The past several years have brought into focus dominant ways that sexual and bodily rights are framed, gendered, and politicized in the Middle East in mainstream western media. These can be grouped under three loose themes, each of which deserves further study and each of which emerges from a particular, though intertwined, history: The first gendered theme is the equation of gender or gendered analysis with women and/or sexual and gender minorities. Second, both mainstream media and intersected political parties and politicians have cynically deployed the fate of women and sexual minorities to emphasize the relative protections of secular and securitized authoritarianism and the possible—Islamist—dangers of democratization and further uprisings. The third gendered frame we can identify are the moral and sex panics that various regimes and governments have used to further entrench the security state and conservative politics (whether Islamist or military or secular).
Taken together, these three gendered frames aid in the production and maintenance of a discursive separation between political and sexual or gendered violence. This separation of violence into “political violence” on the one hand, and “sexual violence” and “gender violence” on the other, is pronounced in much mainstream coverage of the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen. This coverage often frames the large scale prevalence and political economy of sexual and gendered violence during wartime as a “humanitarian” crisis or concern, one that is ancillary to or natural and an inevitable result of prolonged war and political violence. This framing suggests that sexual and gendered violence do not require a political solution in and of themselves, but rather, exclusively therapy or counseling for the victims and processes of rehabilitation once the “conflict” ends. Here, “political violence”—whether sectarian, ideological, secular, or Islamist, is gendered male.
The following pages will provide an overview of these gendered frames and ask what work they do in the world. The aim is not so much to understand the ways that gender has been analyzed writ large in mainstream coverage of the region, but rather what work sex and gender do in and to our analysis of political upheaval, whether those upheavals are (now) thought of as revolutionary, counterrevolutionary, or a civil war. This article is a brief return to an article I wrote in 2012, in the heyday of the Arab Uprisings for Jadaliyya, titled “The Uprisings Will be Gendered.” Much has changed since 2012, including the reinvigoration of authoritarianism across the region and indeed, a global shift to the right, and devastating (and ongoing) international wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The analytic frames we use for understanding the region, however, have proven to be more resistant to change.
Selective Deployment of Gendered Analyses
In much public intellectual and journalistic production gendered analysis is confined to work that is specifically about female or LGBTQ identified persons. This limited understanding of, and public interest in, “gender” is not unique to the study of the Middle East, despite a growing body of academic literature on gender and masculinity in the region, including work by Ghannam, Amar, and Aciksoz. Such selective framing obscures the fact that gender and the processes of gendering are experiences and technologies of power that operate, though differently, on and through bodies in all social landscapes and communities. Across the region and indeed in every region there are multiple feminisms, as well as multiple LGBTQ groups, with often chafing local, regional, and international politics. Yet rarely has the diversity of feminist and LGBTQ actors, practices, and groupings (institutional or not) been reflected in public intellectual or journalistic work in the period of the Arab Uprisings. More broadly, often LGBTQ movements and feminist movements are grouped together within one overarching gendered analysis. Such grouping assumes that feminist and LGBTQ groups are inherently allied. Lebanon, where mainstream LGBTQ nongovernmental organizations had a highly contentious and public split with alternative feminist movements and individuals over issues of sexual harassment, sexism, and the privileging of male queer experiences, shows us the gendered elisions in these assumptions.
Gender, as both an analytic and as a topic, cannot be disarticulated from the broader field of activist or intellectual/academic knowledge production. When we reproduce the false tropes of the ungendered body, ungendered politics, the unclassed body, and unclassed politics, we reaffirm the positioning of normative male political practices as “unmarked” and universal— leaving little room for articulations of gender, sex, and sexuality beyond the scope of limiting binaries. Gender is not an analytic lens that can be withheld and deployed according to genitalia and/or sexual practices of the people being studied. Such disarticulation hampers our ability to study and analyze social and political transformations that have reshaped the region since 2011.
The Particular Dangers of Islamism
A second prevailing mode of framing, gendering, and politicizing gender and feminism in the Middle East and North Africa is often expressed through discourses on the precarity of women’s rights in an increasingly religiously conservative region and, to a lesser extent, LGBTQI rights. These concerns are crucial in an age of ISIS and Al-Nusra, but feminists might ask where this concern for gendered rights was previous to this latest round of religious and repressive politicization. For example, "women's rights" in Egypt and Tunisia have been twinned with the type of state feminism advocated by their respective former first ladies, a cynical use of gender rights by authoritarian regimes that Western allies branded “reformers.” This is not to obscure the Islamist movements and regimes’ violence and oppression, but to place them side by side with violent and oppressive secular or military movements and regimes in our feminist analysis. All those that speak in the language of “public morality,” or who degrade and regulate rights to bodily integrity are deeply invested in maintaining or expanding unequal gender and sex systems. This includes state and political actors who ban the hijab, legislate that everyone must wear the hijab, or restrict access to family planning, women’s health, and protection from sexual harassment and/or assault. The increased use of torture and brutalization in the War on Terror has also left an indelible mark on the feminist concept of bodily integrity.
The transnational increase in the regulation of sexual and bodily rights is a global phenomenon that we see clearly, for example, in the United States under Trump, Turkey under Erdogan, Egypt under Sisi, and Raqqa under ISIS. Given the variety of actors legislating, regulating, and eroding bodily and sexual rights—from neoliberal cuts to public and women’s health to the relaxing of laws and practices to do with torture— the highlighting of Islamists and their threats to bodily and sexual rights stands out. This selective fear of Islamists rests on familiar assumptions about the intolerant nature of Islam and cannot be disentangled from the ideological, material, and economic infrastructure of the International War on Terror and its local franchises. Thus the victory of Islamists in Egypt's elections caused anxiety among international feminists, gender activists, international human rights organizations, and powerful international politicians. Thus far, however, the regime of Abdel Fattah al Sisi has proven itself an enemy of gendered or sexual rights and has in fact buttressed a nationalist ideology that emphasizes patriarchal masculine heteronormativity as the ideal citizen type. Despite the continuation and intensification of sexual and gendered oppression between the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sisi regime, international outcry has been muted on this front. The attention we give to gender rights should not be episodic or reliant on the identity of the oppressor. Gender and sexual equality and justice, and the state of bodily integrity and rights should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power and no matter the ideology that drives the erosion of these rights: whether neoliberal, Islamist, or authoritarian.
Moral Panics, Sex Panics
The third frame we can employ to understand dominant discourses related to the uprisings are the uses of gendered and sexed violence to discredit protests and revolutionaries, and as a tactic of political violence in times of revolution or of war. The Mubarak regime, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the Muslim Brothers, and now, Sisi, have used sexual violence to discourage and discredit Egyptian protestors and revolutionaries. Female protestors and activists have been subjected to “virginity tests,” vicious beatings, and charges of immorality (Seikaly 2013). In fact, everywhere there has been an uprising across the region, the regime in question has propagated a discourse of immorality among male and female protestors. In Yemen, security forces actively discouraged women from joining protests by targeting them for repression. In Bahrain, a cry for “public morality” was thrown against men and women fighting to overthrow a repressive monarchy. In turn, the spectacle of Egyptian security forces publicly beating and dragging a woman down a street is a warning to others. It is forcefully implied that women and men should stay at home and away from the impunity with which (secular and non-secular) security forces can violate a protestor’s body. We can also think of the Cologne New Years Eve public assaults, and the spectacle of the assaults, as a sex panic. This sex panic licensed various racialized and securitized and gendered discourses and affects, which in turn obscured the structural problem of anemic rape and sexual harassment laws and enforcement in Germany—a problem feminists in Germany have been calling attention to for decades.
Clampdowns on sexual and gendered “others” are often a sign of increased securitization and an attempt to gain popular support for increased state power through the spectacle of the “moral panic,” as Paul Amar has argued. As Scott Long has written regarding the Sisi regime’s persecution of queer and men who have sex with men in Egypt, it is often vulnerable populations that provide the platform and initial legitimacy for the perfecting of repressive technologies that are mainly used to crush political dissent more broadly. Egyptian, Lebanese, and Iraqi security agents have used popular apps such as Grindr or Whatsapp to entrap suspected LGBTQ individuals—a harbinger of the ways that social media and technology will be publicly synonymous with securitization and surveillance in the near future (it already is, but thus far the publicity of internet surveillance has been episodic and directly related to the targets of that surveillance—queers, revolutionaries, opposition movements).
In 2017, the Egyptian state used a rock concert by the popular Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila to further ramp up and publicize an ongoing state “crackdown” on Egyptians accused of being LGBTQ. This incident raised a key point: moral panics, and the state’s protection of the public from “immorality” are meant to circulate widely and publicly. The fact that the Egyptian state can and will continue to arrest and abuse citizens despite international condemnation, sparked by the spectacle of the arrest of Mashrou’ Leila fans (one of whom was “accused” of waving a rainbow flag), is an advertisement for the authoritarian paternalism of the Sisi regime. This is true also for highly public and sensationalized attacks on female bodily integrity and sexual expression in Sisi’s Egypt. In Turkey, President Erdogan has also used gendered and sexed discourse and policing to gain legitimacy for the increasing authoritarianism of the Turkish state. In the name of “security,” Erdogan’s regime has attacked, dispersed, censored, arrested and threatened anti-AKP political dissent, pro-Kurdish activism and resistance, and feminist, LGBTQ, trans marches, protests, and activists.
Authoritarianism continues to be reinvigorated across the post-uprising region under the guise of security—indeed in the world, as shown in recent electoral cycles in Europe, the United States, and India. As such, it is incumbent on us to analyze both the development and deployment of repressive technologies to police sexual, racial, gendered, and classed populations and the moral and gendered discourses that often scaffold calls for public security, morality, and cultural or religious authenticity. Such an approach is critical to our ability to analyze international and regional trends in authoritarian securitization and its moving, and expanding targets.
The Bifurcation Between Gendered and Political Violence
There are dominant analytic frames that have been used to discuss “gender” and feminism in the era of both authoritarian securitization and popular uprisings: first, gender is deployed as an analytic when writing about female-identified persons and sexual/gender minorities, but not when writing about normative male-identified people. Second, gender and feminism have been cynically deployed to discuss the rise of Islamism and the dangers to come with the fall of (secular) authoritarian regimes. Third, authoritarian regimes have used accusations of public immorality, “sex panics,” and the public good, to increase securitization. All three of these frames are highly selective and politicized. All three play a role in producing a discursive separation between political violence and sexual or gendered violence, a framework within which sexual or gendered violence happens to women and sexual minorities while political violence happens to men (by men usually). In Egypt, it is this bifurcation of the “social” from the “political” that has allowed Mubarakists, officers, Sisiists, 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 structural political and economic change, nor do they draw attention to the gendering of men within a patriarchal power structure. It is these false dichotomies between gender and politics, between the economic, the political, the cultural, and between “gender” and heteronormative men that will continue to impede the possibility of transformative change in the region. The separation of gendered violence from political violence has perhaps reached its tragic apex in Syria—a war where rape, the brutal enforcement of strict sex and gender codes, sexual assault, the slow death that comes with the lack of education and healthcare and basic wellbeing to women, and highly coordinated and international sex trafficking—are often analyzed as separate from the mass displacements, killings, and maiming of millions of Syrian citizens and residents. In this framing, sexual and gendered violence are thus the province of women’s rights, rehabilitation, and physical and mental health—but not of political or economic justice. But in any political resolution to the wars Yemen and Syria—political resolution meaning a re-envisioning of the countries’ political and social contracts—gender relations should and must play a role as it is a critical vector in the constitution of social and political contracts (Pateman 1988).
In today’s global security state 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. Since 2010 the uprisings and counter-uprisings—the consolidation of authoritarian power—unfolding at the surface of so many beaten, broken, triumphant and depressed human bodies—have again shown this. One cannot approach politics or revolution without a focus on the body. But also, and just as importantly, one cannot conceptualize the body without thinking through sexual difference, gender, race, citizenship status, and class. We need political intifadas and uprisings. We also need conceptual and analytic intifadas.
[An earlier version of this essay was published in German in Krise, Revolte und Krieg in der arabischen Welt, edited by Helmut Kreiger and Magda Seewald (2017)]
Nadje Al-Ali, "Revolutionary Processes in Egypt," Feminist Review 106 (2014): 122-128.
Nadje Al-Ali, "Gendering the Arab Spring 1." Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5.1 (2012): 26-31.
Paul Amar, The Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism (Duke University Press, 2013).
Scott Long, "Cairo, and Our Comprador Gay Movements: A Talk", https://paper-bird.net/2016/06/22/cairo-comprador-gay-movements/, accessed 1 December 2016.
Maya Mikdashi, "The Uprisings Will Be Genderedm" Jadaliyya, 2012.
Sherene Seikaly. "The Meaning of Revolution: On Samira Ibrahim," Jadaliyya, 28 January 2013.