Gendering the Arab Spring

Natasha Ahmed is a budding journalist and feminist activist. Currently studying History and English at the University of Exeter, she specialises in the treatment and portrayal of Arab women during political and religious upheaval. Here, she writes about the misuse of women in the Tahrir Square protests of 2011.

A year ago, a Tunisian fruit vender torched himself out of social and economic despair. Over 5,000 local citizens attended his funeral. Little did Mohamed Bouazizi know that he would be responsible for sparking the greatest revolution to have torn through the Arab world in recent history.

The flowering of the Arab Spring is not distinct from its radical historical siblings; and every element will be scrutinised by academics and critics worldwide. As a whole the revolution represents a transition from silence into conflict – the barrier of fear that has finally been broken by millions seeking change and justice, and in particular, women.

Women have always been strong participators of past revolutions – the 1979 Iranian revolution against the Shah resulted in their rights being curbed. Yet, despite the severe consequences, women remain at the forefront of demonstrations and protests against dictatorship and social inequality.

In the case of the Tahrir Square protests in Cairo early last year, Egyptian women throughout the region were made to believe they played a crucial role in breaking down the barricades of injustice. However, numerous accounts have shown that these same women have been subject to a violation of their own, including high levels of sexual violence and rape.

Perhaps it is not that great a surprise: like so many other forms of repression, sexual violence and humiliation has actively used as a tool of intimidation to punish the ‘weaker’ sex, who is advocating political change.

The dangers of committing sexual violence in a highly politicised and religious nation holds both conflicting consequences and reactions. Within the cultural context of Egypt, rape or other forms of sexual violation can permanently damage a women’s reputation and status within her community causing profound humiliation for the male members of the family.

With such harmful repercussions, we need to consider these incidents with a cautious eye. In March 2011, at least 18 women were arrested for demonstrating at Tahrir Square. They were beaten, charged with prostitution and forced to undergo virginity tests. In October 2011, Samira Ibrahim filed a case against the Egyptian military for sexual assault in the form of ‘virginity tests’.

In November 2011, Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahowy claimed she was beaten severely, breaking multiple bones and she was assaulted sexually. The only response came from an Egyptian general who sought to justify the violation of human rights and also the enforcement of blatant hierarchal gender-power relations.

His statement read, “These girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine… These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square and we found… molotov cocktails and [drugs].”

He claimed the tests were necessary because, “We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove they weren’t virgins in the first place,” as though only virgins could be raped.

This testament can only highlight the idea that female bodies are sacrosanct is a myth, and men have a duty to protect women from an overt display of sexualisation. The virginity tests were conducted by archaic and backwards means, the method of inserting two fingers (male) fingers into each woman’s vagina. The point was not to prove these women were virgins but to instead humiliate and threaten them, to reduce their femininity to merely a sexual object, and to assert their male dominance over the female body.

Looking at the female protesters of Egypt highlights the need to readdress common understanding of sexuality and its cultural adaptations. This is not to say that some sexual protests have not also taken place. In October, Magda Alia al-Mahdy a 20 year old student posted a naked photo of herself comparing herself with famous nude works of art with an eloquent caption.

“Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hang-ups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.”

Her own stand for the freedom of female expression has been a revolutionary step for the progress on gender discourse. Alia draws attention to the mistreatment and sexual objectification that women feel on a day to day basis in Egypt, doing so by directly confronting the problem at hand.

Her words and photographs have since caused much controversy amongst the Egyptian people, resulting in a direct split between those who see her as an inspiration or those who see her as disgrace.

And these opinions have not been bound within political or religious allegiances: Islamists and other conservative socio-political groups have gone so far to call her a “devil” while even some liberals share the same opinion actively disown her. Despite all this, her discourteous form of expression calls for an urgent re-addressal of certain issues that can even be applied here in the ‘West’.

This is because what makes Alia’s portrait so threatening is that is not only criticises the morality of an Islamic Egyptian society, but also in a broader context the way in which female bodies are a site of capital consumption. The Egypt story is testament that the female body is vulnerable to the desires of man. We can see this through the ‘virginity tests’ in pro-democracy protests or even through female artists using their bodies for market purposes. Alia takes control of this fact, and of herself.

Patriarchy has no limits; it is not bound by one nationality or culture, similarly it provides a cross-cultural prism through which feminists identify moments of awareness that presents injustice for women’s treatment or behaviour, of rejection of such expectations, and of activism to effect some kind of change. Her nudity aims to reinvigorate a conversation about the politics of sex and the uneven ways it is articulated across the fields of gender, capital, and control.

Her eyes tell a story. They blaze with an intimidating confidence and power that dares us to talk about issues that have never been discussed before.

Read more from Natasha on her blog

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