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Egypt: Photographer and model released after arrest over pyramid photoshoot

Latest instance of detentions by Egyptian forces over images of women deemed too 'provocative' has garnered mixed reactions online
Model Salma al-Shimi in one of the images taken at the Saqqara site (Screengrab/Twitter)

Photos of an Egyptian model have sparked intense debate online, after both the photographer and the model in the images - dubbed as “provocative and offensive” by Egyptian media - were detained by Egyptian authorities on Monday. 

The pair were released on Tuesday.

The series of photographs by photographer Houssam Mohammad showed model Salma al-Shimi wearing typical pharaoh-like accessories and a dress above the knee posing at the necropolis site of Saqqara, 30km south of Cairo.

A judicial source said the pair were accused of "taking photos without authorisation in the Saqqara archaeological site" and released on bail of 500 Egyptian pounds ($32) each pending the results of an investigation.

State-owned publication Akhbar el-Youm reported on Tuesday that Shimi had appeared in front of a public prosecutor and had objected to all of the accusations made against her, arguing that her aim had been to promote tourism rather than offend Egypt.

Shimi reportedly said she had not been aware that photography on archaeological sites without a permit was not permitted.

The model’s attire prompted numerous reactions online, with some deeming the images disrespectful to the ancient site in which the photoshoot took place.

Translation: We do not need to be naked to show the beauty of our antiquities, or to attract tourists…Tourists are looking for comfort and services, not cheap meat.

Surprise at uproar

In an interview with Youm7 TV prior to his arrest, Mohammad claimed that Shimi entered the site wearing an abaya - a loose-fitting robe - as requested by staff, and changed when they arrived at the shoot location.

He further disclosed that six employees came to watch the photoshoot, which lasted only 15 minutes, without requesting that they cease.

Mohammad expressed surprise at the uproar online in response to the photoshoot, saying that “if a thin girl was in Salma’s place, the issue would be very normal”. 

Following Mohammad’s arrest and Shimi's appearance in court, the tone of the conversation online shifted, as waves of posts emerged condoning the lack of freedom of expression in Egypt.

Translation: I will die before I know what her crime was…

Translation: I don't know what the girl who dressed like the pharaohs and was photographed in front of the Saqqara will be charged for. Does her act differ from those of foreign fashion models? There is no law that criminalises her behaviour, but the people who are meant to guard the public are using any pretext to annoy people and spread malice.

Translation: The Egyptian government adopts a reactionary discourse to win the affection of the majority of people, but thus it betrays the values of the state and the constitution and brings us back to backward practices. Shall we fight religious terrorism by suppressing individual freedoms?

Some linked the case to the United Nations campaign "16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence", which began on 25 November.

Others went so far as to call out the official Twitter account of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi over perceived double standards.

Secretary-General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri told Egyptian publication Al-Watan that any person who "disrespects" antiquities and Egyptian civilisation would be punished.

Saqqara is an ancient burial ground and tourist attraction in Egypt. It contains numerous pyramids, including the Step Pyramid of Djoser. 

In recent months, Saqqara has been in the news due to numerous artefacts discovered in the area.

These arrests come amid an Egyptian government crackdown on women social media users whose content is deemed inappropriate. Some commentators have pointed out that men get a pass for wearing similarly revealing outfits. 

In an incident that reignited Egypt’s women's rights movement earlier this year, five young women were sentenced by a court to two years in prison and each fined 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($19,135) for their TikTok posts, which were deemed to violate public morals.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.