DURING the holiday season, one finds time to reflect on the things that matter in life. Recent protests can provide a stark reminder. Artists in China and Egypt are challenging conservative power structures through the mere gesture of photographing themselves naked and posting the images online. China's Ai Weiwei has riled Communist authorities by posting in a nude photo. Egypt's Aliaa Magda Elmahdy has been broadly condemned in Egypt for posting a naked image of herself. Her action has dominated discussion in the Muslim world, and Egypt's protest movement has disowned her. A few years ago, Ai was celebrated in China. Now an image of his hefty 50-something body can spark a superpower's fear. Elmahdy, an art student, became famous a few weeks ago due to her nude self-portrait. Egypt is a devoutly Muslim country, and there has been speculation that the photo has affected the country's first post-dictatorship national elections. She told CNN, "I am not shy of being a woman in a society where women are nothing but sex objects harassed on a daily basis."
The similarities between these disparate situations are noteworthy. Ai's movement highlights the fault lines of China's tightly centralized communist dictatorship. Elmahdy's photograph challenges accepted limits to the ongoing revolutions in Egypt and the Muslim world. Ai noted that he created his photo because, "fear and the feeling of isolation are defining characteristics in certain societies." He has also been a focus of China's effort to extinguish local protests aligned with the "Jasmine Revolution"—the movement that has been toppling Muslim rulers.
Nudity and nude protest have been American mainstays for years, to the point that we feel we cannot be shocked anymore. Yet these protests are speaking to us loudly. At a time of rapid and unpredictable change, surprising events and images can have an impact. Vladimir Putin, whose power is finally being challenged, has faced major protest rallies in recent days, as well as a dramatic protest at the hands of groups like FEMEN, a Ukrainian organization that garners press by going topless. Likewise, a large group of Israeli women posted a much-circulated photo of their nude bodies holding a banner in support of Elmahdy, while an Iranian woman posted a similar photo of herself days later. The young Iranian felt compelled to use a pseudonym and block out her face online, yet she still had to retract her posting almost immediately, noting on her blog: "Sorry to everyone, I'm not safe. ... I need to abandon this blog. It's not only because of myself, they will harm my family in the harshest way too. ... I will always remember that [the] fight for liberty never ceases to bloom."
The naked body is revealing anew the paranoia of elites. Forget public nudity, which our laws allow. Courageous individuals face serious danger for photographing their bodies. Ai and Elmahdy, artists both, have found that their own unadorned bodies can have the largest impact. These actions are holding up a mirror to long-standing power structures—truly a case of the emperor's new clothes. One hopes that the tale will end well for all involved.