Student Aliaa Magda Elmahdy’s protest challenges attitudes in a Muslim country where even exposing arms or legs in public can ignite public outrage.
The 20-year-old wrote on her blog that the photos, which show her naked apart from stockings, are her “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy”. Her blog has received 1.5 million hits since her photos were posted earlier this week.
The posting comes at a time when Egypt, a nation of some 85 million people, is polarised between Islamists and liberals ahead of parliamentary elections on 28 November, the first since the fall in February of president Hosni Mubarak. Members of the most hardline Islamic movement in Egypt, the Salafis, have warned voters that liberal rule would corrupt Egypt’s morals.
Talking on Egypt talkshow 90 Minutes, one self-styled secular figure, Sayyed el-Qimni said of the posts: “This hurts the entire secular current in front of those calling themselves the people of virtue [the Islamists].
“It’s is a double disaster. Because I am liberal and I believe in the right of personal freedom, I can’t interfere.” The April 6 movement, one of the most prominent liberal activist groups that led the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, issued a statement denying Ms Elmahdy was a member of the group.
Her posts prompted furious discussions on social media sites.
One activist, Ahmed Awadallah, Tweeted: “I’m totally taken back by her bravery.”
Another supporter commented: “We need to learn how to separate between nudity and sex.” He said that before fundamentalist influence in Egypt, “there were nude models in art school for students to draw”.
Some 100 people liked his comment, while thousands flooded the site with insults. Some denounced Ms Elmahdy as a “prostitute” and “mentally sick” or urged police to arrest her.
Her move comes as Salafis have been pushing their attitude that women should be kept out of the public eye, promoting Saudi Arabia-style segregation of the sexes. On Salafi parties’ campaign banners, photos of the few female candidates are replaced by drawings of a flower.
During a recent election rally in Alexandria, Salafists covered up a public statue that depicted mermaids. Salafi clerics on TV shows have refused to appear face-to-face with female TV hosts, unless the presenter puts on a headscarf or in one case, a barrier is placed between the two. Most recently, an Islamist preacher gatecrashed a concert in a Nile Delta province of Mansoura, saying music was forbidden by Islam and he wanted to “promote virtue and prevent vice” – a Saudi police motto.
Women rights activist Nehad Abou el-Qomsan said conservatives “keep adding layers to cover up the women and deny their existence”. But, she said, what Ms Elmahdy did “is also rejected because posing nude is a form of body abuse”.
Ms Elmahdy and boyfriend Kareem Amer, also a blogger, have challenged Egypt’s strictures before. Earlier this year, they posted footage of themselves arguing with officials who threw them out of a public park for displays of affection.
Mr Amer, who spent four years in jail for posts calling Mubarak a “symbol of tyranny,” posted on Facebook: “I think we should not be afraid of those in power or Islamists, as much as we should be worried of politicians claiming to be liberal. They are ready to sacrifice us to avoid tarnishing their image.”