If you aren’t familiar with ISIS*, check out their Wikipedia page or your favorite news organization.
Several days ago, an Egyptian activist named Aliaa Magda Elmahdy (@aliaaelmahdy) posted a very provocative photograph in protest of ISIS’s actions in Iraq. To protest their legacy of “violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment, and hypocrisy”, she and Inna Shevchenko crafted an picture of desecrating ISIS’s flag by smearing it with menstrual blood and feces. It’s a powerful image.
The original image, posted on Twitter by Shevchenko, came with a quotation attached: “#isis Animals, our execution of your ideas looks like that! Watch it well! #femen & @aliaaelmahdy“. From that, it seems clear that Elmahdy’s piece is intended as ideological and cultural warfare against ISIS’s control and policing of women’s bodies.
Like I said, it’s provocative. It’s an effective piece of political art because it makes you stop and think.
A host of liberal, conservative, and feminist bloggers and news sites (of which these are only a smattering) picked up the story and have been running with it. The general tone seems to be a kind of in-your-face laughing rebuke of ISIS in particular and radical Islam in general. “How hilarious is it,” the sites all seem to say, “that ISIS is really big on controlling women and then there are women desecrating their flag by bleeding on it”. ISIS is probably not thrilled.
Kate of Victory Girls Blog writes, acknowledging the danger Elmahdy may face, “And whilst I am of the mindset that many fundamentalist Islamic men like to cover their women with as many layers as possible to minimize their very existence, this kind of protest on that issue may not be the best tactic right now with ISIS rising.” Indeed, Elmahdy has received death threats from all over the world because of the image and the intention behind it.
Not everyone loves what Elmahdy did. Briana Ureña-Ravelo writes a ton of really good things about how problematic it is that the West is jumping on this when we’re largely ignorant of the cultural context and are habitually appropriating the lives of Muslim women and using them to paint a picture that suits our narrative.
Censorship and the female body
I don’t really want to talk about the picture. I don’t even really want to talk about ISIS, per se, because I don’t have much to say about them that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, better, by other people.
But something has been really bothering me about these blog posts, and the Facebook/Twitter conversations that surround them as they’ve been showing up in my feeds. It’s a subtle thing that plays into the larger ideological issue.
ISIS is bad because they exert violent control over women’s bodies and police them heavily, decreeing how women are allowed to live and very sharply circumscribing their rights. Right? That’s kind of the thrust of the argument, and Elmahdy’s image stands opposed to all that: naked rather than clothed, bleeding rather than clean, utterly defiant rather than deferential, literally smearing shit on ISIS’s flag,
And we, the readers, rightly perceive ISIS as the bad guy here.
But I’m troubled because we often take it further, assuming our own moral superiority. Nothing like that could happen here! Victory Girls smugly opines “I am of the mindset that many fundamentalist Islamic men like to cover their women with as many layers as possible to minimize their very existence“, and we’re meant to roll our eyes along with them. How provincial and embarrassing, this alleged Muslim fixation on covering up female bodies. Thank God we’re not like that over here!
But here’s the problem.
In every one of those sites I linked above, they’ve censored Elmahdy’s image. Black boxes over the vulva, white boxes over the groin, black circles, you name it. Elmahdy was naked in the image she chose to post, but these sites have all chosen to clothe her electronically, perhaps out of the desire to make their posts more “appropriate” for their viewers.
In case that’s too subtle a point, I’ll say it differently: pot, meet kettle.
If we’re arguing that ISIS restricts how women express themselves and controls their bodies, and we’re using Aliaa Elmahdy’s image to make that point, shouldn’t it seem a little troubling that so many of our people chose to plaster their own fig leaves over her nakedness? Isn’t that kind of ideological kin with the idea that it’s okay to control women’s bodies?
I’m not saying that it’s equivalent. Raping and murdering and coercing women is obviously very different from Photoshopping in a black circle. But if the larger point being made is one of contrasts between freedom and oppression, between self-expression and repression, and between openness and control, we would do well to keep our hands clean.
Calling other people out for censorship and control while censoring and controlling the tools we’re using for the call-out? Not cool. If we’re going to demonize one side for doing repugnant things, we’d be wise not to be doing them ourselves.
Put differently: it’s ironic that we’re protesting ISIS censoring and policing women’s bodies by… censoring and policing women’s bodies.
So why does it matter?
Aliaa Magda Elmahdy took a big risk in posting that photo. ISIS recently beheaded a journalist just for being in “their” territory, and you can imagine that Elmahdy’s fate would be pretty bad if she fell into ISIS hands. She took that risk knowing what it might cost.
There’s honor in that. Let’s not diminish it by covering her up just to feel more comfortable. Present her image as she made it, or ignore it, but don’t change it or sanitize it.
*: ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL (“… and the Levant”), shortened its name to The Islamic State when it proclaimed a caliphate in June, so it’s properly called IS now. However, for clarity, I’m still using the ISIS name.
**: Okay, apparently they’re also bad for a host of other reasons too.