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Imperial Feminism, Islamophobia, and the Egyptian Revolution

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". . . I’m making this video to give you one simply message: We want to go down to Tahrir Square on January 25. If we still have honor and want to live with dignity on this land, we have to go down on January 25. We’ll go down and demand our rights, our fundamental human rights...The entire government is corrupt—a corrupt president and a corrupt security force…If you stay home, you deserve what will happen to you…and you’ll be guilty, before your nation and your people…Go down to the street, send SMS’s, post it post it on the ‘net. Make people aware…you know your own social circle, your building, your family, your friends, tell them to come with us. Bring 5 people, or 10 people; if each of us manages to bring 5 or 10 people to Tahrir Square…talk to people and tell them, this is enough! It will make a difference, a big difference…never say there’s no hope…so long you come down with us, there will be hope…don’t think you can be safe any more! None of us are! Come down with us and demand your rights my rights, you family’ rights. I am going down on January 25th and I will say ‘no’ to corruption, ‘no’ to this regime."


 

These are the words of Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26 year old woman whose Jan. 18 vlog is said to have helped mobilize the million that turned up in Cairo and the thousands in other cities on Jan 25. Asmaa’s vlog, like the stories of many Egyptian women of this revolution offer up a challenge to two key questions framing U.S. discourse on the Jan. 25 Egyptian revolution:

1) Where are the women?

2) and…”but what if Islamic extremists take over?”  

Often ignored in U.S. discussions on Egypt is how protests led by labor unions—many women-based labor unions in the manufacturing cities of Egypt—have catalyzed the Egyptian revolution (Paul Amar, 02-05-11). The women now holding down Tahrir Square as we speak—are of all ages and social groups and their struggle cannot be explained through Orientalist tropes that reduce Arab women to passive victims of culture or religion or Islam. They are active participants in a grassroots people-based struggle against poverty and state corruption, rigged elections, repression, torture, and police brutality. They are leading marches; attending the wounded, and participating in identity checks of state supported thugs. They have helped create human shields to protect Egyptian Antiquities Museum, the Arab League Headquarters, and one another. They have helped organize neighborhood watch groups and committees nationwide in order to protect private and public property. They are fighting against dictatorship among millions of people-not guided by any one sect or political party—united under one slogan: we want and end to this regime. Master Mimz—protest rapper in the UK best represents my point in the lyrics to her song: Back Down Mubarak…where she states:

 

“First give me a job—then lets talk about my hijab

 

For anyone wondering about the oppression of Arab women, the women of this revolution have indeed suffered—Professor Noha Radwan was attacked and beaten half to death by Mubarak thugs who ripped her shirt open and had stitches in her head. Several women—and men are now martyrs (they are now over 300).  Amira, killed by a police officer; Liza Mohamed Hasan, hit by a police car; Sally Zahran, hit by a Mubarak thug in the back of the head with a bat, went home to sleep and never woke up.

Since the demonstrations pushed the police out of the center of Cairo, several women have made statements such as this: “It's the first time that I have never been harassed in Cairo”—Egyptian police are notorious for sexual harassment and gender-based violence. 

Some Egyptian women are also on the frontlines of the war over ideas—fighting the Egyptian state TV and exposing the contradictions between U.S. discourses on democracy and U.S. practices. As Mubarak’s regime pays thugs to run over peaceful demonstrators, stab them and kill them, many women have expressed outraged over Obama and Clinton’s advice that: “both sides need to refrain from violence.”

Aida Seif Al Dawla is a leading human rights activist with Nadeem Center for psychological rehabilitation of victims of violence and torture. By extention, her work, like the work of many Egyptian feminists and human rights activists fighting against state violence, involves confronting U.S. imperial relations with the Mubarak regime. Today, the people of the revolution are outraged over the U.S.’ unanswered loyalty to Mubarak as well as Obama’s backing of vice president Omar Suleiman and the lack of discussion about Suleiman’s role in Egyptian torture and his important role in the US rendition-to-torture program. U.S. leaders have called Suleiman a distinguished and respected man. They use these words to describe the coordinator of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, an extrajudicial procedure in which suspected terrorists are transferred illegally to countries like Egypt that are known to use torture during interrogation. Consider, for instance, the case of the Pakistani man Habib—in which the CIA passed Habib to Omar Suleiman in Egypt. Habib was then repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks. After Suleiman’s men extracted Habib’s confession, he was transferred back to US custody, where his testimony became the basis of his eventual imprisonment at Guantanamo.U.S. policy helps sustain the structures of torture and violence in Egypt. As Egyptian American media pundit Mona Tehawy puts it: U.S.’ “stability” comes at the expense of freedom and dignity of the people of my or any country.” 

Of course a democratic Egypt would benefit women. The government recently passed a law restricting the work of civil society organizations, many of them led by women. The current regime is responsible for widespread human rights violations, including intense forms of harassment and violence against women, which many organizations such as Nazra for Feminist Studies, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, and the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement

, have well-documented.

 

So rather than asking, “where are the women,” we might ask:

Why does much of U.S. public discourse frame the revolution through Islamophobia logics and why has the corporate media focused mostly on images of Egyptian men? 

Islamophobia fuels popular U.S. discourses on Egypt and drives the question: what if Islamic fundamentalists take over Egypt? And it this very discourse that legitimizes the U.S. administration’s complicity in Mubarak’s violent efforts to quell the revolution. This explains why my public expressions of hope for the success of the revolution and for democratization in Egypt are often been met with a sense of grave concern: “but what if Islamic fundamentalists take over?” These questions must be understood in terms of an imperial psyche, a state of consciousness that is driven by panic over Islamic fundamentalism and that works as a blocking operation, or a rationale against supporting the Egyptian revolution. These questions must be located in the historical trajectory of the post-Cold War era in which particular strands of U.S. liberal feminism and U.S. imperialism have worked in tandem. Both rely upon a humanitarian logic that justifies military intervention, occupation, and bloodshed as strategies for promoting “democracy and women’s rights.” This humanitarian logic disavows U.S.-state violence against people of the Arab and Muslim regions rendering it acceptable and even, liberatory, particularly for women. Islamophobic panic over the future of Egypt similarly de-centers the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime’s past and present repression. It denies historical conditions such as the demographic realities in Egypt, the complex, multidimensional place of the Muslim Brotherhood in the revolution, and the predominance of secular visions for the future of Egypt. Islamophobia thus legitimizes complicity with dictatorship and U.S. empire, producing this message for the Egyptian people: “Its best that you continue to live under tyranny.” Gender fuels Islamophobia, requiring “the Arab woman” to be nothing more than an abject being, an invisible sisters, wife, or mother of “the real revolutionaries.” Islamophobia legitimizes itself through the disappearance of Egyptian women as active agents in the revolution. 

I do not intend to be overly celebratory. We have learned from history that following the revolution, women are often pushed back to the sidelines, away from center stage.

We might also then ask, if Egypt enters a democratization period, will the voices of the women of Tahrir remain center stage? And what are the possibilities for a democratization of rights in Egypt-- all civic rights—in which women’s participation, the rights of women, family law, and the right to organize, protest, and express freedom of speech remain central? And what are the possibilities for international solidarity with Egyptian women and Egyptian people—amidst a war of ideas that often obstructs the possibility to see Arab or Muslim women and as human-- and as rightful agents of their own discourses, governments, and destinies? It has become increasingly clear that this revolution is much greater than a conflict between Egyptian state and non-state actors. Egyptian women’s rights, like the rights of all Egyptians are entangled in the global, imperial relation between the U.S., Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and other repressive regimes of the region and beyond. Only when we can take these local and imperial forces seriously can we begin to understand the oppression millions of Egyptian people are determined to end. The people of Tahrir and all the demonstrators of Egypt have spoken and said, we will not betray the blood of our martyrs--we will not give up until Mubarak steps down. It remains to be seen what the transitional period will look like but one thing is clear: it must be led by the people of Egypt. And as the Egyptian movement for freedom and democracy continues, will U.S. social movements—whether feminist, anti-war, or beyond—forget the imperial past and the blood of the Egyptian martyrs or commit to holding the U.S. and Israel accountable for complicity with dictatorship and thirty-plus years of repression in Egypt?  


* I prepared this piece as a public speech for a public event at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Feb. 7, 2011.

 

18 comments for "Imperial Feminism, Islamophobia, and the Egyptian Revolution"

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Thank you Nadine! This is really important. Been thinking a lot about the questions you raise. Wishing for an Egypt that represents ALL of us.

Sandra Estafan wrote on February 11, 2011 at 03:31 PM
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sending support for the women of egypt from the far north of scotland. very excited and hopeful about the news. noticing that this revolution is being described in much of the media reaching here in the language of living systems (eg tunisia a pebble in the stream causing a ripple, egypt a boulder in the river causing a wave! what is imperial feminism? Jane

Jane Hera wrote on February 11, 2011 at 04:07 PM
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Thank you for pointing to all the roles and sites where women have led and fully participated in the revolution. Thank you for the reflections on imperialism. An excellent thought provoking article.

Paola Bacchetta wrote on February 12, 2011 at 02:13 AM
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Excellent article, Nadine! I also think it's odd that there is more worry about Islam than militarism; the U.S. encouraged a military take-over, empire's comfort zone!

Frances Hasso wrote on February 12, 2011 at 08:25 AM
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I agree with u. But I want to say this, U in your ivory university towers--what do u know of us struggling women--besides that u study us and "support" us in solidarity. I know u don't and wouldn't live in my side of Cairo. But thanks for your insight and expertise. What I have found in my experience is that even the best of folks who are scholar/activists are elitists...I struggle with this but I know we need to embrace for the greater good. I just get tired of it.

Amal Salah wrote on February 12, 2011 at 06:45 PM
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Thanks a lot for this. I really needed to know what young women were doing in Egypt! Its even more exciting to know more about active the role women factory workers have played in the labour movement. Thanks!

Hib wrote on February 12, 2011 at 08:17 PM
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This is a note to Amal Salah. Your point makes sense generally but your skepticism borders on contempt and doom. I wish you were able to read the article differently because it addresses what you are concerned about. If the world followed your line of thought, many of the achievements of the women's movement (everywhere!) would have been derailed.

Semira z. wrote on February 13, 2011 at 10:43 AM
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Thank you so much for writing this. I've been wondering the same.

@Amal - part of why Nadine was writing this is because of the disconnect between women who are struggling to be heard and those that have found a way to be listened to. If you could write of your experiences, it would be a welcome addition to the dialog.

Charlie Ihsan wrote on February 14, 2011 at 11:30 AM
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Dear Nadine,

Thanks so much for your analysis. We will post it in our website with Paul Amar's last piece. Paul is in Rio and we will have a chat with him today, which will also be transcripted. There is much interest and curiosity in Brazil about your revolution and we will do our best to provide people with the best sources of infoermation, such as yourself. Congratulations to you all, particularly young people and won. Hail Egyptians

Sonia Corrêa wrote on February 14, 2011 at 11:53 AM
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Nonesense! If women were heard in Egypt, the practice of genital mutilation would have ceased yesterday. There are more Egyptian female students wearing the hijab today then there were in 1960. Indeed, the most recent Pew surveys of popular sentiment reveals that most Egyptians are favorably disposed to jihad, terror, and Sharia. Only if Nadine equates theocracy with enlightenment can she equate her "revolt" with progress.

Murphy Donovan wrote on February 15, 2011 at 07:24 AM
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A note to Amal Salah: Thank you for posting your response. I deeply respect where you are coming from and your critique of universities. I would clarify that my analysis is meant more as a critique of the dominant U.S. imperial discourse about Egypt and U.S. audiences who misread the revolts than an attempt to represent or speak for Egyptian women of the revolution.

Nadine Naber wrote on February 15, 2011 at 07:49 AM
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A note to Amal Salah: Thank you for posting your response. I deeply respect where you are coming from and your critique of universities. I would clarify that my analysis is meant more as a critique of the dominant U.S. imperial discourse about Egypt and U.S. audiences who misread the revolts than an attempt to represent or speak for Egyptian women of the revolution.

Nadine Naber wrote on February 16, 2011 at 06:19 PM
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I totally honor what you accomplished together as community in Egypt! Keep writing...all of it, the truth, the lies, the world patriarchy, as a Native American (Pueblo Indian) women from New Mexico (USA), my experience is similar as the colonial exercise has also denuded the Pueblo women's significance in carrying on the cultural bits, no political voice nor much education, except for a few of us who are considered "outsiders" in our own communities.

Beverly Singer wrote on February 17, 2011 at 04:36 PM
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Ignoring women's roles in the revolution ignores the fact that women are revolutionaries. Media's putting too little emphasis on the news that matters. Think about all the precious minutes that television news stations, for example, use on USELESS and offensive stories (Lara Logan, anyone?) that do nothing except perpetuate the same gender- and sex-based structuralism they and the United States supposedly condemn.

Nick wrote on February 24, 2011 at 11:14 AM
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"The women now holding down Tahrir Square as we speak—are of all ages and social groups and their struggle cannot be explained through Orientalist tropes that reduce Arab women to passive victims of culture or religion or Islam." This was an amazing and important article. As an informed and active feminist I was outraged by the mainstream coverage of the revolution. Asmaa Mahfouz's video blog was inspiring and contradicts all mass media coverage of the events in Egypt. @Murphy Donovan, I invite you to re read not only your own response in the context of this discussion, but to educate yourself on the terms you have used in your comment. In order for true gender equality to be achieved we need to cast aside our imperialist and colonial notions of how women exist in muslim societies. We cannot and must not generalize their experiences from a standpoint of Western superiority. We need to abandon elitism and stand behind these women and acknowledge their own voices rather than prescribing our own. Please also educate yourself on the cultural significances and terms of the debates over female genital operations and the Hijab. By refusing to do so you deny Muslim women their agency and you perpetuate ignorance and colonial mindsets.

Tracy Gardner wrote on March 02, 2011 at 04:15 PM
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I think it was very nice of you to let us know about it. I live in Brazil and in the newspaper we just see men in the pictures from those riots, just a few women and I wasn't aware of all this reality. Actually, Im really glad to know about it! :)

I think there is a big problem when we talk about women's right: many times people try to connect feminism with others ideologies, and this can be very harmful.

I mean, many arabic or muslim cultures may use the excuse to not accept women's right by saying it is imposing by the USA, or this is betraying their own culture by accept foreign things. On the other hand, many times the feminist flag is used to justify imperialism, by saing "oh, they treat women bad, so we have to take over their sovereignty".

I personally think most religions are misogyny, and it includes islam, and also catolicism, jewish, other christians, indu, and so on. The difference is the mix of religion and state. When it is separated, people have the right to choose a religion (or none) - and it is impossible in many muslim's countries because they are teocracies.

I really hope that extrem muslims dont take over, and also Egypt can be free of subjection of other countries. Because, after all, its all about money... USA may say bad things about Islam, but one of their strong allies are the Saudi Arabia, the most extrem muslim country... so USA and others are just hypocritical.

Im sorry about my bad english and I hope you are able to understand what I mean.

Marcia wrote on March 04, 2011 at 12:09 PM
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I think it was very nice of you to let us know about it. I live in Brazil and in the newspaper we just see men in the pictures from those riots, just a few women and I wasn't aware of all this reality. Actually, Im really glad to know about it! :)

I think there is a big problem when we talk about women's right: many times people try to connect feminism with others ideologies, and this can be very harmful.

I mean, many arabic or muslim cultures may use the excuse to not accept women's right by saying it is imposing by the USA, or this is betraying their own culture by accept foreign things. On the other hand, many times the feminist flag is used to justify imperialism, by saing "oh, they treat women bad, so we have to take over their sovereignty".

I personally think most religions are misogyny, and it includes islam, and also catolicism, jewish, other christians, indu, and so on. The difference is the mix of religion and state. When it is separated, people have the right to choose a religion (or none) - and it is impossible in many muslim's countries because they are teocracies.

I really hope that extrem muslims dont take over, and also Egypt can be free of subjection of other countries. Because, after all, its all about money... USA may say bad things about Islam, but one of their strong allies are the Saudi Arabia, the most extrem muslim country... so USA and others are just hypocritical.

Im sorry about my bad english and I hope you are able to understand what I mean.

Marcia wrote on March 04, 2011 at 03:35 PM
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but let's be silent about the gays, of course.

Rank hypocrisy from the universities environment here. Or do you not believe in the reality of 'false consciousness', as 1970s liberationists (and their successors) would have it.

What it boils down to is what you call 'imperial', others call 'minimal standards' for self-determination and liberty. Sure there's US hypocrisy (Saudia Arabia and women anyone?), but that's a necessary evil (as the US adsministration sees it). That doesn't make the US's honest wish for greater democracy and female emancipation the less honest. You intervene where you can, not always where you should.

Marcia: if you think advocating 'western' rights on say, the freedom of lesbians to associate, fuck, love without fear is 'betraying' your culture, then your culture needs to be betrayed.

It's like listening to the defenders of 'different but equal' racial positions fifty years ago.

dca wrote on July 27, 2011 at 06:34 AM

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