Gender and Revolutions: Critique Interrupted

By Norma Claire Moruzzi




This article originally appeared in Middle East Report 268 (Fall 2013), published by the Middle East Research and Information Project. It is republished in Zapruder World with the permission of the author and the publisher.

Beginning in December 2010, the events that came to be known as the “Arab Spring” or “Arab Revolutions” began to sweep through the somewhat geographically indeterminate region that is considered to be the “Middle East”: Muslim-majority, Arabic-speaking countries in North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, and West Asia. Despite their varied local histories and contemporary conditions, all of these “Arab” states had been governed for decades by hidebound authoritarian regimes that had been considered to be immovable. Some governments were formal monarchies, with an institutionalized kinship-based line of succession. But many of the Arab states that claimed to be governed by elected governments were run by an apparent president-for-life, with a son in line to inherit. The regional “democratic deficit” was often ascribed to national cultural or religious characteristics rather than to the enduring political stalemate that was the continuing legacy of postcolonial nation-state territorial claims, Cold War strategic interventions and alliances, and orientalist glorifications of systemic nepotism and corruption. Neither of the two primarily Muslim non-Arabic speaking countries in the region, Turkey and Iran, experienced the same unexpected internal upheavals and sudden pressures for reform. But among Arabs, the early months of 2011 seemed to be ushering in a new possibility for civic participation and government accountability: the possibility of actual democracy.

Those were the days. Four years on, the heady promise of new beginnings has been transformed either into a renewed consolidation of power by familiar elites, or a descent into unimaginable violence that has led many to hanker for the old securities of stable authoritarianism. The Arab Spring has seemingly become a winter of repression, with little prospect of a real thaw. In a few places, democratic reform has put down roots, most notably in Tunisia, where the initial popular protests that made the revolutions began in December 2010. Elsewhere, taking the state—getting rid of the aged figurehead—became a substitute for real democratization, making it all too easy either for the underlying structures of power to remain in place, or for a loose oppositional alliance of exclusionary factions to fragment into vicious civil war. Under these conditions, the political promise of free and equal citizenship is (again) replaced by binding relations of fear, patronage, and communitarianism. For women and for men across the Middle East, democratic identity and participation remain elusive.


Gender and Revolutions

Women were involved in the Arab revolutions, in all their aspects, and women’s rights as a feature of citizens’ rights have been central to the democratic mobilizations against corrupt and autocratic regimes. But a revolution (as opposed to a coup) is a long process rather than a distinct event, with its roots stretching backward into pre-revolutionary conditions and its effects carried forward beyond formal political changes to the state. Women, like men, have suffered from the violence and repression that has come in the aftermath of many of the initial protests. The deeper questions of how gender is related to established and/or new relations of (political) power are often ignored. If gender is generally understood to be the social construction of sexual difference, what explains the differences in gendered identities across cultures or over time? What is the connection between gender and women or, for that matter, between gender and women and men? And in thinking about gender, how can observers avoid the naturalization of the familiar, or the demonization of gender relations that seem foreign? The political and social changes in the Middle East that were initiated with the popular uprisings in the spring of 2011 have made these questions all the more urgent. Yet all too often the gendered aspects of political struggles in the Middle East have been reduced to the volatile symbolism of “the veil” and the question, “How do they treat their women?”

The three following examples present a corrective to such simplistic reductions and show how gender as a category is fundamental to the analysis of contemporary political dynamics and democratization. These cases not only display the actions of women and men as subjects, but also foster inquiry into how the social structures of identity and authority shape the possibilities for the actions of individuals. Gender shapes politics. But politics also influences gender, and political change can make available or limit different constructions of being a woman or a man in a changing society.

The basic relationship between gender and politics is important to remember because analysts so often segregate “women’s issues” from others and consider gender dynamics irrelevant to local conditions and social change. Similarly, gender is all too easily reduced to women, rather than functioning as an inclusive category of analysis of how social roles (and ideas of masculinity and femininity) are constructed by individuals and institutions that are also shaped by them.These problems of interpretation are not confined to research on Muslim-majority societies, but are epistemological issues prevalent across women’s and gender studies. See Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). An exclusive focus on women tends to neglect the extent to which they are actively engaged in other integrated social movements (including grassroots activism that may not explicitly focus on gender) or to ignore the extent to which women are absent from political mobilizations (including “youth” protests that are overwhelmingly male. The model of women patiently suffering or heroically resisting a universal and unchanging patriarchy may have been pushed back in many parts of the world to accommodate a more specific and dynamic analysis, but it fits all too well with the similar habits of neo-Orientalist interpretation. This limited intellectual framework is inadequate for any serious research into contemporary women’s lives, gender relations or politics, whether formally or informally enacted, and whether in the Middle East or elsewhere.


Women and Islam

In 2011, Leila Ahmed added A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America to her groundbreaking scholarship on gender politics in the Muslim world. Her Women and Gender in Islam (1993) is still the most important general history on the subject, and her memoir A Border Passage (2000) helped establish Muslim women’s claim to the documentation of their own experience. (It is hard now to remember that, even in the 1990s, scholars bemoaned the cultural obstacles prohibiting audiences from hearing women’s autobiographical voice.) The timing of the new book was especially fortuitous. It appeared in print just as the Arab revolts were unfolding. The events of the spring of 2011, from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen and beyond, took almost everyone by surprise. But Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution was not about the unexpected mobilizations in the streets. Instead, it was apparently yet another contribution to the extensive scholarship on the cultural, political and social meanings of the veil.

As Ahmed herself established in Women and Gender, it was only in the nineteenth century that veiling became such a contested symbol of Islam as a religion and a culture. At the nexus of imperialism and nationalism, the veil became variously the representation of women, culture, oppression, liberation, piety, tradition and fanaticism. Though contradictory, these understandings of veiling cast its meaning as fixed and absolute. Research has consistently shown, however, that both the form and the meaning of veiling as a practice change over time and place. Nonetheless, “the veil” is accessible shorthand for almost any gender issue related to the Middle East and Islam, and Ahmed’s book was well positioned to capture the attention of general readers. The book, indeed, is a sociological and ethnographic study of contemporary veiling in Egypt and the United States, especially among a new generation of educated, activist Muslim women whose choice to cover their heads is part of their integration into public life. More unexpectedly, the book is also a history of the development of political Islam in response to modern political and economic conditions in Egypt and the region, and the more recent emergence of a publicly engaged Muslim immigrant identity in the US. Situating the renewal of women’s veiling practices carefully in political history, Ahmed allows gender to function as part of an intersectional analysis, rather than an essentialism.

Instead of focusing exclusively on women, Ahmed explores the modern political history of Egypt, and both men’s and women’s reactions to a century of state repression and decades of neoliberal economic policies justified as top-down modernization. The Society of Muslim Brothers, an organization with an almost entirely male leadership, became the most important association in opposition to the Egyptian government. The Brothers advanced a cultural critique from the right that prioritized a distinct Islamic identity as the recognizable sign of popular mobilization and communitarian (but not egalitarian) solidarity. Ahmed’s careful interdisciplinary analysis illuminates the generational tensions that have come into play in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak: a veteran oppositional organization with little democratic experience among its male established leadership; a youthful cohort of democratic activists, men and women, veiled and unveiled, with little formal organization; an unreformed security apparatus willing to ally with any political formation that will give it legitimacy without challenging its entrenched authoritarian and economic privileges.

In a parallel analysis, Ahmed examines the emergence of a Muslim population in the US for whom political mobilization around Muslim community issues, identity and social justice coexists with a home-grown commitment to democratic pluralism associated with the realities of American minority politics. For many American Muslim women, especially second-generation immigrants, veiling is a self-consciously visible adoption of the hyphenated, hybrid identity common to the US immigrant experience. For these women, participation in Islamic organizations offers both a community of activism and an ideology of fraternal civic equality, the gender politics of which have then become open to dispute through women’s involvement and challenge. The comparative framework makes clear that popular trends—in veiling or in politics—move in multiple directions. Neither veiling nor democracy is essential to any society or location.

Ahmed’s integration of the analysis of gender and (Islamist) politics exemplifies the refusal to isolate these categories or to segregate the issues of women’s rights in countries in which most citizens have few rights. Hence the quietly radical challenge within the covers of Ahmed’s book, and its relevance to any study of revolution, democratization and gender politics in the Middle East today. But while Ahmed’s work provides a comprehensive overview of the history and sociology of contemporary Egyptian and American women’s veiling, the following examples provide more intimate analyses of the body politics of gendered political experience, examining how gender (as a category of socially constructed sexual difference) is thoroughly integrated within structures of formal and informal power relations in key events of the Arab uprisings. They also help locate the current limits to the democratic project that is in process in so many places in the region.


Gender and Politics

The notorious tragedy of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation is a case in point. The Tunisian street vendor’s action prompted the mass national protests that brought down the Ben Ali government, and then spread like wildfire to other states in the region with similar problems of elite corruption, crony capitalism, economic stagnation and arbitrary governance. But Bouazizi did not set himself on fire simply because he was denied the right to make a living; he set himself on fire because a woman allegedly slapped him in the face.

Bouazizi worked diligently in the informal economy in order to support his widowed mother, disabled paternal uncle (who was also his stepfather) and younger siblings. He was occasionally harassed by local officials; street vending may or may not have been legal in Sidi Bouzid, and the municipal inspectors wore uniforms similar to those of the police. Certainly, peddling was one of the few available economic opportunities for an unskilled young man like Bouazizi in a town with an unemployment rate estimated at 30 percent, and municipal inspector Faida Hamdi claimed she had been “tolerating” Bouazizi working in the same location for some time. On December 17, 2010, they had an altercation. Bouazizi’s family has stated that Hamdi slapped and spat on Bouazizi, that her two male colleagues kicked and beat him before they confiscated his goods, and that they insulted his dead father. Hamdi’s family denies she mistreated Bouazizi, although she confiscated his goods as part of “doing her job.” Hamdi herself has stated that she did not mistreat Bouazizi, that she had never spoken to him before the incident, but that she had a new order to clear vendors from that area, and when she tried to confiscate his goods he struggled with her, and she called for the police. What exactly happened between the 45 year-old woman and the 26 year-old man may never be precisely known. Witnesses differ, and witnesses to a confrontation between a uniformed agent of a venal and violent state and an itinerant street vendor may not have found it expedient to recall details. But aside from the disputed facts, the story of their encounter, and its shifting account of local gendered identities and politics, is itself significant. Virtuous (honest and hard-working) masculinity publicly humbled by a feminine manifestation of corrupt state power—this was the tale that set off the protests that eventually brought down the Tunisian government and sparked the Arab revolts.

According to this narrative, Bouazizi burned himself because he had been struck by a woman, who only happened to be a representative of an abusive state apparatus. In authoritarian Tunisia, the harassment of working-class, backwater provincials by government officials was almost to be expected, and therefore not particularly demeaning. There is solidarity in class oppression. But the affront to Bouazizi’s sovereign masculinity stripped away the meager dignity it had afforded him, and when the state refused to acknowledge his claim to reparations (the return of his goods), he made a public protest of his own self-destruction. His act, and the state-sponsored abuse that had prompted it, were recognized as having pushed him beyond the limits of his endurance.

Faida Hamdi was arrested, released, arrested again (on orders from President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali) and released again (after Ben Ali was deposed). She was able to tell her story: When she confronted Bouazizi, he had grabbed at her breasts. Public opinion turned. Now the story of a gratuitous insult to masculine dignity was balanced by a story of an improper affront to feminine modesty.New York Times, January 21, 2011; al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 2, 2011; Michael J. Totten, “The Woman Who Blew Up the Arab World,” World Affairs, May 17, 2012. Virtuous (modest and conscientious) femininity defending itself from a masculine sexual assault—this was the tale that facilitated the uneasy postrevolutionary reconicliation of antagonistic national actors.  Hamdi returned to work as a municipal inspector, in the civilian clothes that replaced the uniforms of the previous regime, and the varying gender politics of the Bouazizi-Hamdi incident were subsumed within the general questions of formal electoral representation and power sharing between the new government and expectant citizens.

The limits of top-down state feminism under authoritarian regimes are exemplified by the Hamdi-Bouazizi encounter. Before the democratic revolution of 2011, Tunisia may have been a repressive police state with little room for political participation by either men or women, but it did provide for women’s relative juridical equality. The policewoman who slaps the hapless poor man is part of a state policy of incorporating some women into an authoritarian state; thus the vendor is persecuted by a corrupt and imperious security apparatus in which women can (as agents of this state) have positions of power. Precisely because Ben Ali’s Tunisia is not a democratic society (the state does not empower its people, only its agents), women’s individual empowerment as state agents does not necessarily contribute to more egalitarian social relations, and patriarchal norms can coexist with the individualized advancement of women. Hence the man is doubly humiliated by the state’s repression, provided in the guise of a woman (as a formal state actor) belittling him in a social form (the slap).

But after the formal democratic transition, the vilified state agent is redeemed and reincorporated within the social polity by being recategorized as a modest woman. Her actions are reinterpreted: She is no longer seen to have acted as a (female) state agent, but as a proper (feminine) social subject. Just as Bouazizi asserted his compromised masculine dignity as the last signifier of his claim to respect from the state (as an appropriate political subject), Hamdi proffered her righteous feminine honor as her claim for inclusion within the new state as an appropriate social subject (and of her rejection of transgressive gender politics). Yet nothing in this shifting balance of gendered protest and obligation has much of anything to do with democratic agency, emancipation or equality.


Gender and the State

Perhaps especially in the Middle East, there is a well-established tradition of authoritarian governments incorporating women as equal political subjects through state–sponsored policies of secular modernization, but no one as participatory political citizens.See Hoda Elsadda, “Egypt: The Battle Over Hope and Morale,” Open Democracy, November 2, 2011. Programs of juridical gender equality in states in which no ordinary citizen has political power risk disrupting the conventional existing hierarchies of status (masculinity and femininity included) without offering compensatory collective opportunities (rather than individual token competitive advancement). From the 1970s on, the secular modernization projects also adopted a neoliberal embrace of capitalist “wealth creation” that often means increasing economic inequality, with competitive advancement for an elite few, and increasing immiseration (justified on an individualized basis) for most. This shift means that the stabilities of class identity are also disrupted by an ideology of individual competitive achievement, again without offering a goal of collective emancipation or equality.

Patriarchal norms, often legally enforced, have often been invoked by liberal capitalism to maintain social order alongside the unregulated freedoms of the market. The ideology of unfettered economic freedom has provoked a corollary ideology of desirable social controls; despite possible libertarian experiments, modern capitalist social orders have mostly privileged the family as an idealized site of naturalized obligation for all concerned. But patriarchy also involves the domination of men; it is a system of hierarchical order for everyone, gendered but also aged, classed and raced. Status is inflected by position relative to the familial model of the singular patriarch, and although patriarchy provides rigidly limited social identities, the position of any individual within the hierarchical structure is essentially dynamic. One is not born but becomes a patriarch.

Within a patriarchal system, men are as firmly tied into a binary identity as women are: The equivalent to women’s entrapment in the duality of the mother/whore opposition is men’s confinement to the roles of protector and patriarch or victimizer and criminal. The actions of an individual in relation to members of the opposite sex will be interpreted differently according to their location inside or outside the boundaries of family affiliation: Patriarchy is not simply a form of domination, but a system of social reproduction. Within the family, a woman is a mother or a possible mother-to-be; outside the family, a woman is a possible whore. Within the family, a man is a protector or a possible patriarch; outside the family, a man is a possible libertine or a thug. It is the familial affiliation that makes the difference.

Patriarichal order is not limited to kinship relations; it can be extended to the subject population of the patriarchal state.Social norms of honorable defense of the public good (gad‘ana) vs. bullying enforcement of arbitrary authority (baltaga) apply inside and outside the family, and to men and women. See Farha Ghannam, “Meanings and Feelings: Local Interpretations of the Use of Violence in the Egyptian Revolution,” American Ethnologist 39/1 (2012). The criminals linked to the violent enforcement of social and political order, both under Mubarak and after the revolution, are known as baltagiyya. Token advancement for some women can exist under the auspices of the patriarchal state. The fundamental threat to patriarchal order (in the state or in the family) is not the power of some (women) loyalists, but democratic participation and demands for civic equality. Citizens making those demands risk placing themselves outside the bounds of the patriarchal state’s familial protectorate and becoming identified as possible threats to the political family. Outside the defining boundaries of affiliation, any woman can be a whore, any man a terrorist.

If in 2011 Egypt’s Tahrir Square became the positive international symbol of the ability of peaceful mass protest to bring down a dictator, by 2013 it has also become the site of the patriarchal political order’s most symbolic defensive retaliation. The multiple, public and increasingly violent sexual harassments and assaults in and around the square have followed a remarkably similar pattern: A woman is systematically separated from her companions; she is surrounded by a mass of men pulling at her clothes, groping and penetrating her with their hands; her assailants intentionally confuse her and possible rescuers by shouting that they are rescuing her or protecting her.Documentation can be found in Sexual Assault and Rape in Tahrir Square and Its Vicinity: A Compendium of Sources 2011-2013, prepared by El-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, Nazra for Feminist Studies, New Woman Foundation (February 2013), available online at Similar attacks occurred under the Mubarak regime, and were recognized by activist groups to have been sponsored by the state security forces. Women protesters were the subject of targeted, coordinated, sexualized attacks that were intended to drive them out of contested public spaces, as one victim recalled an officer saying, “so you would stop taking part in demonstrations again.”Magda Adly, quoting a policeman’s statement regarding attacks on women during the May 25, 2005 protests, in Sexual Assault and Rape, 5. State enforcers punished women for challenging the proper order of the patriarchal state, and that punishment was implicitly acknowledged to be proper to the state (men who challenged the order were differently punished).Some men claim they were paid as part of shadowy baltagiyya gangs to assault women protesters under the Mubarak regime, and that they are similarly being paid and recruited since the revolution. Egypt, Sex, Mobs and Revolution, BBC documentary, December 7, 2012.

The main difference between the Mubarak-era attacks and the post-revolutionary attacks seems to be in the rhetoric of the attackers. In the midst of an assault, while tearing off a woman’s clothes and grabbing her body, a man will tell her “do not be afraid, I’m protecting you” or “you are like my sister.”Sexual Assault and Rape, 5. This phrase confuses the victim: She cannot distinguish actual anti-harassment activists with benevolent intentions from those perpetrating the attack. But it also blurs the boundaries of the patriarchal order. Since when is it openly permissible for a man to grope his sister? The clearly bounded familial and political identities of the patriarchal Egyptian state have been challenged by an unfinished revolution, but the present polity is a tense mix of democratization, factionalization and a security apparatus without remorse.

Before the Egyptian revolution, the enforcers of state authority represented the patriarchal state’s familial order. Anti-state demonstrators were outside that family boundary, and could therefore be appropriately targeted for their (sexual and political) provocation (according to the logic of patriarchal identities, women protesters had proved themselves whores). After the 2011 uprising, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ruled in the name of the revolution and the people. Elections were held and President Muhammad Mursi took formal power. The military withdrew from government, but the state security system (the Egyptian “deep state”) went unreformed. Targeted sexual attacks on women protesters continued, and increased in number, but their rhetoric changed: Now thugs assaulted their “sisters” even as they “protected” them. (The state-sponsored gangs do seem to “protect” women from men in the crowd who have apolitical agendas of sexual assault; several women survivors describe a small group of men attempting to extricate them from the mob, while agreeing among themselves that they will take her somewhere else to rape her individually.)Sexual Assault and Rape, 19-21, 24-26. The tension between the remnants of the patriarchal state order and the democratic claims of its citizens was impossible to reconcile, and difficult to admit within the chaos of competing factions. But it is clear who holds power. We are all democrats now, the thugs seem to be saying to their victims, we are all one family; but we are a family in which anything is permissible (for us), and you should be afraid.


Women and Men

One woman protester recounts that, on November 23, 2012, she was rescued by one of her attackers. Having come to Tahrir Square to protest the proposed new constitution, she was separated from her friends after the police started firing canisters of tear gas. Suddenly surrounded by a mob of strange men, her clothes were ripped off and she was groped and sexually assaulted as she was pushed naked into an alley off the square, then pushed past businesses that refused to open their doors, and toward a refuse dump. Desperate, she began to implore the attacker directly in front of her. Crying out that she was a mother, she told him he was “a brave and valiant man” that she chose as protector. And he responded. Suddenly turning around, he beat at the other men with his belt, screaming “I will protect her…I will protect her,” until she was able to crawl away and find refuge at the field hospital.Testimony of survivor, Sexual Assault and Rape, 24-26.

This woman introduces her testimony by emphasizing the familiarity of her story of assault and survival. What is exceptional is the sudden shift in patriarchal social values such that there can be a tenuous reestablishment of the patriarchal bargain. The woman entreats the man to recognize her as a mother (and not a whore); she asserts that she recognizes him as an honorable protector (and not a criminal). The man’s acceptance of the benevolent masculine version of gendered patriarchal identities transforms his relationship to the men around him; they become threats to his status and reliability as a patriarch, as well as to the woman’s security and wellbeing. A moment before, he was one of them, and she was outside the boundary of obligation. A moment after, and the men around are now themselves threats to the patriarchal order. In either case, there is no room for a relationship of equality. The woman escapes, but the possibilities for autonomy and citizenship, for women and for men, are as shredded as her clothes.


Democracy, Revolution and the Question of Patriarchy

So how is gender related to revolutions? If gender is the social construction of sexual difference, experienced through daily practices and conventions as well as institutional enforcement, then the relationship between gender and politics is fundamental. And it flows two ways: Neither gender nor politics is exclusive of the other, nor absolutely determinative. Gender saturates political relationships and the subjective identities of all political actors; collective political change shifts the possibilities for individual experience, including gendered expectations and realities. Particularly during periods of revolutionary upheaval, gender norms become unstable. If the state itself is under threat, so is the family order sponsored by that state, as was posited as far back as Aristotle. In describing the origin of the polis (the self-governed city-state), the Greek philosopher argued that the first human social relationships were based on reproduction and kinship. With regard to politics, however, “the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part.”Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Ch. II, paragraph 1253a, lines 19-20.

Patriarchy is not unique to Muslim-majority societies, and patriarchal authoritarian states do not exist only in the Middle East. Patriarchal social values can exist within democratic societies, but they will then inevitably come under pressure as the democratic project expands and deepens, not only in state policies but within citizens’ changing gendered subjectivities. Formal elections in themselves are not sufficient for democracy, when democracy is understood not only as a system of government, but also as a form of pluralist negotiation among citizens. To the extent that any group of citizens understand themselves as exclusively entitled to determine state policy for all, democracy is in question. Similarly, to the extent that the patriarchal social order is accepted as naturalized within the political framework, democracy and citizenship are incomplete.

Like revolution, democracy is a long project. And as too many historical examples show, its early local struggles are often bloody and their outcomes even hostile to the rights of many of its subjects/citizens. This might be expected, although it must not be condoned, and ought to be resisted. In many of its guises, patriarchal authority is a comforting presence, guaranteeing a sense of security for those within the familial bounds. But it is not democratic. While the long struggle for equal citizenship and political participation continues, everyone would do well to remember this.