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Women, honour and Egypt's revolution

Gendered violence and the association of women with the honour of the nation and of men is nothing new, but could be an obstacle to equality in a revolutionary Egypt

Naira Antoun , Monday 26 Dec 2011
The woman as egypt. Egyptian women half the population
Views: 3309
Views: 3309

Counter-revolution meets revolution in Egypt, both in the name of revolution. It is then, somewhat perversely, in the name of protecting the revolution that teargas, rubber coated bullets and live ammunition are directed at revolutionaries, that they are portrayed as foreign agents and baltagiya or paid thugs.

One of the fault lines that the battle between revolution and counter-revolution is openly being fought upon, however, is women. The drawing of this particular fault line was brought into sharp relief with the now infamous case of the woman dragged, part stripped and viciously beaten by military police in Tahrir Square last week.

For the revolutionaries, the incident was further proof — if more were needed — of the pretense and hypocrisy in the military council's claim of acting in protection of the revolution, or for that matter the good of Egyptians. The following Tuesday, thousands turned out for a women's protest, protected by a cordon of male protesters - the largest women's demonstration in the history of Egypt. On the next Friday, a milioneya was called for. Milioneya is often translated as million-man march, but in Arabic it is simply a call for a million people. In the tradition of naming days of large demonstrations, this one was dubbed the “Friday of Reclaiming Honour.” Many turned out with copies of the now iconic photo of the woman, and photocopies and cartoons depicting the scene.

The response of the counter-revolution has been the suggestion that the woman somehow entrapped the soldiers into beating and stripping her, and the argument that women should not be protesting anyway. And we could just leave it at that — that one particularly shocking case brings to the fore the stark difference between the revolution and its opponents. But we do need to go a little further to understand what is going on here.

First some context: gendered violence in Egyptian politics.

The strategy of targeting women is not new. Infamously — and caught on camera — during the 2005 referendum female activists were targeted, stripped and sexually abused by security forces. During one of the first protests the military council crushed in March this year, female protesters were arrested, beaten, tortured and subjected to so-called “virginity tests”. These “tests” were of course no such thing, but rather state-sanctioned sexual violence. The struggle to ban that practice is now being fought in the courts.

This targeting of women is gendered violence. But it would be a mistake to think that gendered and sexual violence is directed at women only. Sexual violence is regularly meted out to male detainees who are also insulted with terms such as “faggot,” suggesting that they are not “real men”. This violence towards men is also of course gendered.

And some more context: honour, real men and real women.

The battle between revolution and counter-revolution was already being fought using the language of women, and their relationships with men, before last week. Unsurprisingly, there is a relentless campaign to discredit the revolutionaries; they are accused of being thugs or foreign agents. But also, they are accused of sexual license and debauchery. In the video shown at the SCAF press conference in the wake of the violent crackdown on the Cabinet sit-in — of which the beating and stripping of the woman was one part — a shot of a man and woman, he with his arm on her shoulder, is lingered upon before seguewaying into an image of violence. An association here is being made between supposed immoral and degraded behaviour and violence. Recall the comments made by an anonymous military general when the “virginity tests” came to light. He said, the women “were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters.” He justified the abuse by slandering all women who participate in street politics.

Of course the depiction of women is but one aspect in the counter-revolutionary arsenal. The revolution, in this language, is revealed as degenerate and bad for the country because it is characterised by women who sleep in tents with men. What kind of woman does that? If these are the women, it is no surprise that the men are baltagiya and agents hell-bent on destroying Egypt.

It is not unusual for women's bodies to become the site for social struggle, both rhetorically and materially. Countless books and articles have been written about this. Related to the ways in which women's bodies become a terrain of struggle is the notion of “honour” that has been operationalised this past week.

Honour is not a gender-free term, with women's sexual behaviour for instance seen not only to reflect on her honour, but more significantly on the honour of the menfolk she is associated with. Which goes some way towards explaining the control exercised over women's bodies in all patriarchal societies. A woman's body is not her own, but represents the honour of the men among her people.

This idea of honour was present not only in the naming of last Friday's demonstration but in slogans and banners all week. Various pictures, cartoons and graffiti of the unfortunate woman are accompanied by phrases such as, “What are you waiting for? For this to happen to your sister?” Another variation says “Or your mother.” One slogan ringing through the streets of Cairo this week said, “Egyptians, come down from your houses, Tantawy is stripping your women (or daughters).” The clear implication is that any honourable Egyptian man would stop this from happening. Note also, that it is “your women”.

Over the past week, various placards associated the woman who was beaten with Egypt. One read simply, “It was Egypt that was stripped.” Another bore a cartoon with the woman in the colours of the Egyptian flag, above which “Women are half the population” was written, an interesting placard because it made the progressive assertion that women have equal rights, at the same time as associating the stripped woman with the nation, a dangerous association.

The danger of the association between women with honour of men and the nation can be explained quickly with reference to a stark example. Violence is never “senseless”; it is always a kind of language. And it is this association of women with the honour of men and the nation that makes violence against women — particularly in warfare — speak or make sense. The men can be attacked, through attacking the women. Rape as a weapon of war is dependent on these associations. So the language of honour is hardly a harmless one. It is a tool of control and can be used in the most horrific of ways.

Let's go back to the women's protest, cordoned and protected by men, as are groups of women at many protests. In making this human chain around the women, the men are allying with the women, expressing outrage at the violence, and demanding women's right to participate. They are also playing the role of honorable men, doing what honorable men do, which is protecting women, in particular from being “dishonoured.” But who are they protecting the women from? Military violence? Baltagiya paid by security forces? Other male protesters? All of the above of course. Which means that the cordon also prevents a mixed demonstration.

The cordon, is in other words, an ambiguous gesture. It is progressive in its assertion of women's right to participate and do so without violence, and it is at the same time invested in a language and worldview that is patriarchal.

And let's go back now to the woman stripped and beaten, who seeks to remain anonymous. Without a name, then, people have taken to calling her the "blue-bra woman". There are reports that the woman is distressed by this, and we should not be adding to her trauma. But whether or not it is distressing for her, is also not the point. It is demeaning. And given that in patriarchal societies — both Arab and Western — women are often reduced to what they wear, such a description is deeply problematic.

The video footage shows a woman passing by, who on trying to help is beaten mercilessly and viciously. She has given an interview, in which she can barely speak for the pain that she is in. If we wanted to have an effective campaign, with a woman at its heart, we might “use” her, given that she is not anonymous. But that won't work, as it does not evoke honour in the same way. In the now famous case at the centre of this storm, it was not just that she is a woman, but that it was sexual; she was stripped and “dishonoured”. There is also something of the spectacular in it, especially as the woman had the misfortune of putting on a blue bra that morning.

In the same press conference in which the SCAF tried to justify this incident, video footage was shown of vulnerable children making “confessions”. Most likely they were tortured; one is still bleeding, and in some footage we can hear screams and cries in the background. If we really want to talk about the honour of the nation, honourable men and women, where is the honour in a nation that brazenly tortures poor children forcing them to “confess”? Where are the honourable men and women marching the streets of Egypt to protest these crimes?

Another slogan this past week has been, “The women of Egypt are the red line,” a variation of the slogan, “We, the people, are the red line,” itself a variation of the mantra, “The army is a red line” meant to quash criticism of the military. Personally, I prefer “We, the people, are the red line.”

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