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Gendering Protests and Revolutions

Countries are usually referred as feminine nouns; for example, Egypt is known as umm al-dunya or “Mother of the World,” making women the bearers of national honor.  Countries are discussed as if the country’s honor, like a woman shall always be protected and defended—by men.  The concept that defense of a country is symbolically related to the defense of a woman, because it is women who are weak, vulnerable and in need of saving, by men.  The discussion of women as the bearers of nations has been well articulated by scholars such as Rubina Saigol, Nira Yuval-Davis and Deniz Kandiyoti.   In Gender and Nation, Yuval-Davis (1997) states how “the pressures on women to have or not to have children relate to them not as individuals, workers and/or wives, but as members of specific national collectivities.”  Women are unable to participate and be viewed as full citizens of nations because they are still regarded as the bearers of citizen-making and framed in the context of family units.  Still in Egypt, there are entrenched gender hierarchies and policies that prevent women from fully participating in all levels of government and society because of gender.  For example, women are restricting from joining armies or the police force as combatants.  Even in the US, as early as 2016 women may be allowed to enter “front line” combat roles in the US military.  Women in Egypt are not allowed to be judges in criminal cases because since they menstruate, they are sensitive and emotional, even though, just as women, men also can become emotional (become angry and lose control over their temper), which can affect professional work life and decision-making.  However, like men, who are supposedly able to control their emotions for the sake of work environments, so can women.  They are powerful individuals with the ability to make important decisions without getting emotionally involved (i.e. Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, Angela Merkel).  Society creates excuses, which prevent women from participating in government or the public space.

Using the example of the Western media-given name, “woman in the blue bra” who was dragged through the streets of Cairo during the protests in November 2011, illustrates prevalent sexist and misogynist attitudes toward female protestors.  She was stomped on and her ‘abaya was taken off, exposing her blue bra, which was a national calamity and hit international headlines.  The revolutionaries referred to the incident stating, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces “raped the honor of the country;” Egypt was shamed and people were rallied to return to the streets to protect the integrity of the woman, who was a symbol of Egypt.  Revolutionaries named this woman, “sit al banat,” or leader of women, whereas the Western media saw the woman as a victim, naming her with what was exposed.  The media replaced the “uncovered” woman with the nation’s flag to “return her honor.”  This woman was being linked to the country’s honor and used as a muse for all Egyptians to support the revolution.  Since she was wearing an ‘abaya, she received everyone’s attention because the ‘abaya is associated with piety and modesty and for this woman to be shamefully exposed and brutally beaten was extremely unacceptable in Arab society.  Though, the supposed symbolic modesty that women are expected to physically display (which is not required of men) is associated with the modesty and piety a nation wants to associate with itself and a means for a nation to achieve patriarchal control over women.


In discussing this incident with the bawwab, or doorman and a taxi driver after it occurred, their responses represented the deep-rooted misogyny and patriarchy that is prevalent in Egypt and across the world.  They commented by asking what was she doing in Midan Tahrir, or excused her participation in the Square by saying that maybe because her husband could not go, she went on his behalf and only then, did it become acceptable.  A middle class female worker in Khan el-Khalili responded by asking why she was not wearing anything under her ‘abaya.  Why is her morality being questioned?  Does it become acceptable to physically, mentally and socially rape women who are not covered?  Why do women need a reason to participate in politics or protests?  Why do women need to have their “honor saved” when men always have it?  If she was not wearing an ‘abaya, would people protest on the streets in the same manner, and instead of fighting for her, fight alongside all the women who risk their lives just as men do—perhaps even more?

The attitudes toward female protesters relates to how a nation tries to create a public image—one of honor that is intertwined with a woman’s body, sexuality and morality.  A nation assumes it can create a moral public image if its female citizens publicly dress conservatively, which causes the implications of both men and women questioning women’s participate in government and politics—especially if she is without hijab.

The use of sexual violence against women to keep them from participating in protests or national causes and revolutions is not uncommon in history—Jamila Boupacha from Algeria who was raped by the French during the anti-colonial struggle as well as rapes that have occurred in Tunisia, Kashmir and during India’s partition were instances of keeping women from being able to claim future political rights—opponents organize rapes against women to either keep them from protesting or to destroy the honor of a country or target the morale of society since women are the representatives of such honor.  If women do participate in the public space, their involvement is questioned and criticized (What was she doing there? Whom was she with? What was she wearing?)—and if a “proper woman” such as one who is veiled is present in the public space, is given or asked for a justification (that a man is never asked or given)—such as her husband could not be there and she went on his behalf.  Until women are allowed to “loiter in the public space,” without a reason for being there, or can “walk the streets without being compelled to demonstrate purpose or respectability,” that is when women will have their rights as equal citizens (Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan).

See video of woman being violently beaten by SCAF in Cairo

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