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Women, "honor" and public space

December 29th, 2011

This is a guest post by friend of the blog Parastou Hassouri, who has been living in Cairo since 2005, has taught international refugee law at the American University in Cairo and specializes in issues of gender and migration: 

Earlier this month, what was perhaps the biggest demonstration by women in Egypt in several decades took place. Thousands marched through Cairo, protesting the abuse of women protesters by soldiers. It was followed by a mass Friday demonstration in support of women, called the “Friday to Restore Honor.”

The show of support was impressive. But the title “restoring honor” was perhaps an unfortunate one in a society like Egypt, where the concept of honor has been used to repress women and push them out of the public sphere.

As the Egyptian feminist organization, Nazra, said in their excellent statement on the issue, this is not about women’s honor.  What must be protected here is not the honor of women, but rather their right to protest and be politically active alongside men as equal partners in this critical phase of Egypt’s history.

A much-repeated slogan during the December 20 women’s march was “Egypt’s women are a red line,” an echo of what has been said about the military since the January 25 Revolution – that criticism of the military is a line not to be crossed.  However, using this same line to describe the treatment of women is uncomfortably reminiscent of gendered discourse in post-colonial contexts about nations reclaiming their honor or dignity in response to transgressions against their women.  It reeks of a paternalism that in effect ends up marginalizing the very people it means to protect. 

The military’s brutality against all protesters is intended to discourage further protest.  However, the public humiliation of female protesters in particular is intended to drive home a very specific message:  Honorable women do not protest out in the streets.  Men of honor do not let their mother, wives, daughters, or sisters go out in the streets. The army’s use of sexual assault and humiliation has taken place with their full knowledge of the severe social stigma associated with these kinds of attacks.

It’s not just the military that uses these tactics, but also their supporters in the media. The most overt and repulsive example was a rant by TV commentator Tawfiq Okasha that wrapped together condescension, sexism and implicit threats into a message that women should know their place and men should keep them there. He addressed two of the most prominent women activists and sneeringly told them he had men for them to marry – an army draftee and a Saidi farmer –who would teach them “how to love Egypt.” He didn’t bother with issues of honor; his only intention was to stifle women’s very right to speak out on issues concerning the nation.

It is easy to dismiss these comments as the ravings of counter-revolutionary elements who do not represent the majority.  However, given the generally conservative mindset prevalent in Egypt, particularly where issues of sex and gender are concerned, it is important to understand that these comments are an obnoxious manifestation of an underlying ideology that advocates keeping women out of the public sphere.  It is also important to place such statements in context.  They are being made in a political climate that is seeing very few women elected to parliament in the current elections, and the ascendance of ultra-conservative Islamist parties that advocate strict gender segregation. 

Last week’s marches show that women can try to take back the concept of honor and move beyond it to the real issue of rights.

Last week’s march also stands in sharp contrast to the unsuccessful attempt to hold a women’s rights protest on the occasion of International Women’s Rights Day last March – a month or so after Mubarak’s ouster – which had a poor turnout, and ended with groups of men harassing and shouting down the few women who had bothered to show.  By contrast, the December 20 march was accompanied by a cordon of supportive and protective men. 

It is interesting that previous calls for women’s rights were met with responses ranging from “this is not the time” to outright hostility.  However, the issue of honor galvanized a much stronger outpouring of protest, focused on one particular instant of brutality, that of “the woman with the blue bra.”  Photos and videos captured soldiers dragging a female protester, beating her, and pulling up her robes and shirt, exposing her bare midriff and bra before a soldier stomps brutally on her chest.

As shocking as the violence displayed in this clip was, one cannot help but assume that it was the image of the unidentified woman’s bare torso and her bra that outraged most people – more so than the brutal stomping – and led so many to protest.  After all, images of military police brutalizing male and some female protesters have been ubiquitous for weeks – downloaded onto YouTube and shared via social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.  But those images have not had quite the same effect.

Although the incident has garnered much indignation, there have also been detractors.  Comments have been made, by SCAF and their supporters, ranging from justifying the attacks due to the woman’s criticism of the military, to arguing that the footage was taken out of context, to discrediting the whole footage and saying that it was fabricated, and finally to claiming that the young woman was an agent provocateur who entrapped the military police. 

Women being brutalized and sexually humiliated during protests are nothing new in Egypt.  In fact, it was a tactic used by Mubarak’s security forces, most infamously during protests on May 25, 2005 – a day activists later dubbed “Black Wednesday” – when hired thugs sexually assaulted protesters, including women journalists covering the protests, and ripped off their clothing, while security forces idly stood by and let it happen. 

Abuses by Mubarak’s security forces were expected, and if Egyptians were outraged by the events of May 25, 2005, those assaults did not lead to quite the same outpouring of outrage.  No mass march of women followed.  This was likely in part due to the fact that at that period, footage of such incidents did not circulate quite as widely and rapidly as it does now, and so many were not aware of them.  Also, the political environment at that time did not allow for such large organized protests.  And so, most Egyptians had no choice but to keep their indignation to themselves, and swallow it as part and parcel of the injustices of the previous regime.

The January 25 revolution was supposed to usher in a new era, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) who took control of the country after Mubarak’s ouster were initially greeted as saviors. 

However, since Mubarak’s ouster, SCAF have continued many of the regime’s former policies, leaving the emergency laws in place, continuing military trials for civilians, and responding to protests with lethal force. 

In their brutality, they have not spared women.  Shortly after Mubarak’s resignation, human rights organizations broke the news that some of the women who been detained following the military’s violent dispersal of protesters from Tahrir Square on March 9 were given “virginity tests” and threatened with prostitution charges (among other forms of abuse). 

When confronted with the reports, one military officer told a reporter that these women were “not like your daughter or mine,” but rather were the type of women who had camped out in tents with male protesters.  He added that the tests were conducted to counter any eventual accusations from the women that they were raped while in custody – implying that only virgins are credible victims of rape. 

Like the Mubarak-era assaults, these were also intended to send a message about the type of women who would participate in protests – suggesting that any thing that happens to them is fair game. 

One of the victims of the virginity tests, Samira Ibrahim, has had the courage to speak about her ordeal and has filed a lawsuit against the military police. The court hearing her case issued an injunction against future tests, but the real challenge of punishing the perpetrator and obtaining compensation for Ibrahim lies ahead. 

Despite testimony from women like Samira Ibrahim and others, the virginity test issue did not lead to the same outrage as the “blue bra” incident.  I even heard some men and women deny the tests happened.  Some still want to believe in SCAF as a force for good.  Perhaps it is because these tests happened behind closed doors – without the evidence staring people right in the face.

The “blue bra” incident, having happened out in the open, should in fact confirm the truth of what women like Samira Ibrahim have been saying. If the military officers have no qualms about humiliating protesters in plain sight, one can only imagine what they are willing and able to do behind closed doors. 

But the more women like Samira Ibrahim come forward and talk about their violation, the less effective sexual violence as a tool of suppressing women becomes.  And the more women insist that they have a place in the public sphere and participate forcefully, whether in protests, campaigns or other activities, the weaker the voices trying to drown them out will become. 



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