Activists Go Bare to Celebrate International Women's Day

LONDON—Last November, something unprecedented occurred on an internet site run by 20-year-old Egyptian student Aliaa Magda Elmahdy: She posted a nude photo of herself on her blog, just as Muslim activists were in the process of consolidating their power within that country. Worse (or better, depending on one's viewpoint), she bragged about her self-revelation on Twitter, under the hashtag #NudePhotoRevolutionary.

"Showing her body, particularly at a time when Islamists in Egypt are securing power, is the ultimate act of rebellion," wrote supporter and Freethoughtblogs contributor Maryam Namazie at the time. "Don’t forget Islamists despise nothing more than a woman's body. To them, women are the source of corruption and chaos and must be covered up at all times and not seen and not heard."

But Namazie wanted to do more than just write about this novel form of protest, so she came up with the idea of making a calendar based around the concept that women's self-expression shouldn't be limited to those activities that men—and particularly religious men—approve of.

"What with Islamism and the religious right being obsessed with women's bodies and demanding that we be veiled, bound, and gagged, nudity breaks taboos and is an important form of resistance," Namazie said—and indeed, as soon as news of the nude photo became known, Elmahdy and her boyfriend were criminally charged with "violating morals, inciting indecency and insulting Islam."

Of course, change "Islam" to "Christianity" and religious conservatives in this country would love to level the same charges against every woman who's ever posed for Playboy or Hustler or ever made an R-rated or XXX movie.

Through her website, Namazie solicited women from around the world to submit nude photos of themselves, along with a short quote as to why they wanted to join Elmahdy in her "screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy." Namazie and her associates would then choose from among the entries and publish the "winners" as a calendar to be released on March 8, 2012—otherwise known as International Women's Day.

"I felt that women needed to stand in solidarity with Aliaa," said Sonya JF Barnett, co-founder of Slutwalk Toronto and the calendar's designer—and its May 2012 entry. "It takes a lot of guts to do what she did, and the backlash is always expected and can quite hurtful. She needed to know that there are others like her, willing to push the envelope to express outrage."

Others supporting the project, and whose photos are part of the calendar, include atheist bloggers Greta Christina and Emily Dietle, photographer Mallorie Nasrallah, actress Cleo Powell... and writer/editor/publicist Saskia Vogel, whose past employments have included Adult Video News, AVN Novelty and AVN Europe.

"Beauty—in this case a calendar with striking imagery—has incredible power," Vogel told the French daily Libération when asked about calendar's purpose. "It crosses borders and can sneak in the back door of someone's mind who perhaps wouldn't otherwise be receptive to the message these images carry."

"It's drawing attention to the perverse relationship that society—and I'm thinking specifically of the United States at the moment—has with the female body," she added. "I believe that we need to be able to think sanely about nudity and by extension women's health and sexuality. I hope the calendar goes some way to helping people question why there is an impulse to censor the nude female form, whether that be Facebook and Victoria's Secret's aversion to 'female nipple bulges' (which I understand fall into the category of 'obscenity' in Facebook's community standards) or the outrage against women breastfeeding in public. Of course, we should strive for courtesy and good manners in public, but in the case of Facebook and Victoria's Secret, it's a bizarre kind of censorship and a strange understanding of what obscenity is."

Vogel, the calendar's March 2013 entry, describes herself as a "sex-positive feminist, in the tradition of women like the writer and activist Susie Bright, certain feminist pornographers, and filmmakers who deal with sexuality in a raw and complicated way like Catherine Breillat," and is currently completing a book on sexuality and culture in the 21st century.

The calendar, which is being published in the U.K., can be ordered through a link on Namazie's website for less than $20 including postage—and let's face it: With the calendar both supporting women's sexual rights and delivering artistic nude images of women's rights activists from around the world, isn't it the perfect gift for adult entertainment fans?

Pictured: A quote from and photo of Aliaa Magda Elmahdy.