Women led the Egyptian revolution, but the Western media have a fundamental misunderstanding of the process at play in Arab society argue Pete Ramand and Mahmoud Mahdy.
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Western commentators have struggled to understand the complexities of the process that was playing out before their eyes. Almost all have examined the revolution through the prism of Western debate. So when European and American reporters began flooding onto the streets of Tunis and into the square at Tahrir the same question – with barely concealed incredulity – escaped almost immediately from their collective lips: ‘women? Leading the revolution? In an Arab country? Wearing the veil? Really?’ The disbelief was palpable.
The same disbelief was repeated when Randa Jihad Adnan took to the world stage. If her husband Khader became a symbol of resistance to Apartheid Israel, then Randa became its voice. Confronted with a highly articulate, heavily pregnant Muslim woman clad in the full veil with two small children clinging to her legs, the press were initially at a loss for words. Randa contradicts every Anglophone stereotype of the meek, oppressed Muslim woman. She spoke in tones that did more than simply express anger at her husbands treatment. She articulated the anger of a people – she spoke for Palestine. A mantle now continued by Hana al-Shalabi.
Imperialism and Political Islam
Western commentators simply hadn’t noticed what was happening underneath the surface of Arab society for more than a decade: the politics of imperialism was shaping identity and mass consciousness. The rise of political Islam was a response to increasingly aggressive administrations in both Washington and Jerusalem, and it filled the vacuum left by the collapse of Pan-Arabism. But this rejection of imperialism was not solely based on opposition to military intervention; it was connected to a rejection of the wider neoliberal project in the West. The rise of raunch culture and the increasing commodification of both sex and women was seen as being part and parcel of the overall imperialist project.
During the second intifada and at the outbreak of the Iraq war a duel process began to occur. Women began to participate in politics in mass numbers. This had not been seen for decades, but this time there was a distinction: political Islam was seen as the primary weapon against imperialism. Many women chose to wear the veil, seeing this in itself as an act of resistance to both imperialism and the commodifaction of women in the West. Some Salafist groups also used the threat of imperialism to enforce their conservative vision of society. But in both cases capitalist imperialism and its impact on the identity of the Arab world is at the heart of the matter.
According to Rabab el-Mahdy, a longstanding Egyptian feminist and Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo; 'the status of women in Egypt is very complex and depends partly on class. If we look superficially, it seems that things are becoming more restrictive, such as the growing prominence of the veil. But the other side of the story is that the hijab has given women more access to the public sphere, professionally, politically and socially. Ultimately, women should be able to go out into the public sphere without the veil. But it is a coping mechanism'.
Many of the lessons learned during the days of the anti-war movement were utilised in the days after January 2011 – the occupation of Tahrir by 30,000 on February 15 2003 being the most obvious. But if mass participation by women during the anti-war movement was a dress rehearsal for Tahrir, the strike wave organised and led almost entirely by women at Mahalla in 2008 was the precursor to the mass strikes that paralysed Egypt last year.
But despite all evidence to the contrary, the stereotype of the Muslim woman prevails. Outside the Arab world this discourse is propagated by media outlets and governments alike. Within the Arab world though, the forces of counter-revolution are no less vocal. The soul of the Spring lies in Egypt – and here the state, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and their allies have been waging a bitter war against women.
The revolution was not an event that ended in early 2011 – a fact that SCAF understand all too well. From the moment Mubarak left office there has been a battle between SCAF and its allies on the one hand, and the broad array of the revolutionary forces on the other. The latter attempting to deepen the social gains of the revolution, while the former do all in their power to defend vested interests within Egypt. For more than twelve months a continuous cycle of offensive and counter-offensive by both sides has been taking place.
The integral core of the Egyptian revolution is represented by the leadership of women. From the strike wave that crippled the economy to the first occupation of Tahrir, women – young and old, Muslim and Christian – organised and led. At Tahrir square, women shaped history.
According to Rabab El Mahdi 'women participated but not necessarily on a gender based agenda. At first they participated on common themes to do with democratisation, to do with economic policies and opposition to neoliberalism. Against torture. Against common themes that we as women chose to put forward as a priority. If we talk about women’s agency then we should respect the fact that at specific moments in history we choose to mobilise on things other than gender specifically. But we must also look at how these broader themes of democracy and neoliberalism have had different implications for us as women'.
This participation and leadership in every aspect of the revolutionary struggle forced a break in the psyche of Egyptian society. Backward preconceptions were not only challenged, they were smashed. What began to take place was a fundamental transformation in the conception of what role women should play in society as a whole. This transformation was taking place in the factories of Suez and the streets of Alexandria. And most prominently at Tahrir.
So for SCAF to regain control of the unfolding process it was necessary to divide the revolutionary forces. This meant a combination of direct physical assault on women engaged in revolutionary politics and simultaneously appealing to the most backward and reactionary ideas within Egyptian society.
Mozn Hassan, director of Nazra, the institute of Feminist Studies told us; 'For years Mubarak’s regime was torturing women, harassing women, detaining mothers and daughters and the wives of prisoners to put pressure on them. For sure this is still the culture of the SCAF. It’s a culture-based violence towards women. They want to exclude us from the public. The SCAF want to give the message that revolutionary people, if they are men, they are thugs, if they are women, they are sex workers and prostitutes'.
This attempt to role back the gains made by women during the initial phase of the revolution has not gone unchallenged. Last December pictures began to circulate across the globe of ‘the girl in the blue bra’ being brutally assaulted by soldiers. This was the turning point. Anger exploded. Now the question of women’s oppression was exposed before the glaring eyes of the worlds media and there was nowhere SCAF could hide.
Almost immediately thousands of women marched to Tahrir to reassert their position at the head of the revolution. In an interview with CNN Mozn Hassan articulated the mood “It’s important to give the message that we are not afraid and we are willing to die,” she said. “We will be in the front, defending the revolution and defending other women and men.”
Islamism vs Secularism?
So in this context the lens currently used by the Western media to analyse and evaluate the revolution is problematic to say the least. The ongoing revolutionary process in Egypt is often falsely characterised as a battle between unrelenting Islamic extremism on the one hand, and secular liberalism on the other. Not only is this crude dichotomy unhelpful, it is quite simply incorrect.
Islamists and secularists exist on both sides of the political divide. On the side of the revolution secularists, Christians and numerous others have been joined by sections of the Muslim Brotherhood – particularly sections of the youth wing – who have broken with the government and joined ‘Revolution Continues.’ Clerics of the Azhar institute have condemned SCAF and expressed their desire for the social goals of the revolution to deepen.
Meanwhile the secular liberal forces of the ‘Egyptian Bloc’ and ‘The Free Egyptians’ led by the Sawiris family prop up the current government and have supported SCAF in their most brutal acts of repression.
The reality is quite clear. There is no battle between Secularism and Islamism in Egypt. There is an on going cycle of confrontation between the forces in society who wish to deepen the revolution – to continue the transformation of Egyptian society – and those who wish the status quo in all its forms to be upheld.
The revolutionary forces still have no institutions or infrastructure of their own. And as a result their message is often mixed and unclear. What is certain though is that the fate of the Women’s Movement in Egypt is no different to that of the Coptic Christians or the anti-Zionist movement: it is tied to the fortunes of the revolution as a whole.
Aida Seif el-Dawla is the head of the Nadim Centre and is a leading member of Kifaya. Her words are conclusive:
'We still need a specific struggle for women’s rights in Egypt, but this cannot occur in isolation. I cannot say whether things will get better or worse for women. It all depends on the general struggle for democracy, human, social and economic rights'.
From International Socialist Group site.