December 17 – Beyond the Rage: How the rhetoric may affect the feminist cause in Egypt

There is no doubt the image of the brutalized female protestor, knocked down by military goons, helpless and prostrate on the street, stripped by her attackers who are seen still hovering around her like vultures as they exact more violence on her – there is no doubt that this image has caused stronger outcry among more people than any image or account of army brutalities and atrocities committed against the protestors since the onset of the revolution, as many and as vicious as these are.

The incident did definitely hit the chivalrous nerve of a male dominant society who puts so much weight on a woman’s “honor” and prides itself on its “protectiveness” of “its” women, but the fine line between chivalry and patriarchy can very easily become muddled and be crossed.

In the wake of the brutal crackdown on the protestors which began on December 16 and which left 928 wounded and 17 dead according to the latest figures, the photo of a protestor stripped and attacked by soldiers started circulating and spread like wildfire. Personally, I am shaken by the grinning face of the uniformed thug on the left (why do tormentors always seem to take such pleasure in inflicting pain and humiliation on others in those horrid videos and photos? why? on what sick path of development do they lose that last shred of their humanity? why grin?), and the position of the one on the right: bracing, knee bent, to deliver a kick to the chest of a seemingly already unconscious protestor. The fact that the protestor was a woman – as evidenced by her exposed bra as her torso was stripped naked by her assailants – to me stands only as yet another confirmation of the readiness and willingness of SCAF and its military machine to trample on every tradition and break every taboo held sacred by the society it is so viciously fighting to rule.

+Veiled+ (emphasis added) female protestor stripped and brutally attacked by soldiers, cried the commenters. The explicit inclusion by some, and often highlight, of the protestor’s chosen level of modesty disturbed me: had she not been veiled, would her ordeal have been any less worthy of your condemnation and outcry and rage? I will refrain from addressing the sick morality of the blame-the-victim proponents who actually expressed contempt for a woman to be out on the street protesting in the first place or for not securing her dress well enough to protect her modesty.

On to the #WomenMarch  on December 20, in which thousands upon thousands of women from all walks of life marched from Tahrir Square through the streets of the city center and back to Tahrir to condemn SCAF and protest the sexual assault on the female protestor. The march was simply amazing: the energy and diversity of the women, the sense of fellowship, all so positive and exhilarating. Our power could be physically felt: You will not intimidate us. We will not be oppressed.

Only the zealous overprotectiveness of a number of the accompanying males blemished the otherwise perfect demonstration of female affirmation:

I was delayed for the start of the march and kept checking its progress on Twitter on my way there. I was a bit fazed by news from some media outlets that a male human shield was formed to protect the female demonstrators – doesn’t that beat the whole purpose of the march? Why not simply join it in solidarity? However, one Twitter user reported the shield as a noble gesture, and I thought to myself, ok, I can try and see it in that light.

I joined the march in front of the Journalists Syndicate. Sure enough, two chains of men were flanking the demonstration. Admittedly, I did find myself genuinely moved by the nobleness of their intentions (some men seemed too old for the effort, there were some on crutches), but as the march moved on my gratitude dissipated: a number of times I needed to cut across to reach friends ahead of me, or stand on the sidewalk to take in the whole view,  and every time I tried to break through the male shield, or was spotted by the “man protectors” walking outside it, I was advised/ told to remain inside. It exasperated me to find myself having to explain why I was outside and stating many times: Thank you for your concern, but this is my country, this is my street, I will be safe. Another friend told as we joined for drinks later on how one “man protector” even went as far as telling her “it is +not allowed+” as she tried to break free from the male human shield (she did break out after telling him his attitude was not acceptable).

As we reached the Qasr ElEini – Sheikh Rihan intersection, a literal battlefield and the hotspot of the most recent clashes, now completely quiet with the eerie stonewalls erected by the army, a number of the accompanying men were heard shouting to the frontlines directing them to “lead the women away”, “it is not safe”. I need to add that these clashes – like all aspects of the revolution – have seen participation from female revolutionaries: as fighters on the frontlines, as field doctors, activists and human right defenders, as media persons and citizen journalists. Our participation has always been organic, natural, not a mere feminist statement.

This surge of “protectiveness” is perhaps expected in a society as traditionally patriarchal as Egypt, aspects of it are often experienced to various extents in demonstrations by all participating women. It is not surprising, if definitely frustrating, that this incident caused more uproar and rage than any other documented incidents of army violations: verbal abuse and humiliation, brutal beatings (employing batons, sticks, steel pipes), electrocutions, trying of civilians at court martials, not to mention the teargas, stones, rubber bullets, and live ammunition hailed at protestors and demonstrators.

Systematic sexual violence targeting women is one of the most heinous methods devised to deter them from participating in political activism or in their society in general. It was most notably employed by the regime during the May 2005 referendum protests, and more recently in the form of “virginity tests” performed on female detainees from the March 9 sit-in dispersal, and lately it is used to target female protestors and revolutionaries.  It is a crime against their dignity and humanity only aggravated by the social stigma potentially imparted on the victims due to the weight society attaches to the “purity” and “honor” of the women. One of the chants that really moved me during the march was in solidarity with the assaulted protestor: hold your head up high, hold your head up high; you are more honorable than that who stepped on you! (ارفعى راسك ارفعى راسك, إنت أشرف من اللى داسك).

However, as the outcry rages on, and many forces and entities join the bandwagon of holy SCAF condemnation for their often unholy purposes, I find myself alarmed by the patriarchal undertones of the condemnation and a rising tone of guardianship over women rather than a condemnation of the crimes committed against them:  the list of unacceptable crimes committed by the army against its people – both male and female – is reduced to the unacceptability of “stripping naked our women”.

Tomorrow’s planned demonstration in Tahrir is hailed by a large number of mainstream media outlets and conservative and islamist entities variably as the march to “preserve or restore our women’s honor”, the most notable exception to me is the Revolutionary Socialists who aptly call for a “Friday of Revenge against the Military (جمعة القصاص من العسكر)”.

Revolutionaries – male and female – are vulnerable to a number of risks: abuse, torture, arrest, and death. The fact that women are targeted for sexual harassment and violence does add to their vulnerability, but it is a risk they knowingly and bravely take along with the others.

In a society where the majority expects a certain conduct of a woman before she is deemed worthy of her right not to be harassed or of the protection of that right, the subtle but certain difference in rhetoric and attitude outlined above risks turning the chivalrous protectiveness spurred by the rage over SCAF violations against women into yet another glass shield around active women at best, or into chauvinistic condemnation of every woman who chooses to face those risks and courageously accepts them at worst.

The women of Egypt have throughout time silently endured and braved their society’s scorn, condemnation, or harassment for their independence – beyond the confines of a chartered feminist agenda or orientalist clichés, and tomorrow we stand again against SCAF – men and women, as Egyptian citizens; we stand against SCAF brutality and crimes and sexual violence, we stand for a free and just Egypt for all. We will fight on.

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