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The Gendered Body Public: Egypt, Sexual Violence and Revolution

[Women March to Tahrir; Image by Gigi Ibrahim] [Women March to Tahrir; Image by Gigi Ibrahim]

We must acknowledge, sit with, and address the sexual violence that has, is, and will occur in and around Tahrir Square. How do we do this work in a responsible and ethical manner that is in solidarity with Egypt's ongoing (and multiple) revolutions? How do we retain and respect political, economic, and social complexity in the face of the horrors of mass and public sexual assault?

How to write when all you want to do is shout?

Friday, 25 January 2013 was the second anniversary of the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution. Today the revolution continues, as protesters face down government allies and troops across Egypt. Bodies are bruised, bloodied, and killed. Rocks are thrown, bullets shot, and bottles broken. We are learning, once again, that violence is always plural and weighted differently. Those on the front lines, the frail, and the young are more vulnerable to that gas that burns eyes, those clubs that break bones, and those boots that kick flesh. Female protestors are also more vulnerable to the multiple violences of revolution, of protest, of repression. Women are more vulnerable to violence in times of peace and of stability, and no matter who is in power.

Female protesters have been beaten, dragged through streets, and shot at along with their brethren protesters. They have been imprisoned, disappeared, and repressed just as ruthlessly as their male comrades. They have been pinched, grabbed, and harassed by both regime supporters and their political allies at Tahrir. They have been stripped and they have been raped, in the offices of police and medical examiners, and in the spaces of the public. Their vaginas, anuses, and breasts, the very organs that mark them as women, have been targeted and violated by individuals and groups of men on every side of Egypt's political divide.

Sadly, this fact, that it is precisely the violence and rape of women that transgresses political divides, does not shock us.

The daily possibility of sexual harassment, assault, and repression forms, in large part, the female political subject(s) in the modern state era. Public assaults in Cairo, mass and public rapes in India, and the fact that every two minutes a woman is sexually assaulted in the US are only amplifications and spectacular examples of the sexual violence that women and girls face across the divides of nations, cultures, religions, and economic systems; in peace and in war.

It is sad but not surprising to note the silence on these gendered dynamics in the coverage of the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. It should be all too clear that Tahrir is a discriminately gendered space. But despite efforts to counter this trend, most analysis is deafeningly silent on the violence of this process.

By de-gendering Tahrir, the square, the protesters, and the revolution itself is depoliticized. This is similarly the case across the uprising and upheavals in the Arab world and beyond. We cannot continue to deny that men and women and boys and girls face different assemblages of violence and vulnerability daily in the streets of Homs or in a Jordanian refugee camp. To de-gender the Syrian uprising is to depoliticize its costs, the people waging it and the tactics used by them and by the state. There is no universal, ungendered, unclassed, and anonymous protester or body of protesters. And yet, writing about rape in Syria, sexual assault in Egypt is somehow a “social issue” and, shunted off to those boxes called “gender studies,” “women's issues,” or “social/cultural dynamics,” comfortably outside politics. We can no longer afford such comfort.

This comfort is unethical. It imposes analytical limitations on the very possibility of understanding the various ongoing struggles for transformative change we are witnessing today. It reinforces a long-standing reality in which agents of power appropriate, control, and limit struggles for gender equality by folding them in the residual categories of “women’s empowerment” and “women’s participation.” This folding pretends to offer an easy solution to gender violence and inequality—that they will simply dissipate if more women were to exercise their right to vote or serve in parliament, for example.

In Egypt, it is this bifurcation of the “social” from the “political” that has allowed Mubarakists, officers, and Brothers, along with their regional and international allies, to set the terms of struggles for gender equality. Those terms—gender quotas for parliament and cabinet, family laws, and birth control—are silent on the dire need of meaningful social and political change. It is these false dichotomies between gender and politics, between the economic and the cultural, that will continue to impede the very possibility of transformative revolution in Egypt and beyond.

It is not possible to write the political without beginning with plurality, without multivalent injuries, without bodies and the organs that mark them with difference by interconnected regimes of power. It is not possible to write the political without writing about the body; the body itself is both a medium and the primary target of modern politics and state intervention. Gender and sex are a product of this intervention and regulation of the body by the intersection of state, economic, historical and cultural practices. One cannot approach politics or revolution without a focus on the body. One cannot approach the body without thinking through sex and gender.

Analysts and journalists who write on the Syrian refugee crisis or Egyptian protestors who use the singular voice are making a choice. They choose to interpolate a universal that does not exist. This choice is a political act. Is this singular voice due to ignorance, and if so, can we read ignorance as a political act? Is it even possible to write three dimensionally? And if it is not, should we stop trying?

The urge to highlight one factor over another while thinking about sexual violence in a particular context is seductive: it is either culture, history, imperialism, or, more generally, patriarchy. It is more difficult, and less conducive to action, to pause on ambiguity, contingency, and the ways these factors and others are woven (often tensely) together in each act of sexual violence—an intractable and constitutive aspect of political violence. Yet to simplify sexual violence--to consider it a woman's or social issue-- is to depoliticize it. To de-gender the uprisings is to depoliticize. It is to reproduce an unmarked universal--“the citizen” or “the protester”--a mythical subject position that fails to capture the complexity of political life in an age of governmentality and biopolitics.

But is there a utility for this analysis when you just want to scream while reading about a female protester stripped, violated and chased through the streets by male protesters, regime allies and onlookers in Tahrir Square, a place that has come to represent revolution, and revolutionary fervor, internationally?

*This article benifitted greatly from conversations with and insights from Hesham Sallam.

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