Full frontal

Last week Algerian singer Fulla was refused entry into Egypt. The hugely popular artist was personally invited by the director of a major music event in post Moubarak and reborn Egypt.


In 1996, Fulla was deported from Egypt. The official reason was that she was involved in a prostitution scandal, but insiders knew and know better: a woman in Egypt can easily be eliminated by accusing her of immoral behaviour and getting her into trouble by sending the vice squad over to her. No need to worry about any evidence: a biased judge often won't fuss about the lack of it.


After fifteen years of exile, Egyptian authorities decided that homeland security is at stake if Fulla enters the country. There's violence in Egypt, anarchy in some parts, illegal arms sales have increased, the economy is in a dire state and there are upcoming elections - but what really threatens the internal stability, is the arrival of a singer whose morality is questioned.


And there we have it. The problem of the Arab, and indeed of most Islamic countries, in a nutshell: it all revolves around the woman. That in itself is a nice idea, except that women are always seen as the problem and as the source of all evil.


Shortly after the resignation of Moubarak it became known that women protesters were taken away by the military to have their virginity tested. These tests were, without a doubt, performed by unwashed, rough, male fingers, so as to make sure that no woman would pass the 'test'. One young lady, Samira Ibrahim, is now suing the army.


At the time of the gruesome massacres in Algeria in the 90s, the islamists put the following demands on the table: no mixed schools, no musical education and mandatory headscarfs for girls. The country was in chaos, it suffered from extreme terror and had a disastrous economy, but what really had to be changed, were those darned modern girls who didn't cover their hair.


After the murder of Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) presented its plans for the future. One of their first announcements was that the ban on polygamy in Libya would be lifted.


Polygamy, that God-given right to men: the Libyans had suffered so much without it under Gaddafi. The gruesome thought of being married to one wife for years on end. Surely Gaddafi, who was secretly in love with Condoleeza Rice, should have allowed his fellow country men to spicen up their marital lives. 10 Downing Street could dress the chairman of the NTC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, in a tailored suit and teach him how to use a microphone, but his primal instincts were less easy to straigten out.


I remember a Dutch program from the early nineties for Moroccan migrants. The presentor, the now late Najib Taouijni, interviewed Imam Zaki Badawi (who passed away in 2006) who suggested that the headscarf is not the essence of islam, but rather your faith and being a good person. Indignation was his share: how dare he claim that the headscarf was not important? Being a good person? What a travesty.


In that same period, one of Badawi's colleagues reacted with astonishment at the suggestion that islam allowed men to beat their wives. He wondered what sort of a relationship such men had in mind and what the use was of a marriage that wasn't built on equality and mutual respect.


With the upcoming elections in mind, the usually loudmouthed Egyptian presenter Hala Sarhan, who returned to her country after the departure of Mubarak, decided to invite one of the leaders of the Islamist group Jamaa Al Islamiya, Sheikh Assem Abdel Maged, to her show. He had one condition, namely that Hala Sarhan would sit elsewhere so that he would not have to share the same space with her. Sarhan, who is known for her uncompromising stance on equal rights, complied to his wishes.


This in contrast to Pakistani actress Veena Malik, who vehemently attacked a conservative imam a while ago who had criticised her. Malik asked him if he hadn't better attack the terrorists who give Islam a bad name instead of worrying about her faith.


Last weekend a spokesman for the Salafists, Abdul Moneim al Shahat, was invited to a program called 'The Youth Cafe'. The Egyptian Salafis shared some interesting proposals recently, such as covering the Pharaoh statues, because the statues stand for idolatry.


The spokesman demanded from the presenter, Eman al Ashraf, that she cover her head. During the live broadcast the presenter agreed to this and told the audience that she wore the headscarf unwillingly. A female viewer who called in asked if this was what was in store if the Salafists took power. A riot was born and the station is now investigating the matter. The Salafist claimed the presentor was being a good host by complying with his wishes.


The young presenter told pan-Arabic newspaper Asharq Al Awsat that the Salafi spokesman told her: "wear the hijab willingly now, before you wear it unwillingly later on." Eman al Ashraf tried to enter into a conversation with him. She wanted to understand why he did not object to her uncovered head before they went on air.


Following the consternation, the Islamists announced they would no longer boycot unveiled presentors. Breaking news. As if they had discovered a cure for cancer.


Discussions with Muslim men like Abdul Moneim al Shahat always follow a fixed pattern. Woman: "Why do you want to marry four wives, that's crazy." Man: "It is my right as a man. You doubt it? Are you a Muslim? Are you faithful?" Or: "It is reprehensible to marry a nine year old girl." Answer: "The example of the prophet is sacred! Do you dare to question him? Are you a real Muslim? Are you a real Muslim?!" And: "It's a disgrace that men beat their wives." Response: "Islam has its own rules that men and women must adhere to. Men simply have rights. What did you say? You question the Quran?! Are you a Muslim?"


Men like Al Shahat use the Quran, whether they've read it or not, to stifle all criticism, each appeal to use one's mind, and to thwart any development. Only the most cold-blooded, unflappable women can break through this and, as has become clear, there are many such women. Too often, conservatives rely on 'faith' or 'culture' so they won't have to bear any responsibility for their ideas and deeds. "It's just the way it" is a frequently heard excuse.


But a laissez tomber attitude gets you nowhere, Egyptian blogger and feminist Aliaa Elmahdy must have thought. She decided to shake things up last weekend by posting a full frontal photo of herself on her site. To express her freedom, she writes. Clad in stay up tights, red ballet flats and a red flower in her hair, she looks defiantly into the lens.


There was an immediate storm on the Internet: some people thought her courageous, others dismissed her and claimed she was either crazy or confused. Admittedly, taking your clothes off in an islamic country not only requires enormous bravery but also at least a touch of insanity. Previously Moroccan presentor Nadia Larguet posed naked and pregnant for the cover of Femmes du Maroc, her hands strategically placed. Aliaa Elmahdy takes it one step further and bares it all without embarrassment or hesitation. She looks into the camera as if to say: "Now what?"


For Islamists and conservatives, the modesty of a women not only stands for her own honour, but for the honour of her family and even the whole country. The violence and backwardness these countries suffer from almost seem to have less priority than the honour of women. Muslim conservatives are as obsessed with the headscarf and nudity as the Western Islam haters who, let us not forget, react just as narrowmindedly and aggressively to female nudity.


'This has nothing to do with freedom', some people objected to Aliaa Elmahdy's bold statement. 'The photograph is not artistic', was another point of criticism. In case of discomfort, people suddenly know all about art and the true definition of freedom. What makes Aliaa's protest so special, is that it is an aggressive confrontation, unprecedented in the Arab world. She addresses an essential problem with her nudity. Or, as actress and dancer Amanda Azim said on Twitter, 'if you have a problem with nudity, you have a problem with humanity'.


© Hassnae Bouazza, 2013