Dec 20, 2011

When Women Are Undressed!


In the post-revolutionary Egypt, several women were undressed, whether willfully or against their consent. A varying degree of uproar usually ensues. It’s really curious to witness the frenzy that happens when women clothes are dropped.

The West (with all the implications and connotations of this word) and Western media, obsessed as it with the oppressed Arab/Muslim women, is usually enthused to cover and report on what happens to women in the Arab world; demanding their liberation; lamenting their marginalization. While here, the obsession with female body overrides the debate, making it skewed, if not outright unfair.

The first such incident was the sexual assault on Lara Logan in Tahrir on the day of ousting Mubarak. International media were all over it. Logan went on 60 Minutes describing her ordeal. The media here largely ignored it; either too overwhelmed with Mubarak stepping down and the prospects for a new Egypt, or using the same excuse of “Let’s not tarnish the national image”.


In March, we had the infamous virginity tests that were conducted by the military.  There was definitely a case of shock when such news came out. Not as much hype as there is now because back then lots of people were still in denial about the fact that the military is against the revolution. They just didn’t believe our honored army would commit such a crime. Some others thought those girls had it coming. “Who told them to go protest and spend the night on the street anyway?!”

Later on in May, there was a fiasco of another sort. Religious frenzies, aka the Salafis, well known for their strict interpretation of Islam and limited worldview, were on the hunt for yet another woman named Abeer. A Christian woman, had fled her Upper Egyptian village and left her family behind for a fling with a Muslim man. She converted to Islam in order to be able to get a divorce and marry the Muslim. The Salafis presumed that Abeer was held in a church in Imbaba which resulted in an ugly flare of sectarian violence and led to about a dozen dead and hundreds injured. This incident exemplified how women become tools of asserting power by religious factions; and how controlling women’s sexuality and mobility can be a strong driver of sectarian violence.

Moreover, similar honor-motivated protests were organized by Salafis in order to save women alleged to have converted to Islam. Most of the protesting centered around a woman called Kamilia Shehata. These protests were named “I want my sister Kamilia”, a famous humorous phrase that is now commonly used to mock Salafis and their obsession with their alleged sisters.

The failure of Salafis & other Islamists to produce a proper response, when female protesters were subjected to abuses at the hand of police and military forces, were the center of criticism of many secular/liberal revolutionaries. Those revolutionaries who are struggling to present themselves to the mainstream non-political majority. The word secular has become so stigmatized that most activists chose not to use it. The word "liberal" became all too common to refer to anyone who's not an islamist. The outcry of the liberal/secular against the violence of female protesters was all too real, but the use of that card to trump the islamists was always interesting.

When Salafis chose not to put the photos of female parliamentary runners and decided to replace them with either flowers or their husbands' photos, they received harsh sarcasm from the "liberal" front, for their lack of respect for women. But how did that liberal front really deal with women issues? Did they really advocate for women inclusion everywhere? Women were also excluded in most liberal political forces.

In November, when Aliaa El Mahdy took her clothes off, took a nude photo and posted it on her blog, the international attention reached unbelievable levels. Her controversial act was the talk of everyone and again the media was all over it. Was it a feminist act of rebellion or a miscalculated risk? Regardless of its meaning or motivation, Aliaa's act became the battlefront of debate about women liberation; the limits of freedom; the timing; the reputation of the revolution; the rampant double standards and hypocrisy of the society that rushes to see her naked body yet condemn her act.

Again, the "liberal forces" were confused, if not dismayed, by Aliaa's nudity; either denying her freedom of expression or claiming it compromises the struggle of "liberal forces" to maintain their image. The buzz would have continued, and Aliaa's life would have been more endangered, if it wasn't for the violence that erupted again at Mohamed Mahmoud street and the first round of parliamentary elections. The international and national spheres found other things to worry about.




Most recently, the famous photos above made headlines in several international and local media outlets, and became the heart of another debate. The woman who was brutalized as a punishment for her bravery to protest in the cabinet events became a sensation, not because she was aggressively beaten up or insulted but because her body was exposed.


The angry reaction that immediately followed based the criticism of the military violence on the shame they have caused by exposing her body. It is quite understandable that this act of exposition is associated with shame and violating "honor" more than anything else. But I can't help but wonder, whose shame it is when a woman's body is exposed! Why has it become such a horrendous act? Because we see women's body as a sacred untouchable that should not be violated? What is more violating here, the shame brought about by her brutalization or that caused by her bodily exposition? Which is more shocking, the emotional wounds that she'll have to endure or the fact that world knew the color of her bra?


However, the women march today at Tahrir was a real positive move. Thousands of women from all walks of life, in all sorts of dress showed up in solidarity and to protest the flagrant military violations. The photo below is particularly striking and interesting. This woman is basically saying: "nobody has the right to judge us or question our honor". As the chants said "Egyptian women are a red line", women expressed that any violations of Egyptian women should never be tolerated. It shows that despite the shaming and the victim-blaming, women still reclaim their right to protest and express themselves.


"your eyes are cheap"

It is amazing how women's bodies have such a revealing effect. They can show exactly where people stand on matters like freedom, autonomy and shame. Women's bodies have been the battlefront of so many battles before and will continue to be, but the hypocrisy it reveals never ceases to be powerful.

22 comments:

  1. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

    Egypt Photos

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  2. some good points but I have to be pedantic here as I am seeing this word misused over and over again: 'Brutalized': It is process that happens to someone over time, not a sustained brutal assault!
    Oxford English Dictionary:verb
    [with object]
    make (someone) cruel, violent, or insensitive to the pain of others by repeated exposure to violence:
    'he had been brutalized in prison and become cynical'

    But good article!

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  3. Ahmed: right on spot! This needs to be read by many more and am passing it around. Keep strong

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  4. Generalizing about Egyptians by Western media is obviously wrong. But this article generalizes about non-Egyptians in unhelpful, unfair, and unbalanced ways. "The woman who was brutalized as a punishment for her bravery to protest in the cabinet events became a sensation, not because she was aggressively beaten up or insulted but because her body was exposed" is, as we say in Canada, hogwash. There's more skin on display in TV commercials, all the time.

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  5. Victoria: Thanks for pointing that out! :)

    Donna: Not all the article is about the Western media approach to news here. It's also about the local reaction. The particular part that you cited was not about the Western media, but rather the Egyptian reaction to that incident.

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  6. Hey Ahmed,

    Do you mind if I paste your blog on my Facebook page. Lots of my friends in Pakistan are really interested to know about how women are revolutioning in Eygpt?

    Thanks,
    Sarah

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  7. I encourage those amazing brave women and men to keep demanding their freedom and respect. They must be scared to death of being hurt or killed. My thoughts are with you. Stay strong.

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  8. Thanks for this -- really nicely put. I may use this in one of my classes.
    Wishing you all the best from NYC.
    PS -- sorry to disagree with Victoria, but you used the term "brutalize" correctly. It does also mean to "treat brutally"

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  9. it's 'ahmad' not 'ahmed' - silly arab ignoramus spelling. egypt - a corrupt land, corrupt religion, corrupt language and a corrupt people. until u get rid of islam - as we know it, get rid of the salafis, ikhwanis and the like you'll go on going round empty circles. That demonstrator does not ordinarily wear the headscarf but she has to cover her head owing to the silly pietist women around her.

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  10. You had better be careful. In the West SlutWalking feminists believe that to be uncovered is 'empowering' while in Egypt modest women in bright blue bras en-gender dangerous statements like "covered by our brothers blood". Let them do what they please with their bodies but NEVER cover em with your blood because the feminists who back em are definitely not worth dying for much less loving.

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  11. be careful of blogging about things you know nothing about. most women would tell you that having your clothes stripped off you while being assaulted by police in cairo is every bit as terrifying as being beaten given what has happened to other women in this situation. any woman in that situation would be wondering if she was about to be raped. and the police would know it too which is what makes it such an effective terror tool. nothing to do with the world knowing her bra colour. everything to do with terror and vulnerability. please don't speak for women if you don't even have the imagination to figure that out.

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  12. Yes, based on what that twisted gender-bigot Hillary Clinton says about this you'd think that being partly stripped and beaten is a bigger deal than being tortured or murdered...the fate which mostly men suffer in the revolutions going on around the world. True terror and vulnerability is to found in the male cordon which protects the Egyptian 'girls' who protested. I, for one, am very very tired of the retarded reverse sexism which characterizes the majority of stories about female protestors or women's rights. If women want to fight for freedom fine but women need to be prepared to be tortured and murdered in EQUAL numbers to be able to EARN true equality. Being terrified about relative trivialities isn't likely to en-gender the kind of courage needed to beat the military goons who currently run Egypt.

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  13. Pretentious and dishonest. The condition of women in Egypt is just as bad as the West says it is. That the West is terrible in other ways and responsible for lots of bad things doesn't change that. The 'blue bra' woman wasn't just exposed; she was stomped. Another had her skull fractured and another, a T carved into her scalp. Westerners notice this. And you think this is a appropriate time for shallow ruminations on Western prurience?

    Better to actually care about what happens to women in Egypt than to smirk in a Western direction.

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  14. Better to care about what happens to men in Egypt than to worry about a few relatively minor (IN THE SCHEME OF THINGS) injuries to Egyptian women. The cancer of global feminism is intended to buy freedom for women with men's blood, sweat and tears. It's time to disavow the shallow ruminations of Western women...women who are always trying to co-opt the real revolution (for freedom) as a tool to promote female supremacist totalitarianism

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  15. Unfortunately the combination of womens bodies and violence has a certain fascination. The video of the 'blue bra woman' later shows a more violent beating of somebody in a red top. I have seen no mention of that person in the world press.
    My thoughts and wishes are with you brave men and women of Egypt.

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  16. Oh please. The Guardian has links to videos of that woman in the hospital, crying out in pain. And the Western and non-Western press came to this after the 'blue bra woman' video because the hospital video wasn't available at the time. I know people believe what they want to believe, but this self-delusion is contemptible.

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  17. suggest: Actually, the links the Guardian has are of another woman... the one beaten in a red jacket.

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  18. When I read your post I never know if I agree with you or if I disagree ;)

    For the fact that she had her body exposed. It is shocking for everybody. I can speak from inside the Egyptian society (as a Muslim living among Egyptians) but also as a Westerner who lived in France before and I try to imagine how people would react if a Westerner woman was treated like this in Paris streets by French policemen. It would be shocking and shameful, not for the woman but for the policemen. Even in a country where people are more naked than dressed in Summer at least. And if instead of the Westerner woman, we had a man. It is just the same. This is a question of how you treat human beings no matter their gender, or their religion. The shocking thing is not in the result (her nude body) but in the action (the stripping off)

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  19. Well written post. You've brought out the said and unsaid burdens women carry by virtue of words such as 'honour' 'shame' 'tradition' 'religion' associated with their bodies.
    First time visitor to this blog. Look forward to dropping by again. And linking this to my blog.
    Best.

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  20. It doesn't really matter if it was a woman or a man, being stripped and beaten in public. It is just more news worthy when it is a woman.I am sorry it happened, but glad that someone reported that it did. It doesn't matter if it happens to a modest Muslim woman or a half naked street whore, having her genitals inspected by the police while in custody for proof of virginity is meant to humiliate her and her family. It is about acts of terrorism in the name of law enforcement. Unfortunately it is effective. ....many people will continue to be afraid and avoid speaking out. If it takes a woman being savagely treated or stripped naked in public to bring the honorific story to light, I applause the brave woman who does it. She is there along side men trying to change their world. She can't fear a terrible sex crime is likely to happen to her just because a someone in a uniform doesn't like that she chose to use her voice. That fear is how the bad people stay in power!

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  21. Wonderful blog! I certainly adore how it is straightforward on my eye balls as well as the particulars are properly written. I bookmarked your site!

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