Our guest blogger is Jennifer Addison, national security team intern at the Center for American Progress.Dozens of Israeli women bared it all this week in homage to Egyptian activist Aliaa Elmahdy and her controversial naked photos, the latest in a string of efforts from women in the Middle East to reclaim their sexuality. Last week, Elmahdy posted nude photos of herself on the internet in an attempt to send a message about sexual equality and expression in Egypt. In an interview with CNN, Elmahdy further explained her reasons for posting the photos:
ELMADHY: I am not shy of being a woman in a society where women are nothing but sex objects harassed on a daily basis by men who know nothing about sex or the importance of a woman. The photo is an expression of my being and I see the human body as the best artistic representation of that.
“Many women wear the veil just to escape the harassment and be able to walk the streets,” she later added. Elmahdy is to be commended for fighting against oppression; and while her actions are well-intended, she should also be sensitive to the fact that what she feels is oppressive may actually liberating for other women.
Sexual harassment is a serious problem in Egypt. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, 83 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed. However, it cannot be assumed that all women in Egypt are wearing the veil for this one reason. By connecting sexual harassment and the veil, Elmahdy gives the impression that the veil is strongly associated with oppression. Although there is truth to her statement, it should not be assumed that women only wear the veil because they are oppressed. Even in countries with strong gender-equality laws women are disgruntled with the limits on their expression. Just a few weeks ago in Tunisia, women were protesting for the right to wear the veil. In Libya, under former ruler Muammar Qaddafi, the Niqab was banned. According to a report from the Economist, women across the country are now celebrating over the restoration of their right to wear it.
Of course, it is a mistake to assume that all women want their sexuality to be expressed in the same way. Ideas, opinions and personalities effect one’s desire to be covered or uncovered. Women’s bodies have been the subject of discussion for Islamic scholars and authorities, political figures, even Western feminists, but have Muslim women themselves been adequately consulted on this issue?
This issue of sexuality, like many other issues facing women across the globe, can be boiled down to one thing – choice. Owning your sexuality is a good thing but making assumptions about how all women feel about their bodies is not. Each woman should have the right to choose how to carry herself, how she dresses, and what her body represents. A consensus may never be reached on female sexual expression and the most important thing is for women to acknowledge and respect differences in opinions amongst other women in how they choose to own and express their sexuality.