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.