Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Red Shoes and the Blue Bra

The two pictures have become the most popular icons of protest in the last few months, both came at about the same period, both from Egypt, both of women.

Somehow, both became symbols of the same thing, though much different .  Aliaa’s red shoes incited anger and excitation, shame and shock, and so did the blue bra of the Tahrir girl.

Whereas one was staged, the other was not. Whereas one of the 2 women chose to reveal her identity in defiance, the other never revealed hers for fear, shame, or both.

Both pictures produced deep shock, both were viewed thousands, perhaps millions of times by browsers.

But we have to understand that the nature of anger, shame and shock that the two pictures stirred were not of the same nature.

The picture of the naked blogger brought an explosion of protests, verbal insults, death threats along with words and acts of support from people from different places of the globe, among whom were women who posed naked in support of the blogger. Her blog beat a record by going over one million views in a short time. 

Though her true identity is still shrouded in mystery, the girl beaten in the Tahrir square became no less popular.  Her picture caused an equally angry reaction of thousands of women rallying in the streets of Cairo after the photos were released.  I am still not sure whether it was the brutal beating that was more shocking, or the tearing of the abaya to reveal the upper half of the body, with nothing but a blue bra whose colour could have remained unknown maybe until the girl took it off at night, alone in her room, if not for misfortune.

The two pictures also came at a critical time of history.  The image of the boot hitting the blue bra girl reminded me George Orwell’s famous statement: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever’.  Somehow, this bleak prediction became true.  The stark incongruence between the boot, non human, synthetic and abrasive, and the human face, all soft flesh and fragile bones, is shockingly painful.  So was the image of the boot stamping the bra, made of soft fabric with a soft colour brought suddenly to the light of the day, like a frightened kitten.

The individual versus the authority has been an old age clash, but the twentieth century gave it a different taste, and the twentieth first century gave it a taste that is even sharper:  women are now seen in the centre of the public arena, and protest is no longer a male privilege, but a collective duty.  And even if history cast a shadow on women’s acts of heroism, pictures in the twentieth century brought the proof that they too can be there.  

The pictures of the nude blogger are also meant to show an act of protest, though the majority of virtual community who visits her blog and comments on her picture does not think so. Like the Tahrir girl, she too is a protestor.  But unlike her, her nakedness is not brought upon her as a punishment, but as a choice.  

What inspired me to write this entry is a picture on Aliaa’s blog with the caption ‘Free choice instead of violation and humiliation’.   I discussed ‘naked protest’ in another blog entry, as being a form of protest that brings the body in the fore in all its fragility, by choice.  When chosen, nudity comes against the enforced stripping, which often is done as a way to degrade, to crush and to violate the sense of wholeness.  Stripping with one's choice on the other hand, does not, but does instead disarm authority. Like the tank man who stood before a row of moving tanks in 1989 in China showing he has nothing to lose, the naked blogger displays her body to social voyeurism that had both cherished and condemned its nudity.

When the Egyptian women took to the street to rally against the rule of the army, they were inspired by the picture of the blue bra.  One of their signs addressed to the army read:  ‘the women of Egypt are not to be stripped’.  It was not an outcry against violation of the female body only, but also against the violation of the women’s right of protest that was hampered that day. As they do, acts of supports for the naked blogger are silent, a silence that explains the embarrassment of the liberals who are afraid of stigmatisation if they show their support, and who may be cursing providence under their breaths for the 20 years old girl who staged her own understanding of owning her body in the least imaginable way.  They might have hoped for a more compromising, and politically correct way, but they forgot that protest is just what it is: an uncompromising act.

The silence on the side of liberals is scary, I dare say.  But against silence, images remain, an eternal carving in the shallow mud of obscurity.  It will be long, very long before the bra and the shoe sink into oblivion.  Though one appears in a soft shade and the other in a burnishing colour, though one is for a woman posing upright, and the other is of a woman lying down and beaten, and though one staged and the other is unprompted, they represent the woman in all her flimsiness and authenticity, beaten and glorious, like a translucent, hard pebble washed out on the banks of a river.

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