Women in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the Concept of Plural Modernities

Last week I wrote a post on the many different ways that people in the Middle East and throughout the formerly-colonized world understand and experience “modernity.” Today, I want to build on that concept by looking at three very different examples of women getting involved in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Hopefully this exercise will not only help to expand our understanding of the plurality of modernities, but will also introduce some important issues about the Egyptian revolution and feminist consciousness in the Middle East.

First, meet Asmaa Mahfouz:

Mahfouz is a 26 year-old employee of a computer company who was active in the political resistance to former dictator Hosni Mubarak throughout the early 2000’s. In this video, recorded on Jan. 18th, 2011 (i.e. a week before the beginning of the revolution last year), Mahfouz tells the story of a protest she organized in downtown Egypt which no one attended. She shames the viewers by invoking traditional gender norms: “If you think yourself a man, come with me…whoever says women shouldn’t go to protest because they would get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me.”

So how do we classify the politics of Asmaa Mahfouz? Is she a radical working to overthrow the government? Is she a conservative upholding traditional gender norms? The answer seems to me to be: a little bit of both. Working practically to motivate people to join her, she uses the emotionally-loaded concepts that resonate with her audience.

Second, check out this video from the offices of Al-Jazeera in Egypt:

In this video, plain-clothes government employees of the post-Mubarak era are caught raiding the offices of Al-Jazeera in Egypt, for the second time. The government does not appreciate the coverage of protests against them. The un-named woman who is doing the talking (screaming?) is presumably a female journalist for Al-Jazeera. She begins her tirade: “Where is your warrant, if you please?!?” She continues, “I have been speaking to lawyers…” and goes on about how the raid is illegal.

What I find fascinating about this clip, as compared to the previous one, is the totally different basis upon which the woman makes her appeal. Rather than shaming the men by invoking timeless, traditional gender norms, she appeals to the rule of law. This claim more closely approximates the types of appeals we see in the West, for example my blog post on Guantanamo Bay last week.

Finally, take a look at this picture of a female protester in Tahrir Square during the revolution:

A picture is worth a thousand words and there are many striking things about this image. First, the woman is dressed in a niqab, which is a controversial political symbol of religious piety in Egypt. Second, she is holding two signs. The one in her left hand (to our right) reads: “Egypt for all of the Egyptians, Muslims and Christians.” The other reads: “The messenger of God (peace be upon him) said: God damns the nation which deprives the rights of minorities.”

This picture is a commentary on the entire phenomenon of what is variously called “political Islam,” “Islamism,” or “religious fundamentalism” in English, and is referred to as “al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya” or “the Islamic Awakening” in Egypt. First, note that this woman is out in public, in the streets, participating in a sometimes-violent protest movement to overthrow the government. Far from being confined to the home or the harem, women who wear Islamic garb like the niqab and the hijab are allowed to participate in the workforce and the public space. Second, note that the religious appeals this woman is making are on behalf of the rights of Christians and religious minorities. This gets at the heart of what the Islamic Awakening is all about: using religious knowledge as the basis for political debate and discussion in the public sphere. Many times, religious knowledge (which in Islam consists of verses from the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, one of which is referenced in the sign above) can be used to advance socially-conservative positions. But many others also use religious knowledge to argue for progressive causes. Besides minority rights, these causes can include women’s literacy and democratic political participation. I don’t mean to suggest that the Islamic Awakening is universally progressive. It is far, far from it. But it is complicated.

What can these examples tell us about the nature of modernity in Egypt? People have translated the ideas and institutions of the modern age that have their origins in the West (ideas like “human rights,” “democracy,” and “the rule of law”) into their own cultural context. Moreover, there is not just one cultural context, but many. The experiences of Asmaa Mahfouz, the Al-Jazeera journalist, and the niqabed protester have led them to make sense of these ideas in different ways.

One thought on “Women in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the Concept of Plural Modernities

  1. Wow, three great examples – the last one is a particularly important message for the West to accept: just like Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion, the tenets of Islam can be (and ARE) used in defense of progressive ideals. EVEN in the Arab world.

    The most fascinating things to me about the second video were the woman’s physical interaction with the two men at the door, and her repetition of the phrase لو سمحت, “Excuse me.” Even in her clear frustration, she maintains, at least superficially, the convention of polite conversation. This is again what we might consider a typically “Western” way of dealing with conflict: “Excuse me, could you please move? Excuse me, you can’t be here. Excuse me, move away from the door” – my Arabic has deteriorated way too much for me follow her whole argument, but the jist and her intent are clear. Meanwhile, she physically engages the men, but in a hesitant way – she is clearly afraid of being hit, just as they are trying not to lash out at her. Really interesting gender dynamic, regardless of culture, but incredibly fraught given the circumstances. Frankly, she’s a brave woman (all three are, but her position strikes me as the most immediately physically tenuous), and certainly emboldened by the presence of her Al-Jazeera camera.

    Looking forward to reading more!

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