On the impact of gender dynamics on the Arab revolts

PicsArt_08-26-04.37.59(1)This essay will challenge the question arguing that gender issues should be inherent in all fields and thus we should avoid discussing gender dynamics as a distinct discourse impacting the Arab revolts. Instead, we can discuss the impact of activist individuals or groups in the Arab revolts that consider gender dynamics. Women are an integral part of any nationalist discourse, as well as that created around the Arab revoltsDiscrediting women, discredits Adib-Moghaddam’s convincing claim that it is human nature to resist injustice (2013, 22). Women dismantle the private-public binary as their incorporation questions the assumption that the private sphere only relates to “the emotional, sexual, and domestic” (Spivak, 1987, 103). Contrastingly, the public stereotypically involves “the political, social, professional, economic, intellectual arenas” (Ibid). These public sphere elements “are socially and culturally acclaimed and deemed to be ‘more important’, ‘more rational’, and ‘more masculine, than the private” (Ibid). “Spivak argues that the only way the woman, the subaltern, can access the ‘construction of gender [that] keeps the male dominant (Ibid, 28) is to access culture and deconstruct the binary of private-public” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2013, 22; Ibid, 108). As Al-Ali argues, women and gender are significant in the state and in the construction and control of identities (2012). However, women also become violence’s subject in the ‘masculine state’, especially in the Arab revolts’ counter-revolutions. Changing how we view and discuss the impact of gender dynamics on the Arab revolts can also yield more successful results for women’s rights in the future. The problem of why the gender issues remained sidelined and were mostly unsuccessful can be attributed to activist ‘gender insensitiveness’ (Tadros, 2016, 164) and to the subordination inflicted on women by counterrevolutionary forces. However, women did manage to undermine strong cultural norms and stereotypes. This essay will argue that a gendered discursive study drawing from individual and group activist experiences can better inform democratic processes and oppose violence in the construction and control of communities. It will focus primarily on Egypt but will also draw from the Tunisian and Libyan experiences to avoid generalizing about all the Arab revolts. First, the essay will indulge in the feminine body’s control and its social construction before and during Arab revolts. Second, it will focus on the construction of masculinity, primarily in counter-revolutionary forces, through policing and control.  Finally, it will examine the impact of individuals and groups, post and during the revolts, in moving towards the deconstruction of gender binaries and a democratic society; challenging the legitimacy of the ‘masculine’ state and arguing that gender dynamics and social reform within the revolts are interlinked. 

First, to incorporate gender dynamics in the Arab revolts’ study we must examine how the construction of the feminine body is created and controlled. In the Tahrir square protests, a female protester held the following slogan: The Revolution will not pass through the bodies of women. The Revolution will pass with the bodies of women” (Hafez, 2014). This slogan draws attention to women’s sidelined concerns: it sheds light to their vulnerability to sexual harassment to weaken their voices. Hafez presents the duality of the body’s social construction in the Arab revolts as “disciplined and regulated through discourses of patriarchy, Islamism and secular modern masculinity”, but also as “sites of dissent and revolution.” (Ibid). The contrasting exhibitions of the feminine body reveal the unnaturalness of this social construct but also reflect the multiple purposes that the body serves. As soon as the female body was utilized as a revolutionary site during the Arab revolts, the state increased its violation to maintain its control. In Egypt’s case, post the 25th January revolution, the state utilized “virginity tests, sexual assaults, fatwas or religious decrees validating the rape of unveiled activists [which] were violent measures targeting the female body to structure women’s marginalisation from politics and subvert democratic life in the country” (Ibid). The theme of humiliation using the female body’s sexuality aids the legitimization of state violence against women protesters. Egyptian Samira Ibrahim’s story can help understand how women participating in the protests were ousted on the base of prostitution; Samira was falsely accused of having been arrested in a prostitution house and was inflicted to humiliation to the extent that she wished she would die as they spat at us, threw water on our bodies and electrocuted us, kicked us in our faces with their shoes.” (Tahrir Diaries, 2011). As Mcrobie argues “The issue of sexual violence itself has also been politicised in the increasingly polarized discourse of post-revolutionary Egypt. Sexual violence was, throughout the last three years since the revolution […] used to maintain control and fear by the police […] to target ‘enemy’ women” (2014). This proves the lacking substantial resistance against state-led sexual violence through the Egyptian state’s construction of a counter-identity of the revolutionary body: the dissocialized one.

Yet, the revolutionary body, in reaction to state instrumentalization, aims to reconstruct its image. “Hence, Brooks inverts the point […] which states that bodies perform rituals that reaffirm acquired knowledge by seeing how bodies also have the power of disrupting that knowledge […] Similarly, in Egypt, during the ongoing uprising of 2011, women’s bodies that engage in protest articulate this discourse of dissent. Their bodies perform new meanings and re-inscribe new understandings of what a woman’s body in a public space has to say” (Hafez, 2014). Brooks persuasively argues that bodies can perform rituals that challenge common knowledge perceptions and gender norms (2006, 16). Changing how we think and talk about the body can act as resistance to male patriarchal forces. This is manifested by individuals like twenty-year-old Aliaa Al Mahdy, [whose] naked body was photographed in black and white, with red slippers and a red rose tucked behind one ear” (Hafez, 2014), as a way women used social media to revolt: when the woman is taking off her clothes, it is a way of revolution. When she took off her clothes, it was not for men, it was to protest oppression” (Ajbaili, 2012).  This innovative form of revolt against the masculinized state questions woman’s supposed piety in respect to the conservative patriarchy. Alia “reclaimed the freedom of her corporeal form by severing the ties that bind it to its cultural matrix. By being naked, Alia simply stated that she is free.” (Hafez, 2014).  These revolutionary forces are vital for the deconstruction of state-imposed gender norms and present a counter-discourse to the historical one that the state presents.  Thus, one can argue that to transform a social order is to reconstitute the body in terms that lie outside the hegemonic forms of bodily comportment. Re-envisioning therefore, new spaces or alternative bodily comportments, and novel deployments of discourse that surround the body, might […] begin to make a fissure in what is otherwise an impermeable system of power that undergirds society” (Ibid).  However, Hafez argues that Aliaa’s failure was due to her focus on “the centrality of women’s bodies as a terrain of conflict rather than escap[ing] the terms of its discourse. Many Egyptian women I talked to also pointed out that Aliaa reduced the complexity of women’s struggle to the superficial issue of dress/undress at a time when feminist activists were walking a tight rope in a changing gender climate” (Ibid). Thus. women’s voices will only be heard if the discourse surrounding them is challenged.  Focusing on dress reduces women to their external appearance rather than their ability to think critically, a prerequisite of the public terrain.  Although Aliaa did alarm the state, evidence is her seeking of political asylum abroad, as an individual activist she was not able to impact the aftermath of the Egyptian revolt.

Another way gender dynamics inform the Arab revolts is through masculinity’s construction in the counter-revolutions using militaristic, authoritarian and violent media. To discursively deconstruct the notions of structural and active violence against women we must examine how gender norms are formed relatively to the state. The state is associated with the male-dominated public space as evident by Kenneth Waltz’s famous book ‘Man the State and War’, which coins together masculinity, statehood and militarism. The way the state imposes structural violence on women by constraining their voices and rights is directly mirrored in “the young woman in the blue bra who lay viciously beaten and stomped on by military personnel on the ground of Tahrir, Egypt’s scene of its recent revolution.” (Hafez, 2014). Thus, women’s role in the protests acts as resistance to the gender binary relating to the private and public sphere. In this sense, the female body must enter the masculine domain to be recognized. This is a risky process for the female body because, once in the public sphere, women’s bodies are regulated and disciplined by the ‘male gaze’, which ensures that the masculinity of the public domain remains protected from the potential of chaos introduced by non-masculine, transgressive bodies” (Ibid). To undermine the ‘female’ threat, the state must construct rhetoric of irrationality against it to discredit activism’s legitimacy. Therefore, the revolutionary protester …[is] the antithesis of the rational modern progressive and civilised subject, disciplined and obedient, …[which] respond[s] favourably to a strong and dominant government which seeks to impose order on chaos. On the other hand, the body that is transgressive, out of control and associated with lack of rationality and lack of civilisation becomes increasingly alienated, stigmatised and denigrated” (Ibid). As such, the girl in the blue bra remains a symbol of the consequences of the anarchic female body: evidence that gender dynamics during the revolts continued to incline favorably towards the male.

Al-Ali markedly presents this essay’s argument that in the Arab revolts gender dynamics were significant in “constructing and controlling communities[…]; the significance of the state in reproducing, maintaining and challenging prevailing gender regimes, ideologies, discourses and relations; the instrumentalization of women’s bodies and sexualities in regulating and controlling citizens and members of communities; the prevalence of gender-based violence; the historically and cross-culturally predominant construction of women as second-class citizens; the relationship between militarization and a militarized masculinity that privileges authoritarianism, social hierarchies and tries to marginalize and control not only women but also non-normative men” (2012). An example from the Libyan experience, exemplifying state violence towards female protesters, isthe heart-wrenching case of Iman al-Obeidy, a Libyan woman from Benghazi who was raped by a group of military men loyal to Qaddafi”, signifying how “rape is not only meant to violate and harm an individual woman, but it is a way to humiliate and violate entire communities” (Ibid). Striking is “the Libyan women working in the hotel who tried to silence her, calling her a traitor and at some point throwing a coat over her face… Women do not necessarily act in solidarity with each other, just because they are women” (Ibid). The hotel women’s reaction is due to the state-led indoctrination used to maintain control of women. Sholkamy reveals the way women’s demands are presented as irrational: “no other demonstrators were heckled, told that their demands are unjustified, unnecessary, a threat to the gains of the revolution, out of time, out of place and/or the product of a ‘foreign agenda’! No other demonstrators were told to ‘go back home and to the kitchen’! No others were heckled for how they looked and what they were wearing” (2011). The state associated women activists, whom fought for the dismantlement of patriarchy, with foreign powers to delegitimize their demands as having no place in Egyptian nationalist discourse and push them back to the domestic, private space. The problem arises in the post-revolutionary struggle where we must examine how gender issues were received rather than whether they were voiced.  Since the Arab revolts were as the term suggests, revolts, rather than revolutions (Adib-Moghaddam, 2013, 25), the stately patriarchal system was not dismantled, instead women voiced social reforms within the status quo that seeks to control them. As Al-Ali notes, it is not a case of a societal U-turn change: “history also teaches us that during political transitions, women are regularly marginalized and tend to lose many of the gains they might have acquired, or have been promised, at the height of a revolutionary struggle. We see this development most clearly in the Egyptian context, where the institutionalization of the various aspects of the protest movement and political representation has not only been male-dominated but has also been controlled by the military” (2012). This is evidence of women’s inability to deconstruct rigid state-created identities.  However, understanding gender dynamics in the Arab revolts can yield better results for activism’s future.

Third, this essay argues that including women discursively can yield impact via the deconstruction of gender binaries and thus the endorsement of democracy, challenging the authoritarian state. This links gender dynamics and social reform within the revolts.  Exemplary is the determination of Tunisian women for democratic inclusion via “the women’s rights organisations – long active in civil society even under authoritarian rule – [which] mobilised immediately after the collapse of the Ben Ali government to ensure a democratic transition with women” (Moghadam, 2014, 140). These organizations reveal women’s mobilization prior to the revolts too, which Hala G. Said argues, is in risk of being undermined in discourses where the Arab revolts are presented as a rupture in civil society. The democratic rhetoric utilized by women is evident in activist ‘Azza’s claim, in reference to the 1970s rebirth of women’s movement, that “in fact, everything turned on the notion of democracy: […]the fact that we rejected all kinds of hierarchy was based on democracy” (Dwyer, 1997, 482). This suggests that incorporating women’s contributions can reject hierarchical forms of rule and enhance democracy because, by including women in decision-making processes, the base of inclusiveness is broadened.  Assuming that women’s issues and socio-political issues are separate is a reductionist approach; a stance which this essay seeks to challenge. Cartoonist Doaa Eladl “uses her cartoons to condemn the trafficking of women, the early marriage of girls, as well as the widespread custom of female genital mutilation”, but also “her cartoons react to the current political issues, many of which were directed against the emerging autocratic discourse in 2012 and 2013” (Sami, 2015, 95). This proves that we cannot isolate women’s issues and cannot assume that women writing about the Arab revolts pertain only to gendered issues and feminist discourse. By maintaining that women only immerse themselves in women’s issues, we are rejecting their active incorporation in the public sphere. Khalil notes a turning point in how women’s mobilization manifested itself during the Egyptian revolt, arguing that “the debates were changing from a state-feminism of institutionally-driven and defined rights for women, which actually excluded the majority of women, to an activist-driven notion of human rights that included a broader range of women” (2014). This mirrors Adib-Moghaddam’s comment that “post-modern resistance reacts to post-modern power in a distinctly decentralized manner demonstrating a shift away from authoritarian forms of political organisation to flat-out networks that diversify authority across interlinked nodal-points” (2013, 24).  Moghadam rightly argues that the greatest challenge for women’s activist groups was the incorporation of a more widespread cross-section of the female population to include working class women (2014, 142); women’s impact on the revolts failed to be inclusive. 

As we cannot assume that all women hold the same perceptions on woman’s role in society, likewise we cannot assume that the defeat of authoritarianism inherently leads to women’s empowerment. Salem notes the lack of correlation between the two; “authoritarian rule does not consistently result in women’s repression, nor does female empowerment consistently result in democratic government […] this research suggests that greater democracy in Arab countries that have experienced uprisings will not necessarily improve women’s conditions” (2015). It reveals that democracy and women’s emancipation do not always come hand-in-hand. However, Salem uses this as ground to challenge the claim that gender issues must be incorporated within studies of social, political and economic grievances in the Arab revolts quoting “Abu-Lughod and El-Mahdi (2011) [who]state that general economic and political grievances trump the gender-specific problems of Egyptian women.” (Ibid). Although this essay recognizes that women’s issues must be directly voiced to make a difference, and their separate concerns recognized, these must not be detached from socio-political realities that affect them too as much as they affect men. Salem unconvincingly argues that “while this paper cannot speak to the motivations underlying women’s participation in the protests that culminated in regime change in Tunisia and Egypt, it does demonstrate that men and women have markedly different needs and concerns”. By using such a scientific approach of compartmentalizing gender in sections of ‘what men think’ vs. ‘what women think’, Salem’s research is limited as it risks isolating gender from other issues and assumes that women have decontextualized concerns.

In conclusion, this essay challenges the question’s scope and suggests that instead of discussing gender issues as a separate, detached field, we must incorporate it within social, political and economic studies of the Arab revolts to the extent that we can still recognize and hear the voices of women activists on issues that affect them. Essentially, in the Arab revolts gender dynamics were significant in the construction and control of communities; either those pertaining to state identity or those countering state identities to form alternate ones. The essay first explored the control of the feminine body’s: significant in the pre-revolt and Arab revolt era. Second, it focused on the construction of masculinity, especially in counter-revolutionary forces, through policing and control.  Finally, it analyzed the impact of individuals and groups in deconstructing gender binaries and in forming a democratic society; challenging the legitimacy of the ‘masculine’ state and arguing that gender dynamics and social reform within the revolts are inevitably interlinked.  Arguably, the Arab revolts on woman’s issues failed to live up to their standards because activists were unable to provide strong alternative identities as opposed to state-imposed ones. Further study, beyond this essay’s scope, could explore how in the future women’s activism could go about to dismantle gender norms to achieve viable social reforms.

Essay by Vasiliki-Ira Katsi

Photo “Woman with the Cairene Bisha, Cairo”

Copyright: Lehnert & Landrock Orient Art Publishers


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 Tahrir Diaries. Egypt: Mohammed Mamdouh, 2017. video.

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