By Kristin Deasy, RFE/RL
An Egyptian blogger who sparked controversy last week by posting a photo of herself naked online has also launched a campaign calling on men to don the Islamic headscarf.
Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy previously caused a stir by posting a nude picture of herself online.
However, the Facebook campaign, launched by Aliaa Elmahdy in support of women's rights, was shut down after it was hit by thousands of complaints last week. Elmahdy plans to relaunch it within days.
Elmahdy sent shockwaves through Egypt's highly traditional society when one of her friends shared a photo of her wearing nothing but a pair of shoes and stockings on Twitter with the hashtag #nudephotorevolutionary.
Elmahdy's boyfriend, Kareem Amer, says his girlfriend's reasons for originally posting the photo on her blog were not political. He said she wanted "to send a message" to conservative Egyptian society that a woman's body should not be associated with "shame."
Her reasons for launching the Facebook project, "Wearing Hijab in Solidarity with Women," which kicked off on November 1, are similar. She says she started the project because "many people deny that the hijab discriminates between women and men."
A statement posted on the group's Arabic-language Facebook page before the page was removed said that "Those who call on women to wear hijab should not attack men if they chose to wear the hijab" and calls on men to upload their photos.
Such a move is almost guaranteed to stigmatize them in Egyptian society, which remains highly traditional. Violations against women are also hugely underreported in the country -- a report by Egypt's National Council for Women from 2003 found as many as 98 percent of rape and sexual assault cases are not reported to authorities.
Echoes Of The Uprising
As demonstrations enter their sixth day in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the tone of the hijab campaign echoes that of the famous video blog posted by 26-year-old Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz in the days leading up to the overthrow of the country's long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak.
"Anyone who consider themselves men, come with us," Mahfouz said in the video. "Whoever says women shouldn't take part in protests because they could get beaten, humiliated, harassed, show me your honor and come with us on January 25."
The video is now seen as a turning point for the Egyptian uprising, with Mahfouz awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize for her role in the movement.
The 'Be a Man' initiative is similar to a 2009 Iranian campaign in support of student activist Majid Tavakoli.
Even though protest activity is on the rise again in Egypt, it's unlikely that the male protesters hitting the streets will be sporting headscarves. The lone male Egyptian citizen to have responded to Elmahdy's initiative is Magdy Abdelraheem, but he doesn't live in Egypt.
"I like the idea that men should be supporting women in putting this thing on their heads," says the 27-year-old trader, whose home is in the United Arab Emirates but who frequently visits Egypt. "I posted my picture there, but I don't think many Middle Eastern men would dare to do such a thing, because they'll all be ashamed to act like women, or be like women."
Codified Gender Discrimination
Apparently, several hundred Iranian men had no such qualms. In 2009, Iranian men posted photos of themselves wearing hijab as part of the online "Be a Man" campaign launched in support of leading student protester Majid Tavakoli, who was jailed in the mass protests that broke out after the country's disputed 2009 presidential election.
The "Be a Man" initiative also served to raise awareness about women's rights in Iran, where discrimination is written into the country's legal code. For example, if a woman is killed, the "blood money," or compensation paid to her family, is 50 percent less than if the deceased is a man.
Many of the "Be a Man" photos were featured on Egypt's "Wearing Hijab in Solidarity with Women" page before it was taken down, presumably in an effort to drum up support.
Renowned Iranian women's rights leader Mehrangiz Kar says she's not surprised to see such similar initiatives arise independently in two predominantly Muslim countries.
"This is a kind of struggle and a kind of showing their unhappiness," she says. "You know, there is a logic: if we have to wear veil and hijab, my brother should do that, and the others."
Restive Younger Women
Iran and Egypt do not share a common language and have a troubled political history. But they do share a large, restive young generation of women frustrated with the societal status quo.
It's just one example of a swath of new campaigns being launched in a region with shared problems and similar aspirations. Both the Iranian-led educational campaign "Can You Solve This?" and Egypt's "Let Me Think" project, for example, are new educational campaigns focused on strengthening civil society.
For her part, Elmahdy says she's not surprised by the failure of her own initiative, telling RFE/RL that Egyptian men are "afraid of things" and fear public "reaction."
Mohamed Abdelfattah disagrees. "I don't think that's how I would like to show my support for women," he says. "Both of us respect our differences, but that's not something I would do ... I think that it's a funny tactic, it's not serious stuff."
Abdelfattah, a journalist, helped expose the killing of Khaled Said, which became a rallying cry for the Egyptian opposition.
"You know, we can mobilize for women's rights in a more serious manner that can achieve real things on the ground," he says, "not just some superficial type of tactics that would make the already conservative population [of Egypt more] alienated ... to the idea of women's rights."
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