Women opposition supporters sit in front of Egyptian soldiers at Tahrir Square in Cairo
Women opposition supporters sit in front of Egyptian soldiers at Tahrir Square in Cairo

The case of a bold Egyptian blogger, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, who published a series of naked pictures of herself on Twitter in a protest against Islamic extremism is emblematic of the radical changes unfolding in the Arab world.

The Arab Spring marked a youth-led momentum for change in a part of the world where about 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 30.

Toppling old hierarchies along with authoritarian governments was the greatest achievement of a generation grown up with Twitter and Facebook, and who seemed to embrace pluralism and democracy as founding values of their future. But the latest developments in Egypt cast a sinister shadow on human rights abuses after the Arab Spring.

Western observers were often misled by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. For many of them the rejection of traditional opposition leaders like the Muslim Brotherhood went hand in hand with the implementation of human and social rights in the freed countries.

They struggled to find political leaders, major parties or groups, or at least a religious narrative behind the movement, from a generation often seen as more observant than its parents and who seemed to embrace the most radical tendencies of Islam.

But the revolutions in the Arab world were actually triggered more by a pre-modern sense of collectivism and justice than an abstract support for Western concepts of human rights.

This can also explain why breaking a social taboo in Egypt in the name of Western values, for instance, is still seen as "revolutionary" and dangerous.

Take for instance the 20-year-old Elmahdy, whose nude pictures sparked a heated debate in the blogosphere. In her profile, she defines herself as "Secular, Liberal, Feminist, Vegetarian, Individualist" and on Facebook she explains the reasons behind her acts as "echoing screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy".

"My view is that the veil is not a personal choice in Egypt, but the results of religious and social pressure," she said on Facebook. "The women with head veil that I know wear it because of their families or because they don't want to be beaten in the streets. I don't see why they always dictate to women, and not to men, what they should wear."

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, Nude Blogger, Hits Back at Her Critics

For this reason, Aliaa Elmahdy also supports a controversial Facebook event called "Men should wear the veil"

Her stand evoked mixed reactions among her followers. Some praised her move, while others left outraged, furious comments.

From award-winning journalist Ethar El-Katatney, who said, "I do feel sorry for her" because she is "barely 20 and misguided. This will shadow her forever," to @MayAbdelAsim, who furiously tweeted "All those "cool" #egyptian men applauding #nudephotorevolutionary let me see the applause when ur wife, sister or girlfriend drops her pants!", the debate had gone viral on Twitter.

But Elmahdy's case is only the tip of the iceberg and underlines a growing problem in Arab countries that are waking up to a new life after decades of dictatorships. Endemic violence against women and the continuous harassment of female activists in transitioning nations is an urgent issue.

In Egypt, security forces continue to target women in ways similar to that of the old regime. After the fall of Mubarak, the sit-in at Tahrir Square was dispersed with reports of mass arrests and torture near the Egyptian Museum. Virginity tests were carried out on female detainees, as reported by Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

A Human Rights First report published last week underlined "a pattern of targeting politically active women" in Egypt. "Local activists report being assaulted, stripped, sexually baited, and threatened with charges of prostitution and virginity tests," said Human Rights First's Brian Dooley. "There appears to be a policy of trying to intimidate women out of the political sphere through this gender violence."

Not to mention other major incidents that should have been investigated and have not been since the military took power in Egypt. The Maspero Massacre, for instance, in which the armed forces killed 28 Coptic Christians who had taken to the streets to protest the destruction and burning of a church in Aswan, has been covered up by the military, according to many human rights groups.

Amnesty International has called on the Egyptian political parties running for elections next week to investigate past abuses and amend the penal code to allow abortion for women and girl survivors of rape and incest, or when a pregnancy poses a grave risk to health. They also demanded reforms to prohibit female genital mutilation in all cases.

In Tunisia, where the election results gave the Islamist party Ennahdha 90 seats in the Constituent Assembly, Human Rights Watch warned the political parties that "quite conservative positions [...] could pose a threat to a number of rights, distorting their meaning and leaving room, via the manipulation of vague constitutional language".

But Tunisia was the first country in the region to withdraw all reservations regarding Cedaw, the international convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. As Brian Whitaker points out, "This may sound a rather obscure and technical matter but it's actually a very important step".

Repressive regimes in the Middle East used to sign onto these treaties but then excused themselves on the basis of "norms of Islamic law" or Sharia. Saudi Arabia, for example, operates the world's most institutionalised system of discrimination against women and it yet it is also a party to Cedaw.

In that country, the campaign to allow women to drive their car had gained momentum in the past month; scores of women have driven vehicles in Saudi cities in an effort to put pressure on the monarchy to change the law. A Facebook page encouraged women to come out and drive on 17 June 2011. At last, King Abdullah announced women would be allowed to vote for the first time in 2015, but did not lift the ban on female drivers.

Many people hope Tunisia will set an example for others in the region to follow, bringing to an end decades of abuses and violence against women.