Beta Delta Kappa. She performed “Crazy in Love” with the marching band, before transitioning into Juvenile’s 1999 hit “Back that Ass Up,” ending the song in the chopped and screwed style of her hometown, Houston.

The message was clear – if it wasn’t evident before, Beyoncé is Black and proud.

Most interesting about Beyoncé’s Coachella performance is not the elaborate staging and theme, though impressive, but her choice to now assert her cultural pride and reverence in overwhelmingly white spaces, especially in the midst of Trump’s America.

Like she did in her 2016 Superbowl appearance, Beyoncé proudly displayed her pride for her heritage and influences by reflecting them back to her target audience – Black people – at the same time showing others what it means to code-switch as a minority.

Coachella historically attracts a white audience, particularly wealthy white millennials who are just as interested, if not more, in being seen and taking pictures for Instagram than the music itself – and who have thousands of dollars of disposable income to spend on a festival. For Beyoncé to debut a performance this culturally Black was not coincidental, as a captive, and partly clueless, audience looked on.

From Malcolm X speech excerpts to singing James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice And Sing”, a song often called the Black national anthem, her performance was full of cultural shorthand that they may not have recognised or understood. It was genius, especially at this moment in history; a love-letter to Black people in as vast and grand a public spectacle as possible, live-streamed to a vast global online audience

There may have never been a span of time for Black pop culture like 2017-2018, with the success of Oscar-winning Moonlight and Get Out, and the box office record-breaking Black Panther serving as thought-provoking discussion-fodder and cultural touchstones.

While the Obama administration fostered a sense of overwhelming pride and “we made it,” Trump’s ascension and the accompanying racial tension and rise of white supremacy groups, preference for assimilation, and attack on multiculturalism has made the moment ripe for asserting Black pride in bold, blatant ways.

Beyoncé proved she was up to the task, noting she was the first Black woman to headline the event, sarcastically punctuating the history of the moment by adding, “Ain’t that about a bitch?”

By taking her most popular and recognisable pop hits and using them as a canvas to showcase less mainstream elements of the Black experience, Beyoncé shifted the power dynamic by making the white majority the cultural outsider, for once, all while resetting the bar for live performance. Using the Coachella stage to pay homage to her culture, particularly her Black southern roots, could almost be classified as subversive.

The onus is now on the audience to seek out information to understand what they saw. Beyoncé’s message was clear – this performance was in, of, from, and for the culture, but it wasn’t her job to translate it for you. If you don't get it, you aren't meant to. It's not for you. If you want to understand it, you will put in the work to do so.

The world’s greatest entertainer, a 36-year-old married Black mother-of-three and businesswoman, affirming on one of the world’s biggest stages that not only is Black beautiful, but influential and powerful, was a truly important moment to behold.