Egypt, Uprising and Gender Politics: Gendering Bodies/Gendering Space

By Sherine Hafez, University of California, Riverside

*This essay was prepared for the Women and gender in Middle East politics workshop, March 11, 2016.

Though the Egyptian uprising of 2011 sought democracy and social justice, women quickly discovered that, despite their extensive participation in the protests, they were to be excluded from rewriting the Egyptian constitutional referendum, barred from committees chosen to negotiate with the military forces, and repeatedly harassed and threatened with gang rape in Tahrir Square. Women’s bodies, once mobilized (and mobilizing), after the end of Mubarak’s regime became the source of contention and debate. “Virginity tests,” sexual assaults, fatwas (religious decrees) validating the rape of unveiled activists, were violent measures targeting the female body designed to limit women’s marginalization from politics and to subvert democratic life in the country.

In what follows, I discuss how women’s bodies are implicated in the re-articulation of state power over space and political action, from within a gender framework. I ask how gendered/marked bodies intervene within public spaces to reassemble the complex weave of political action, masculine politics, religious ideology and cultural and social norms. These forces in turn constitute the body. My intent is to capture this fluid process to understand the gendered relationship to the state in the Arab world and how practices of women’s citizenship evolve in the region. With a focus on Egypt, I argue that women’s citizenship post the so-called Arab Spring is continuously being reconstituted through vociferous processes in the wake of a revolution, post an Islamic-styled state, and under the current militaristic regime.

Although not surprising, the Egyptian uprising elevated women’s participation in the public sphere to another level. Women marched on Tahrir in thousands – their numbers reaching 50 percent of the protestors, according to eyewitness accounts. They continued to demonstrate despite unrelenting harassment and reported human rights violations committed against them. In a number of cases that have gained both local and global attention, the centrality of female corporeality in public debate after the “Arab Uprising” becomes clear. These cases demonstrate the struggle over defining women’s bodies as demarcators of public space and employing them as conduits of state power and religious control. Ultimately, gender becomes the principal instrument that defines the kind of urban space envisioned by the state.

While protestors experienced a wide range of violence and brutal repression during the events of the January 25th uprising, 25-year-old Samira Ibrahim and at least 17 other female protestors were subjected to a special brand of violence that military personnel labeled, “virginity tests” (kshufat al ‘uzriyya). This form of assault that was reserved for “girls who . . .were not like your daughter or mine,” as a Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) military general put it (Fleishman 2012), caused Samira Ibrahim to see death as a welcome alternative. She describes her body becoming an instrument of inflicting shame and humiliation during a nightmare of violation (Human Rights Watch 2011). “Virginity tests” were rationalized by the anonymous SCAF general as a “precautionary measure” to protect military personnel from accusations of sexual assault by the arrested girls. Conjuring up strong imagery of virginity and family against the transgressive body of the female protestor of unknown virtue and family, the general framed the case in familiar sociocultural and religious undertones. Meanwhile, Samira as well as the rest of the 17 young female protestors experienced the loss of bodily integrity and their corporeal autonomy as citizens of the state. Ibrahim filed a lawsuit against the officer who conducted her virginity test, bringing much attention to the plight of women protestors and the role the SCAF had played in the physical and psychological abuse conducted against the activists in Tahrir. Samira Ibrahim lost that legal battle but succeeded in banning the violating procedure in military prisons in December of the same year (Al Jazeera 2011).

The case of Samira Ibrahim evokes a common trope in the discourses of male domination that rationalize gendered ideologies of public space.[1] In these narratives, women’s bodies are reduced to biological terms that link them to reproduction and domesticity, relegating them to the home and marginalizing them from the sphere of politics. Feminine bodies that challenge these normative ideals are therefore identified in negative terms and framed in discourses that validate punitive action against them. The violating procedure of virginity testing is one of the methods designed to marginalize the female body; however, sheer violence unleashed on the bodies of women who dare trespass into the public or political realm has also been the subject of much controversy surrounding the uprisings in Arab countries. The horrific beating of a female protestor who, having fallen down on the asphalt ground of Tahrir Square during a military raid, was stomped on by the soldiers’ heavy boots is one such example. While soldiers beat and kicked her, her clothing fell apart to reveal that she was wearing a blue bra underneath her black abaya. The incident conferred on her the title of, “the girl in the blue bra.” State owned media struggled to explain away what became a testimony to the military’s human rights abuses by blaming the young woman and criminalizing her intentions. The image of the exposed naked body of the “girl in the blue bra,” however, continued to epitomize an autocratic state’s attempt to thwart local resistance, not simply through physical violence but also through the manipulation of patriarchal gender metaphors of sexuality and honor.

Violence – no matter how brutal in these cases – was once more justified by framing the female body in denigrating terms that question its purity and piety. Piety and purity, therefore, are implied as prerequisites for women to access the public sphere. What happens then when the female body embodies these qualities yet still participates politically? How does the state frame these bodies that challenge its power from within the very corporeal rubrics it claims as requirements for public presence? The young female cadets (hara’ir ) of the Muslim Brotherhood organization who participated in October 2013 protests in Alexandria put this gendered state discourse to the test. At 7 a.m. one morning, 21 women – 14 of whom ranged in age from 15 to 17 years old – headed out to protest against the unseating of the MB president Mohamed Morsi and his imprisonment by the military. [2] They were arrested and immediately tried in an Alexandria court for inciting violence.

To impugn the female protesting body, state and military discourse defined transgressive bodies participating in political action during the uprising as impure and impious, but these arrested young hara’ir defied the very tenants of state discourse. They stood behind bars in an Alexandrian court, uniformly dressed in white, with white veils covering their hair. Youth, purity and innocence were accentuated by the anxious scrubbed faces peering from behind the bars as they awaited their verdicts. Newspaper reports called them “virginal,” and in no time at all, the trial and its subsequent proceedings were soon known as, “The Virgin Trials.” The Muslim Brotherhood conducted a social media campaign that affirmed their piety and purity and challenged the court’s accusations pleading innocence for its junior members. The Virgin Trials epitomized these qualities and their case succeeded in galvanizing public opinion to support the MB for quite some time despite recent waves of anger towards the organization. At the core of these deliberations were the bodies of these young cadets who stood facing the cameras, the public and the state, subverting hegemonic messages of state control by claiming purity and piety as their own and not the purview of state hegemony. They were released from jail in December of the same year.

A central trope of feminist theory problematizes the social construction of the gendered body as an effect of discourse rather than a pre-discursive material being (Butler 1998). In so arguing, these scholars of the body emphasize the fluidity of the corporeal form and its temporality. Women’s bodies are often vehicles of resistance that reinscribe the very principles of social control being resisted (Bordo 2003). In so doing as bodies appropriate the forms of dominance that oppress them, they concurrently normalize the logic of male centric gender ideologies they seek to overcome. In this regard, 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 new spaces or alternative bodily comportments and novel deployments of discourse that surround the body might, according to Bordo’s stipulation, begin to make a fissure in an otherwise impermeable system of power that undergirds society. These fissures in public performance are referred to as “bodily insurgency” by Daphne Brooks (2006). Speaking in the context of black performers’ bodies in the 19th century, Brooks notes how black actors, singers and activists in the United States reconstituted their bodies in ways that “defamiliarized” hegemonic notions of blackness in transatlantic populations. Their performances, she argues, created a powerful counter-discourse to dominant narratives of race and gender relations. Through gesture and speech as well as material props and visual technologies, the body is able to confound and disrupt conventional constructions of the racialized and gendered body.

Public performance in particular, holds much potential to transform women who are otherwise construed as belonging to the private sphere and who, more often than not, are perceived as disruptive and unruly. Once in the public sphere, women’s bodies are not only regulated and disciplined by the “male gaze” but also through state power and religious authority, which ensure that the masculinity of the public domain remains protected from the potential chaos introduced by non-masculine, transgressive bodies. As a spectacle, women’s non-conformist bodies are disciplined by the requirements of the public domain.

In Egypt today, the revolutionary protestor is constructed as the other. On one hand, civilized bodies – rational, modern, progressive and obedient – respond favorably to a strong and dominant government seeking to impose order on chaos. On the other hand, the transgressive body – out of control and associated with lack of rationality and lack of civilization – becomes increasingly alienated, stigmatized and denigrated. Within this binary construct of human subjects that depicts the disciplined versus the undisciplined body lies a key strategy to the control of populations, especially the non-masculine body

These cases – however briefly discussed above – demonstrate how women’s bodies become spaces of contestation where battles over authenticity, cultural dominance and political control are fought. While women’s bodies are disciplined and regulated through discourses of patriarchy, Islamism and state politics, they are also sites of dissent and revolution. Seeing women’s bodies as a means to their political ends, Islamists, liberals and pro-government groups alike have all competed over the definition of the female body as transgressive, unregulated and unruly, or pious and pure to suit their agendas. Despite these hegemonic representations, the narratives of gendered corporeality persist in articulating a counter discourse that, perhaps, will succeed in imagining the female body differently in public spaces.

Sherine Hafez is an associate professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of “An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion And Secularism In Women’s Islamic Movements,” (New York University Press, 2011) and “The Terms of Empowerment: Islamic Women Activists in Egypt,” (American University Press, 2003). 

[1] Feminist scholarship has contributed extensively to this subject for example, Sherry Ortner 1974, Louise Lamphere 1997 and others. Although there are some limitations to viewing the public and private as binaries and perceiving women’s political participation simplistically as strictly public, such theories do contribute to our understanding of larger dynamics that to some extent and in some cases do govern modern urban societies. See Ann Fausto Sterling 2000 for a rigorous critique of the role biology plays in sexing the non masculine body.

[2] A popular backed army coup deposed the Freedom and Justice party’s (the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood) former president Mohamed Morsi and held him under house arrest pending his trial. Police raided the camps of MB protests in July 2013, killing hundreds of remaining protestors.

Works Cited

Al Jazeera. 2011. Egypt Bans Virginity Tests by Military. 27 December. Last Accessed: March 31, 2016

Bordo, Susan. 2003. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brooks, Daphne A. 2006. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. Duke University Press Books.

Butler, Judith. 1998. “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.” Pp. 273-294 in Philips, Ann, ed. 1998. Feminism and Politics. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Fleishman, Jeffrey. Egyptian army doctor acquitted of giving virginity tests to arrestees. March 11, 2012, 28. Last accessed: June 21, 2013.

Human Rights Watch. 2011. Egypt: Military “Virginity Test” Investigation a Sham. Impunity Highlights the lack of Independence of Justice System. Last Accessed: December 19, 2016

Lamphere, Louise. 1997. “The Domestic Sphere of Women
and the Public World of Men: The Strengths and Limitations of an Anthropological Dichotomy.” pp. 90-98. In Woman, Culture and Society. M. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, eds

Ortner, Sherry. 1974. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” In Woman, Culture, and Society, M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, eds. Pp. 67-87.

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