A controversy emerged over the recent posting of nude photos of herself by 20-year-old Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy. A fascinating turn in relation to the Arab Spring and digital culture. An aspect that fascinates me is what this illustrates about the intersection of gender, generation, politics, and digital media. Several dimensions have seemed to be in conversation in this age. Young people throughout the Arab world came together to protest entrenched political authority. The role of theological authority has been enigmatic. As in other contexts (post-communist Poland comes to mind), certain religious movements have stood with the resisters, at least initially, due in part to their own long-standing conflicts with the 20th-Century political settlements that tended to define the Arab world. As the events of the Spring have moved forward, the fissures within the resistance come to light. Ms. Elmahady’s photos reveal something about the roots of these things in digital mediation. The youth culture constituency of “The Spring” was in part defined by its globalized consciousness. Digital media have hailed both youth in the Arab world and youth beyond it, into a common project of consciousness and resistance (many in the “Spring” rightly claim some responsibility for motivating the Occupy movement in the West). Among the things that bind this global youth consciousness together is a commitment to ideas of individual freedom of thought and action. Digital media both connect this network and instantiate the moral theme of individualism through their conventions of practice, their zeitgeist. Thus, Elmahdy’s act makes sense in this conceptual geography as an extension of its fundamental sensibilities—an extension in the direction of what in the West might call “third wave” feminism.

The problem is Aliaa Elmahjdy inserted or re-inserted a striking and functionally transgressive gesture. The effects are unfolding. Moderate forces in Egypt seem nearly as troubled by her act as conservatives because of what it can be interpreted (by conservatives) to symbolize about the dangers of Western and non-Islamic influence in the political legacies of the Spring. Conservatives, of course, are scandalized (part of what she no doubt had in mind). We should also not forget that both Elmahdy and the conservatives well understand the iconic nature of Egypt across the MENA region. For both, this is an issue of aspiration—will Egypt rise to its new role, and will that role be as an instantiation of tradition or an instantiation of a new, progressive, and modernist Islamic world?

I should note, though, that besides the “moderate” and “conservative” voices, feminist voices have also weighed in, some in strong support.

What I want to draw attention to is that this can be described as a question of which “cultural geography” her act imagines. She was clearly focused on the geography of a global youth culture encouraged and enabled by digital networks. But her posting flowed into–and will now become important in–another cultural geography, that of on-the-ground politics in Egypt. Such “clashes of geography” are clearly an emerging and developing function of the substantive and generative capacities of digital cultures.

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