Sunday, November 23, 2014

Talk About Feminist Nude Art / Protest in Växjö Konsthall

Why nudity? I was asked this question a trillion times by media, but my answers were never published as they are. Today, is the first time I will answer it without passing through somebody else’s filter … Without having somebody skew my words to fit them to his/her sexist, conformist or culture relativist agenda.

What are we protesting against? I believe the answer to this question is not hard to find, but I’ll answer it. I’ll tell you my own story with abuse directed at my body, which is just the average story of any Egyptian woman.

I remember how angry my father’s face was on that day. I was 11. We were getting ready to go to the club, and I was bouncing around him with excitement, especially that I never went out but with my parents, and they didn’t go out much, when I noticed the anger in his eyes as he looked at me. I wondered why is he angry this time till he yelled to my mother about how all my back was showing from the top I was wearing and refused to let me go out unless I change. Since my childhood, I wasn’t a person who accepts whatever she is told, especially what I found unjust or humiliating, so I resisted changing my top at first, then argued with my parents about it all day. They told me that I should cover up, or men will rape me and say I was naked in front of them … That I’ll have to cover up more as I get older … That we were Muslims, and Muslim women should wear hijab since they get their period, or at least cover parts of their bodies like their backs. They pointed at other girls at the club and asked me “Do you see any other girl dressing as you do?” and told me that I should adapt to the society I live in. All of this outraged me and didn’t make sense for me. I didn’t totally understand what rape was at this age, but I told them no one has the right to hurt me no matter what I wear, because I’m not a product made for someone else to consume, I am a person who has a will … That it didn’t make sense to me to do something or refrain from doing something just to do like other people … That I didn’t choose to be a Muslim and I wished I weren’t one. This was the beginning of body policing that continued for about a decade after.

Some years earlier, I went alone with my father to the beach. There was no one else but him to shower me after I swam in the sea, but since I was taught the no one should see me naked, especially not a man, I was embarrassed to undress in front of him. When I did, he cupped my breasts and said “What are you hiding? You don’t have breasts to hide.” I felt uncomfortable, so I refused to let him shower me again, and wore a wet swimming suit all the way from Ismealia to Cairo. When my mother asked me why I didn’t shower and change, I told her what happened. She said he shouldn’t have done that, and she’s gonna talk to him about it, only to call me a liar who made this story up to get my parents divorced a few hours later.

In primary school, teachers started telling me not to fight boys back when they bully me, or they will touch my body … To wear a longer skirt, or at least wear shorts under my skirt. Girls were focred to wear vests or jackets in 40+ degrees to cover their growing breasts, while boys could wear only t-shirts. Teachers were telling us that women who don’t wear hijab will get hanged by their hairs in hell. In religion exams, I had to write that women should only work at jobs that “fit them”, dress “modestly” and have limited contact with their male colleagues or loose marks. I chose to loose marks. There was a very religious teacher who made me stand up for a whole lecture after he saw me fighting with a boy who bullied me at break time. The boy mimicked female voice and commented on my gender, and the teacher told me a girl my age shouldn’t mix with boys like that. The same teacher touched 10 and 11 years old girls.

Before I started in middle school, my father told me I should have the least possible contact with boys and not take them as friends or enemies, or again, they will touch my body.

My mother talked to me about my body on several occasions, she told me about periods to stop me from asking what are pads used for in front of people. She told me that it would be a scandal if someone saw a blood stain on my clothes … That I should hide my periods as I should hide my naked body. After I got my period, I was shocked by the way I was sexualized and was expected to act. I was expected to be less playful but I missed jumping around without feeling every atom in my body as a frame around me. I had to lock myself in the bathroom for long periods of time to avoid my father seeing me with a pad in hands. Some sellers hid pads in paper and black plastic bags as if they were illegal. My mother also told me about sexual harassment. She told me it was normal to start at my teens, and that respectful girls don’t react to it. She told me about sex before I know about it from another source … That I shouldn’t have sex before marriage … That it would show on my body if I did … That I should preserve my virginity … That I shouldn’t let a boy fool me into having sex with him, denying that girls can want sex too to make them into sex tools used by men. She said that governmental campaigns against female genital mutilation were a waste of tax money … That women who got circumcised didn’t loose anything, because she thinks women have no right to sexual desire … Because women who don’t act asexual are considered nymphomaniac by men who spend most of their time watching porn.

What my parents feared the most happened when I was in middle school. I had a crush on someone, I hugged him and decided to tell him about my feelings, so they informed school. They told me they would never let me out alone. I overheard them planning to pick me up on time everyday, so I don’t get a chance to go out with him, fearing that I would have sex, and I was shocked when they justified why people didn’t send girls to schools in the old days, so they don’t meet men, and do as I did. When they knew I sent him a love letter, my father dragged me by the hair half the way from school to home, as passers-by were watching.

I can still picture myself in the bathroom, thinking about my changing genitals that I didn’t know how they looked, and wishing people didn’t have sex organs, so that I could go out, join activities and have romantic relationships.

I had two other boyfriends later, but my parents didn’t know about them. I learned not to keep a diary, to leave nothing for them to find when they search my belongings, to change my schedule so that I could meet someone or do something between lectures. I first had sex about a week before my 18th birthday, and it felt victorious to walk around without the tissue which they deprived me from having a life to make sure it stays intact between my legs. I planned to confront them after I graduate from college ... To rent a place and live independently despite society’s prohibitions. I couldn’t imagine myself living all my life under the control of my father then under the control of a husband he would choose for me, and asking for permission every time I walk out of the door, but it psychologically tormented me to do stuff in secret when I believed that nobody had a right to my time, body or mind. I had a lot of fights with my parents who called me crazy for things like objecting to marrying girls to their rapists to prove that they “lost their virginity” through marriage, but I hid my things like my friendships because I had no power to prevent them from taking them away from me.

I had a bacterial infection, but I didn’t know what I had. It could be anything from yeast infection to cancer. Both the gynecologist I visited and my parents said a gynecological exam shouldn’t be performed on me because I was assumed to be a virgin, so I remained sick for years, and knew that my virginity is more valuable for them than my health or even my life. I told my mother I would remove the virginity myself, because I’m not a tomato sauce bottle which lid shouldn’t be opened before someone buys it, and that lid shouldn’t be more important than my health. She got terrified and said “did you loose your mind?”.

I couldn’t take it anymore, when I was 19, when they found out from relatives who had been monitoring me about a new relationship that I announced on facebook, and saw that I liked pages about women’s right to have sex before marriage and remove their hymens. I confronted them with that I wouldn’t leave my boyfriend or marry him or let them see him and decide whether I continue with him or not. They locked me up, hit me, called me a stupid prostitute who wants to do it for free and they would’ve performed a virginity test on me if I didn’t defend myself with a knife. They highly suspected I had sex with him because ”what else would he do with me for 4 hours I went out with him”. I was 19 and he was 27, but they said I was a child and he was molesting me … That they would ask police to check my virginity and get them “their right in my body” from him, because for them sex is something that men use women for, not something that women and men do together, and I am a body they own. I could escape after a week. The day of my escape was the day I started living and making my own choices. It was the happiest day of my life.

Sexual Harassment

If a person who understands Arabic walked in Egyptian streets, she/he would notice how a big percentage of people’s conversations are about women’s bodies: How they don’t cover them enough … How some woman’s arm is showing … They would hear mothers telling their sad daughters they can’t buy most of the outfits they like because they show much skin, and veiled women asking every 5 minutes if their hairline is showing. Women are told to cover up not to arouse men, which strengthens the idea that women are guilty for being born women. It’s no surprise that the more women cover up in a country, the more frequent and violent sexual harassment is there.

I got sexually harassed tens of times daily, which still gives me nightmares, but I only have time to mention a few incidents here. When I was a small child, another small child kept touching my ass in a market. I pointed at him to my parents, but they said it was normal and my father should walk behind me to prevent it. In middle school, I was sitting next to a boy when he groped my breast in front of a teacher who told me to stop when I yelled at the boy. Another time, another boy verbally harassed me, and another teacher told me I should wear looser shirts. More frequent were the insulting comments ... “What are you wearing, slut?” … “I saw your ass.” … “I wanna fuck you.” … “Hey, stupid gal!” ... “Can I pop this plastic bag in your face?.” … They commented when I dressed the way I like, when I wore school uniform, when I laughed, when I ate ice-cream, when I looked sick, when I looked angry, when I ran, when I had any body posture other than keeping my legs tight, arching my back and looking at the ground … and my mother tried so hard to teach me to change the way I do everything to avoid their harassment … To be aware of my body all the time. She yelled at me when boys harassed me and I didn’t notice, and wanted me to do like most other girls who ran away of harassment in fear of getting raped, and refused to walk with me when I wore mini-skirts. They feared rape because they thought they would have no future if they became non-virgin and couldn’t marry, but I refused to let society define my value for me and put it in my virginity and reputation of being a submissive woman. I found pride in showing that I reject their morals, and my anger was stronger than my fear. I fought back, and felt bad about myself every time I froze. I spoke up, which my parents didn’t like. My father once heated a knife and threatened to cut my tongue. He said all he wanted was for me to be silent. Speaking up was punishable by rape. He said neighbors would rape me if they heard my voice.

When I complained to my mother about harassment, she said she would talk to my father about it. My father said “Do you want to report it to police every time a man says something to you or touches you?”... “You are lying” …You’re dirty for thinking about your body and repeating what they tell you” … Those harassers will teach you the manners I failed to teach you” ... The same man who screamed “my honor” when I hugged a guy I liked said I had a complex and even girls in western countries laughed when a stranger hit them on their asses when I got touched WITHOUT MY CONSENT. The more I got harassed the more my parents limited me, so I didn’t tell them when I was harassed and attacked with a knife by two men while walking and shopping. A man who witnessed the incident insisted that I shouldn’t walk alone in an empty street after sunset. What hurt more than the harassment itself, was the re-victimization by other people, especially by my family. I was aware of how sexual harassment and rape are used to suppress women … To make them think about avoiding rape every time they attempt to do something … To reduce them into sexual preys … When I said that to my mother she suggested sarcastically ”Go out naked and tell them here I am.”

Well, that was a good idea. When I was 18, I could dance with ease for the first time, and when I was 19, in my parent’s home, I closed my room’s door, wore forbidden items in a forbidden color: red gypsy flower, red shoes and floral stockings and my naked body. They are forbidden because they attract attention … They express individuality, when an individual, especially a woman, is supposed to hide any sign of an own identity … They show that I’m not ashamed of my body, and I refuse to carry the guilt of an alleged original sin. I took a photo and posted it on my blog later on 23 October 2011.

Now I’ll ask myself the same questions I get asked frequently and answer them:

Why don’t you protest in another way?
I did other things before I posted the nude photo and I continue doing them after I posted it. I was criticized for writing openly about my views, posting photos of myself wearing unacceptable clothes, photos with my boyfriend or creative photos a girl is not supposed to take of herself. but there’s nothing wrong with nudity. Nudity is used in art to express different things. In my photo, I express my defiance for the view that a female body is a commodity to be owned and controlled, so I don’t think I lowered my price by making a photo of my body available for free. Also, ”an action is stronger than a thousand words”, and a photo of a woman disobeying the idea that women are less intelligent sex commodities that exist for men is stronger than texts demanding bodily autonomy for women.

Do you think deviating that much from society’s norms can change it?
What else can change it? Refraining from disobeying or questioning the norms we want to change? Those who ask this question ask it because they would choose safety and social acceptance over freedom, but I prefer to be rejected for what I am, rather than be accepted for what I would be ashamed to be.

What reactions did you receive after publishing the photo?
I got both negative and positive reactions: Many controlling psychos felt threatened when a woman didn’t care to try to get society to view her as a respectful submissive woman, but got out of the system despite of all the pressure on women. I was cyber-bullied, legally prosecuted, threatened with death and rape, attacked several times in the street and kidnapped by two men and three women for the photo and for other things like leaving my father’s house and having a boyfriend. One of my kidnappers thought the only reason I resisted rape was that I wasn’t the right girl and I was a virgin protecting her virginity. Many sexists assumed that a man made me do it, because in their view, a woman cannot have enough agency to react this strongly. I also got support from many people world wide, but the messages I got from other Arab girls who shared their stories with me and made me know that I showed them it’s possible to be free meant the most for me.

Do you regret it? Why don’t you just change your name and live a normal life?
This question implies that my reaction is the problem, but what I’m reacting to and tolerating it is. I don’t regret it, and I would do it again, and again, and again.

Thank you