We Interviewed the Egyptian Feminist Who Was Kidnapped for Posing Nude
In December, Aliaa Elmahdy participated in a public nude protest outside the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. Despite the freezing weather, she stood sandwiched between two other, also naked, members of the radical feminist organization Femen with the words “Sharia is not a constitution” in red paint across her chest and stomach. In the photo of the three-person rally above, she doesn’t look uncomfortable at all, or even angry—she seems more amused that someone’s taking her picture than anything.
This wasn’t Aliaa’s first time making headlines for nudity: In 2011, while living in Egypt, she uploaded photos to her blog in which she wore nothing more than a flower in her hair, red shoes, and thigh-high polka-dot stockings. This was, she claimed, a form of protest against “the oppression of women in Egypt.” After the image went viral and she began receiving death threats and was kidnapped, the 21-year-old was given political asylum in Sweden, where she linked up with Femen—the international activist group founded in Ukraine best known for their topless protests across Europe on behalf of women’s rights and against religion and the sex industry.
Femen has succeeded in gathering a lot of attention for, among other things, protesting the inclusion of Islamist countries in the Olympics and taking a chainsaw to a cross in Kiev, Ukraine that was a memorial to victims of Stalin’s murderous regime. The group has been criticized for many things, including being“inarticulate about what it stands for.” But regardless of how you feel about the organization, it’s undeniable that Aliaa had to have some balls to pose nude in Egypt, and her actions have made her a pariah in her homeland. Even though that Stockholm protest was 2,000 miles away from Egypt, the Egyptian interior ministry is still bringing charges against her for “blasphemy” and “damanging the country’s reputation.” After finding out that she’s recently started up a Femen branch in Egypt—a country that has become notorious for committing violence against women—and has asked Egyptian women to email nude photos for her to post online, I got in touch with her to see how much progress had been made.
VICE: Hi Aliaa, how’s your work with Femen coming along? What do you guys do?
Aliaa Elmahdy: We make nude protests—like the one we made in Stockholm. We protest about many issues, about gay rights, about prostitution. In Egypt, and maybe everywhere to some degree, when a woman claims her body—when she’s naked but not for sex—it just annoys people so much that she’s not covered. They think there’s something wrong with her.
Do your parents approve of your work with Femen and what you’re doing?
They know what I’m doing, but we’re not in contact.
So they disapprove?
Teenagers and Salafists Storm the American Embassy in Tunisia
I’m a Middle Eastern Studies student from Wisconsin currently doing research in a suburb of Tunis called Sidi Bou Said. Today, just after lunch, I noticed a cloud of thick black smoke rising on the horizon. Burning trash is fairly common here, so I didn’t think much of it. But on my way to class one of my classmates mentioned, half-joking, that it might be coming from the US Embassy. Our suspicions were confirmed when our Tunisian Arabic teacher plunged into a nervous breakdown during class.
The demonstrations in Tunisia today are being blamed on the now infamous “Innocence of Muslims” film, but the real reason behind them is the rhetoric of the current party in power. Nahdah (in Fus’ha Arabic, it means “Awakening” or “Renaissance”) is a popular Salafist (for lack of a better word “Islamist”) party that was elected last fall. After ousting the semi-secularist dictator Ben Ali from power, the Nahdah party was supposed to create a new constitution within a year. Nahdah has almost completely failed at this task, partly because of corruption and partly because most of its leaders have been rotting in jail for the past 20 years.
The talk among the progressive parties in Tunis is that the riots today were not only an attack on the US Embassy, but an attack on the Tunisian people. Today’s attacks were a warning shot, and a pony show of the power of Nahdah. Of course, the ruling party would never corroborate this. Nahdah speaks out of both sides of its mouth. October 23, 2012 will be the end of Nahdah’s legitimacy and many think that today’s attacks are a sign of their increasing desperation.
Moshe Silman, RIP
Moshe Silman, the Israeli man who set himself on fire at Saturday’s J14 social justice protest, has died at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv. He spent the past week in critical condition there with second- and third-degree burns covering 94 percent of his body. He was 57 years old.
I was in Tel Aviv covering the protests for a film about Israel’s radical left-wing youth when I witnessed Silman start a small fire by the side of the road. He’d doused himself in what I thought was a two-liter bottle of water, and stepped into the flames.
Twenty-four hours later, I was at an impromptu protest in the same city; a hastily organized get-together of hundreds of Israelis wanting to show their solidarity with the man who they looked upon as a fallen comrade. One protester had mummified himself with bandages and carried a sign reading, “the state burned me too,” and the chant, “we are all Moshe Silman” rang through the crowd. They wanted it to be known that Silman’s self-immolation was not a “personal tragedy” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called it, but a tragedy for all of Israel.
We gathered outside the social security building before marching out on a seemingly aimless walk through the city. After an hour or so, a premature rumor that Moshe Silman had died spread through the crowd, and the demonstrators ran out onto the motorway in response, bringing a rush-hour highway to a standstill.
It remains to be seen how Silman’s death will affect Israel, but it will undoubtedly bolster the argument for social revolution in a country that, as Silman wrote in his suicide letter, had “stolen from me and robbed me, left me with nothing.”
Read our account from last week: I Saw A Man Burning Alive in the Streets of Tel Aviv
The Rebellion in Cherán, Mexico
Cherán, Mexico is a town of 16,000 indigenous Purepechan Mexicans set up in the western state of Michoacán about 200 miles from Mexico City. For years, illegal loggers, protected by drug cartel gunmen, have ravaged the area’s communal forests and murdered a number of townspeople. When the residents of Cherán asked their municipal, state and federal authorities for help, they did nothing, so the community took justice into their own hands. About a year ago, the residents of Cherán rose up in an armed rebellion and kicked out the loggers, cartels, and the corrupt local government. Since then, they’ve implemented self-governance based on traditional customs. They defend the borders of the town with community patrols. In Cherán today, there are no political campaigns, no ballots, no political parties, no elections, and no alcohol.
Isolated in the middle of rainy, cold Michoacán forests, Cherán warms up at night around the barricades. The burning fires are gathering points for the citizens to organize and govern themselves.
During VICE Mexico’s recent trip to the community en rebelde, they spoke to Serafin, a young Purepechan photographer who has spent the last several years covering the conflict:
VICE: Where are you from?
Juan Jose: My name is Juan Jose Estrada Serafin. I’m from the Turicuaro community and am a correspondent for a newspaper called El Cambio de Michoacán [The Michoacán Change]. I cover three local municipalities: Paracho, Cherán, and Nahuatzen.
What’s your experience of the uprising been?
Other communities like Sevina and Turicuaro have defended their forests like Cherán has, but the conflict in Cherán has been different because of the presence of organized crime. It’s similar to the case of Comachuen and Sevina. Sevina accused Comachuen of illegally logging their forest. The truth is that people were actually logging their neighbors’ forests because they didn’t have any resources.
How did you approach photographing Cherán?
I’ve always had a thing for these kind of conflicts, so of course Cherán drew my attention. But at first it was very hard to gain access to the community. On the third day of the conflict I managed to sneak inside the community. Everything was done really fast and it was very tense. I sent some pictures back to the paper I was working for but they told me they were too shocking and couldn’t be published. They complained that the images were too graphic, guys with machetes pulling over trucks, but that was what just what my camera was capturing.
After that I got a contact who helped me get acquainted with the people involved in the movement so that I could take some more pictures. I met some old people there and they started asking me questions in Purepechan dialect. When I answered, they said, “Yeah, he can talk Purepechan and has a good accent.” So after that, I ended up going up into the forest to see what was going on. The forest was devastated. I went up with a brigade of about 70 armed people. With my images, they had some material to tell authorities about what was going on in their town.
I told the locals they needed to have some sort of media of their own because after seeing what the other newspapers were writing I realized how misinformed everyone was about the situation. Through help from a friend here, a webpage went up called micheran.com that was eventually shut down due to lack of funding.
You say there was misinformation by part of the mainstream media. What were they writing?
The whole thing was being covered as if it was some internal problem and some government officials started talking about the issue as if it wasn’t a logging issue. As time went by, they started realizing that there was a huge problem involving the cartels and deforestation. The damage that was being done became evident. You could go down the road from Cherán to Carapan and see illegal loggers cutting down trees in broad daylight.
So afterwards you became part of the movement that you were documenting?
I was definitely involved. In a certain way I helped people by giving them ideas and advice on what could be done. I’m now studying Intercultural Communications and we’re seeing this case from an academic point of view. I’m Purepechan and I know that by not having a space to express ourselves, our message will never be considered relevant. For me, it’s important for us to have our own media so we can have our own voice. In this country there are many communication channels but, who has the voice? Politicians are the ones paying for it. We, as natives, should have our own media so we can inform everyone, from the inside, about what’s going on, what we’re doing.
Goddamn the pope is an asshole. He came to London last weekend and drove around in his little Popemobile looking smug as shit while people flipped him off and hurled obscenities at him. Read more
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