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Censorship or Freedom of Speech: Gender Equality in Pornography

By amcalister Sep 02, 2013 3172 Words
Censorship or Freedom of Speech:
Gender Equality and Pornography

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, an Egyptian feminist activist, made national and international news when she released naked images of herself on her blog (Ajbaili, 2012). These naked images were to protest against the subordination of women in Egypt. The gender inequality that is greatly felt throughout the predominately Muslim country stems from these religious values that have been incorporated into everyday culture and behaviors. Following this, Elmahdy presented herself naked in public holding the Egyptian flag above her head with the words “Sharia is not a constitution” written on her body (Ajbaili, 2012). This protest not only highlights the subordination of women in Egypt and the integrated religious law that is so deeply ingrained in this type of society (Fahmy, 2011). Contrast to western countries that have separated the religion from the state, Egypt’s social values and behaviors are attributed to Sharia acting as a legally binding constitution, further strengthening the connection between citizens and Islam. Societies with close ties between the state and religion, such as Islamic countries, encourage a more conservative behavior that reflects these traditional and religious values. This often means clearly defined roles for these citizens to abide by the strict religious code, specifically applicable to gender roles Mashhour, 2005, 564). Egyptian women are pressured into abiding by conservative rules that affect the way they dress, where they are allowed to go, who they are allowed to see and what they are allowed to do. Elmahdy’s protest is for a more contemporary perspective to be introduced that will allow women to not be harassed or discriminated against should they not conform to traditional religious values. Elmahdy emphasizes the desire for the separation of the state and Sharia. In contrast, Catharine MacKinnon’s Only Words emphasizes the harm brought upon women from the pornography industry. MacKinnon believes in pushing for a more regulated and secure framework for pornography to exist under that will not encourage violence and oppression against women. Largely as a result of the separation between state and religion, Western cultures tend to allow for a more flexible and open social environment for women to not have to be constrained to strict religious codes that affect how they must conduct themselves. The environment of a society plays a crucial role in the framework of gender equality, highlighting the importance of gender roles and how these roles are linked to culture. Sexual discrimination takes different forms and is often the result of social conditioning. Gender equality is an issue that does not yet have a globally accepted norm or standard. In this paper I aim to explore how resistance to gender and sexual subordination can take different forms. I use the framework of gender equality to outline different approaches in two different cultures. MacKinnon aims for strict regulation on pornography, but Elmahdy from Egypt uses nudity to speak out against censorship and repression in her Islamic society. This raises questions regarding universal standards and norms in gender equality, whether gender equality can be achieved through law, and if censorship is the best approach or if there should be more focus on liberties. The case of Elmahdy highlights the intersection between gender and race and how this relationship affects women and religion. This is a difficult connection to draw on for several reasons. One of the main reasons is because of the obscurity surrounding religion. Religion is another debate alone and I do not intend to argue for or against religion. Another reason this connection is complex is that there are no fixed meanings or standards applicable to every culture or society, however I will attempt to make connections between gender and race specific to the cultures I am exploring. This paper will explore the incorporation of religion into governance and law with a central focus on gender, outlining the balance between gender and race in relation to nudity and the effects of the structure of the state. This paper has three main sections. The first focuses on MacKinnon’s argument for censorship and increased regulation of pornography as a preventive measure for the harmful and wrongful treatment of women. The second section emphasizes the cultural opposite, looking at the characteristics of Islamic societies that regulate pornography and indecent exposure of women through social conditioning and censorship. Here I use the case of Egypt, a country where Sharia is legally binding, placing pressure on the roles of women. Thirdly I analyze how the contrast of a liberal culture and a conservative one can shed light on approaches to gender equality in regard to pornography and the way women are viewed both legally and socially. I conclude by exploring the idea of universal standards of the treatment of women and how this does not necessarily mean that each country/culture will be the same, but can achieve tolerance through awareness.

1. Pornography: Only Words?

MacKinnon’s Only Words takes a strong anti-pornography stance. MacKinnon argues against using obscenity as a framework, meaning pornography is classified for her as discriminatory rather than offensive (MacKinnon, 1993, 104). MacKinnon’s main focus is on what pornography does, instead of being a descriptive term. Her crucial point is that pornography is harmful to women and that it both is, and encourages, the subordination of women. In her view, pornography promotes discriminatory behavior by those who consume it, especially men. Pornography can include visuals (print of film), writing and sounds; this does not however mean that all pornography is bad. Some pornography is considered as less degrading than others as it does not portray women as ‘sex objects’ who enjoy pain through violent sexual acts such as torture (MacKinnon, 1993, 23). MacKinnon distinguishes pornography on the basis of harm; it is not an umbrella term that insinuates all sexually explicit materials are inaccurate and subordinating representations of women. MacKinnon explores the idea that freedom of speech is not an absolute and that speech is often more than ‘only words’. Expression can be offensive yet harmless. However when words or visuals encourage certain behavior that can harm or hurt others, especially a particular group of people, it is difficult to continue supporting pornography with freedom of speech arguments. MacKinnon argues that pornography is a behavior and not a thought or an argument, thereby emphasizing the need to place pornography under a different light as a question of discrimination against women, inequality and violation of civil rights (Baron, 1990, 366).

Following this argument, if pornography encourages gender inequality and contributes little to nothing for political and intellectual debate, then the First Amendment or any other legal freedom of speech protection cannot support pornography. MacKinnon’s approach revolves around a particular type of rhetoric that sympathizes with women and their role in pornography (Willis, 1997, 179). Addressing several issues that contribute to the subordination of women through objectification and discrimination, MacKinnon stresses the male dominance in pornography that compromises the freedom of women in the industry (MacKinnon, 1993, 22). MacKinnon’s approach is through increasing regulation and eventually leading to the abolishment of pornography, creating an environment for women that will contribute to eliminating gender inequality.

Applying the ‘obscenity’ argument allows for a clear and definitive framework to regulate pornography effectively without censorship. Separating pornography from free speech protections provides a way to incorporate legal restrictions of pornography, however this approach raises the issue of harm (Carse, 1995, 157). Often hate speech or discriminatory acts are harmful, and MacKinnon argues that this is the case with pornography. An issue here is that she also uses arguments from obscenity to generate support, and while this is in line with her goal of potentially abolishing pornography in order to protect women, she misses addressing the issue of various reasons women might want to work in the pornography industry. The broader social impacts are the core element to this debate as it is arguably the influence of pornography on women more broadly that might have little or nothing to do with that industry. Obscenity helps to define an issue, but it is difficult to measure, as tolerance levels can vary drastically. The issue of harm is easier to measure both inside and outside the work place and brings in both the social ramifications and the direct consequences of mental and physical harm brought on through pornography. As argued by Brownmiller (1980), shifting the argument towards harm and away from offense reflects the central problem at issue here: “We certainly believe that explicit sexual material has its place in literature, art, science and education…the feminist objection to pornography is based on our belief that pornography represents the hatred of women, that pornography’s intent is to humiliate, degrade and dehumanize the female body for the purpose of erotic stimulation and pleasure” (1980, 253-254).

Navigating through this debate means pinpointing the crucial points. Addressing sexual abuse and gender inequality means specifically targeting issues. The harmful treatment of women is more important than the obscenity argument and opens the discussion up to exploring cultural differences. As mentioned above, tolerance levels differ among people and arguably among cultures. The subordination of women as a consequence of harmful pornography can exist anywhere, even when anything deemed inappropriate is considered illegal (Post, 2007, 77). Culture plays a crucial role in this debate, exploring the idea that the subordination of women can be brought on through excessive pornography or by the attempt of repressing and abolishing it.

2. Islam: The Role of Women

Much of the debate on pornography and the subordination of women takes place in societies that are not conservative regarding nudity and sexuality. There is sexually explicit content in many media mediums such as film, music, text and advertising. The pornography debate includes anything that might be considered as contributing towards the mistreatment and discrimination of women. MacKinnon’s argument applies directly to the US where the Fourteenth Amendment protects equality and the First Amendment protects freedom of speech. In most situations the two should complement the other, however societies that deal with harsh and long-standing political oppression typically turn to censorship as a solution. This solution, while it does attempt to keep women from being too revealing, has serious impacts on a society that does not necessarily protect women.

Islamic countries incorporate Sharia into their constitution: religious law, not civil law, governs the country (Mashhour, 2005, 565). Religious rules and laws stem from traditional values and practices, particularly Islam, and results in strictly regulated societies. This does not mean that these societies are only dedicated to religious texts. Muslim societies have incorporated certain values over time, which are not present in the Quran (Mashhour, 2005, 566). The role of women in these societies is conservative, not provocative, and reflects the appropriate and ideal Muslim woman. Social norms for women are usually much stricter than the norms for men, which means women are treated and considered as inferior to men. Despite the fact these norms primarily stem from cultural and social values and not from the Quran, it is done in the name of Islam, which means it is not seen as an act of discrimination (Masshour, 2005).

Egypt is a useful contemporary example for the struggle for women in a male-dominated society, similar to the male-dominated culture of pornography. Egypt has incorporated Sharia as their constitution, and while the Quran does not set out strict instructions, its general principles have provided a framework for cultural rules to develop in the name of Islam (Masshour, 2005, 564). Egyptian women have suffered from sexual harassment in public places, from inappropriate touching in the street to public beatings. Most of these women choose their conservative way of life as it resonates with their Muslim values, however there is little room for flexibility when a women does go down a relatively provocative path. Elmahdy’s protest has resulted in her exile from Egypt due to harassment. Elmahdy’s intentions were to outline the separation between their bodies and the state, taking ownership of their femininity in order to counter the subordination of women. This approach, different from that of MacKinnon, suggests a need for more flexibility and less regulation in society that will allow women to be free to make their own decisions on how they conduct themselves, encouraging gender equality. In terms of Egypt, this shines a light on the power of the people and the state. Not only are Elmahdy’s actions considered illegal, but are quite disagreed with among people in Egypt, particularly men. Elmahdy is fighting for gender equality in a society where the current values and practices are not considered discriminatory, so that it is difficult to get people to change their ways.

The cultural aspect to this argument plays a crucial role as it affirms the need to have empathy and an understanding of cultural habits and values. The established structures are one by which most people abide, as it is part of the complete identity that resonates with individual citizens and the state (Post, 2007, 75). This means that the change in the area of women’s rights will be slow and will evolve as the society does, with women’s rights becoming more recognized in Islamic societies, such as women’s rights in divorce and polygamy in Egypt (Masshour, 2005, 564).

3. Censorship and Freedom of Speech: Universal Standards for Women’s Rights

Both MacKinnon and Elmahdy highlight the issue of the subordination of women through very different approaches. This illustrates the push towards universal standards of gender equality and the culture-specific approaches to work towards these standards. While there is a movement towards global women’s rights, it does not mean that these will come about through a set of standardized processes applicable to any situation. The development of any new process can only be sustainable through the ownership of the people and the state. In the case of Egypt, the influence of social customs has given rise to a feminist social movement highlighting the discrepancies between Sharia as a constitution and women’s rights. This is where the common ground between Islamic law and gender can be found. This does not necessarily mean that the first steps will be removing pornography censorship, but the use of nudity as an act of protest has shed light on the issue of discrimination against women and the need to reassess existing practices and values. This also highlights the need to have a wider perspective on the issue of freedom of speech, with a shift in cultural structures (Greer, 2013). MacKinnon’s insistence on greater regulation highlights the importance of protecting women and ensuring their safety. More regulation might not mean the abolishment of pornography, but a way to provide a filter to help protect women from further subordination.

Beyond the specific characteristics of different cultures exists the idea of a sexual culture, which is arguably where a link between gender and race exists. Certain stigma exists surrounding our sexual culture that requires rethinking (Greer, 2013). Pornography is essentially an industry directed towards men that generates huge profits (MacKinnon, 1993, 22). This means that MacKinnon’s notion that pornography contains no thought or expression is applicable. Classifying pornography as a business instead of a genre helps differentiate pornography from freedom of speech and arguably contributes to the misunderstanding between genders. Pornography focuses on the act of sex, severing ties with the emotional aspect of sex that can generate an attitude towards women that flows back into society and can influence the way people, specifically men, behave (Greer, 2013). This is where the feminist perspective is crucial, represented by Elmahdy, revealing where the gender inequality exists. This does not suggest a need to completely alter the existing system and structure of society to one that is completely accommodating for women, but one that provides the platform for women to exist as equals to men (Moss, 2011). The feminist approach to bringing about equality is one that works towards reinventing the relationship between men and women and our sexual culture to one that does not bring about negative or harmful behaviors towards women (Rosenfield, 1973).


In Egypt, Islam aims to keep sexual relationships private and to be between couples only. There is a much smaller window for women to become involved in publicly sexual acts, as these opportunities are fewer to them and not seen from the same perspective as nudity in the west. This picture suggests that discrimination towards women stems from cultural behaviors based on certain attitudes that might encourage a negative outlook towards pornography and women. Similar to the case of Egypt, cultural conditioning plays a crucial role in the behavior or people and how a society evolves. Islam is a sensitive area to deal with, however western countries that are seemingly less conservative also require patience and self-determination to redirect attitudes to being more accepting. Laws, religious or not, cannot simply replace what and how people think and feel towards women (Masshour, 2005, 595). Different values and norms exist in different cultures and societies that reflect the structures and behaviors of these societies. The anti-pornography stance is a relatively contemporary argument, as is the push for women’s rights in Muslim countries. The more people learn about their own cultures results in a deeper understanding of other aspects to culture, such as our sexual culture, which leads to eliminating gender inequality and the subordination of women. In short, gender equality does not come the same way for each culture and circumstance, however can be achieved through pinpointing the causes of inequality and developing new thought that can help change and modernize political structures, whether it be statutory (MacKinnon) or religious (Elmahdy), to better suit evolving societies and establish equality.


Ajbaili, M. 2012. Egypt activist who protested nude says she wants to make change, differently,
Baron, L, 1990, “Pornography and Gender Equality: An Empirical Analysis”, Journal of Sex Research, 27, 3. Brownmiller, S.1980. “Against our will: Men, women and rape,” Take back the night: Women on Pornography.

Carse, A, 1995, “Pornography: An Uncivil Liberty?,” Hypatia, 10, 1, 155-182. Fahmy, M. 2011. Egyptian blogger Aliaa Elmahdy: Why I posed naked. CNN, Greer, G. 2013. We’ve lost our intimate touch. Sunday Times,

Post, R, 2007, “Religion and Freedom of Speech: Portraits of Muhammad”, Constellations, 14, 1. Rosenfield, L. W. 1973. “Politics and Pornography,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 413-422. MacKinnon, C.A. 1993. Only Words. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Mashhour, A, 2005, “Islamic Law and Gender Equality: Could there be a Common Ground?: A Study of Divorce and Polygamy in Sharia Law and Contemporary Legislation in Tunisia and Egypt”, Human Rights Quarterly, 27, 2, 562-596. Moss, T. 2011. Plenty of porn, not as much love. Sydney Morning Herald. Willis, C. 1997. “The Phenomenology of Pornography: A Comment on Catharine MacKinnon’s Only Words,” Law and Philosophy, 16, 2, 177-199.

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