The Naked Blogger of Cairo, by Dr Dina Rezk

In November 2011, 20 year old Egyptian Alia Mahdy posted a nude photograph of herself on her blog Diary of a Rebel. She was wearing nothing but black stockings, red leather shoes, and a flower in her hair. The photograph had 1.5 million hits within a week. In 3 years, her blog had more than 9 million views.

Black and white photograph of Aliaa Magda Elmahdy.
Image from:, courtesy of Aliaa Magda Elmahdy.

Alia’s act of digital disruption was part of a wider series of political and artistic activities that took place on the internet during Egypt’s so called ‘Arab Spring.’ The 2011 revolution was replete with reminders of the body as the ultimate political medium. From the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, to the anonymous ‘Blue Bra’ girl dragged across Tahrir square, images of the body played a central role in mobilising and articulating revolutionary expression.

But unlike thousands of postings by Egyptian women in 2011 calling for social and political change that found widespread popular support, Alia’s act was met with repudiation by all of Egypt’s political groups. Alia’s desire to make her naked body visible to the world was seen as subversive, unauthentic and an assault on the values and culture of the nation and the region. So why did Alia see herself as participating in an artistic act of political protest while others denied and indeed condemned her contribution?

Alia described herself as a “secular, liberal, feminist, vegetarian, individualist Egyptian.” In an interview with CNN she said the post was “an expression of my being’” and clarified the relationship between freedom of expression and her body: “I see the human body as the best artistic representation of that [being].” The question of her agency and bodily autonomy was key: ‘I took the photo myself using a timer on my personal camera.’ “I accepted [to publish the picture] because I am not shy of being a woman.’

Alia’s pose in the photograph is revealing. She looks directly at the camera, her posture is upright and her eyes have a defiant expression. In Alia’s view, this assertion of her own sexuality on her own terms, was the ultimate expression of political freedom.

The caption she wrote with the photograph, perhaps unsurprisingly, garnered much less attention. But the text was key to contextualising Alia’s action within a wider historical and political context:

‘Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 1970s, 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 hang-ups, before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism at me and dare to deny me my freedom of expression.’

Allusions to Egypt’s more liberal past were evoked both visually through the black and white photograph, and this outright reference to an earlier time in Egypt’s history where bodily exposure was not shamed and repressed.  

Her words proved to be a powerful pre-emptive attack on the diatribe that ensued.  Despite widespread condemnation of her actions, the political implications of her act were not lost on her audiences, even whilst people repudiated them. One critic said “You claim to be Egyptian; how did you dare [do what you did] when you hold the Egyptian nationality and carry the Arab identity” (S. Zaki, 2011). Abdo Wazen (2011), a columnist in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat placed her artwork within the broader context of embodied protest that marked the Arab revolutions: “Alia is another Mohammad Bouazizi, but instead of burning her own body, she burnt our eyes and made us blind in the broad daylight of revolutions.” Eventually, facing physical intimidation and death threats, Alia was forced to seek political refuge in Scandinavia. As scholar Marwan Kraidy puts it, “Though biologically alive in exile, her body suffered a social death at home.”

Grafitti of Alia Mahdy next to Samira Ibrahim (right), comparing the virginity checks of female protestors campaigned against by Ibrahim and the media attention Mahdy attracted with her image.
Image commonly seen on Wiki, under the legal right to panorama

Alia’s photograph, and the spectacular controversy it gave rise to, made me think. It made me think about what agency truly means, what people want (female) agency to look like and how this differs across time and space. As I write up my research on Egypt’s ‘Arab Spring’ and its enduring legacies, I find myself asking important questions about the relationship of the personal and the political; what revolution really means; and the centrality of the body as a battlefield during times of upheaval.

I spent a few months in Egypt in the autumn of 2022. It was the first time I had spent an extended period in my country of origin and locus of my research.  Upon my return a friend asked what I had noticed, “Was there anything exciting happening on the streets?” he said.

I paused to reflect, before nodding. I told him that around the right outside my flat in Cairo there was a community of skaters who gathered every evening around a local park where I would take my daily walk.  As I watched these Egyptians weaving in and out of traffic, whizzing across uneven pavements and laughing together, men and women, children and teenagers, I was struck that this was one of the few contexts I had encountered in Egypt where gender didn’t seem to matter. What felt important though was the sense that these skaters were claiming their power to use and move their bodies how they liked in the face of Cairo’s chaos. Like Alia, they were forging a public space for themselves by sharing their bodies, their art and their freedom. And that felt exciting to me.

Dr Dina Rezk is an Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Reading, currently researching the role of popular culture during the Arab Spring.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

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