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Disembodying honour and exposing the politics behind it

The reaction to the public stripping of a Coptic grandmother in Upper Egypt reminds us of the power of popular campaigns to shame those who use embodied concepts of honour politically.

Soad Thabet

On the 20  May 2016, Soad Thabet, a Coptic Egyptian seventy year old grandmother was forcibly taken from her home by a mob of men, stripped entirely  of her clothes and paraded in her local village of Karam Abou Omair in Minya, Egypt

The act of stripping this Coptic woman in public was a chilling reminder of the act of stripping what infamously became known as the blue bra woman in Tahrir Square in December 2011. The drivers, dynamics and details of the two incidents are strikingly different, but they bear in common the elevation of these two women to iconic figures who, through their bodies laid bare, exposed the shame of the perpetrators and the powers which they represent.

Set El Banat, 'blue bra woman'. Image: facebook

Soad Thabet was stripped by a mob of Muslim men incited to avenge the alleged rumour of an affair between her son and an ex-wife of one of her assailants. The intention behind her stripping was to humiliate and denigrate not only her own family, but send a signal to the rest of the Coptic community of the power of the Muslim majority in the village to collectively punish and humiliate.

The blue bra woman was stripped by the army when the military police had embarked on an operation to clear Tahrir Square of the revolutionary protestors and their tents, and in the process many men and women were brutally attacked. The sexual violence that the blue bra woman, whose identity remains anonymous but who became dubbed by the revolutionaries as Set El Banat (in the vernacular, suggesting a woman in a league of her own) - was exposed to in the form of forced nudity in a national square was intended to terrorize women from participating in demonstrations. 

In both instances, the political motivation behind the assaults on Soad Thabet and The blue bra woman was beyond question. Soad Thabet had reported threats to the police the night before she was assaulted and had asked for protection in view of the growing warnings her family had received of their predicament if they do not leave the village. The fact that she and her family refused to flee made them a target of sectarian-motivated assault. The blue bra woman and the other women and men had stood their ground and refused to vacate Tahrir Square when grave warnings from the military were issued.

In both instances, the perpetrators enactment of “punishment” on women’s bodies were underpinned by the attempted appropriation of embodied concepts of honour and shame. In Upper Egyptian communities, as with other traditional societies, assaulting elderly women, in particular mothers (let alone exposing their bodies) is considered a source of deep shame not only for the survivor of assault, but for her entire family and in this case, all the Copts in the village. In the case of the blue bra woman, this young activist body was captured on video and publicized in both national and foreign media. It was supposed to be a signal on the shame that will face any family who allows their female members to defy the army.

Yet in both instances these women became national icons of resistance, though not explicitly under a feminist banner. Soad Thabet spoke out publicly and openly against police complicity and the mob assault, shaming the authorities who tried to deny her exposure to forced nudity. Copts and Muslims initiated a campaign that went viral and culminated in a parliamentary inquiry into the performance of the Ministry of Interior. At the very least, the attempts by Al Azhar, Egypt’s most prominent Islamic institution and highest authority, and local officials in Minya to press for an informal “reconciliation” which would effectively obfuscate the possibility of any recourse to justice via a fair trial have been blocked.

In the case of Set El Banat, the incident generated the largest women-led protests that the country had seen since roughly one hundred years earlier, in 1919 women Egyptian women organized and led street demonstrations against British colonialism.

Though in both instances of stripping in 2011 and 2013, the crises did not propel a process of security sector reform, in the case of Soad Thabet, it forced President al Sissi to publicly apologize to her “and to Egyptian women”.  In the case of Set El Banat Field Marshall Tantawy was also forced to issue an apology.

While views may differ on whether such apologies represent a victory or not, they had in effect displaced the social tendency to blame the accused. In the case of Soad Thabet, there were strong attempts to deny her exposure to forced nudity and an attempt to insinuate that this was a case of family feuds, even when shouts of driving the infidels out of the village were made while she was being stripped. In the case of the blue bra woman, military sympathsizers questioned whether a respectable woman shouldn’t have been wearing more layers of clothing under her abbaya  (a wide and broad cloak covering the full body]) and there was no condemnation of the incident from the Muslim Brotherhood.

But in both cases, there is a subtle politics of accountability going on. In the case of Soad Thabet, the uproar took on the slogan suggesting that every Egyptian had been stripped, as a sign of solidarity and empathy.  In the case of Set El Banat, though her identity remained anonymous, in the protests that followed, a main slogan was “Raise your head high, you are more honourable than those who trampled on you”. The accountability in question involves chipping at the normative values and norms that prop up perpetrators and allow them to get away with using women’s bodies as sites for breaking their opponents. It is no longer possible to rely on community notions of a woman’s body being the site of shame, when people collective organize and celebrate these women as heroines. By mobilizing large sections of a population to speak out against those responsible for these acts, it creates a moral accountability reversing the norms of shame and honour.

While sexual violence exists across a broad spectrum and has complex political, economic and social structural drivers in any society, these two incidents (Soad Thabet, Set El Banat) are important because they elicited a show of unity across a broad set of social and political actors (even if there is a silent majority). These junctures are important because they destabilize the entrenched social norms upon which political non-accountability thrives. They also propel their own processes of making constituencies speak out against violations. Shortly after the incident of Soad Thabet, more sectarian assaults on Copts followed, yet scrutiny of the security apparatus has become more open and hostile from the disaffected.

Yet while the blue bra woman received much attention in western feminist and human rights circles, Soad Thabet did not. Though accountability on political and social grievances are deeply intertwined, a western rights agenda that focuses narrowly on struggles around very specific political freedoms fails to capture the full array of ways in which people engage in accountability struggles. 

The details of the mass mobilization after the stripping of the blue bra woman and its relationship to broader justice struggles involving collective action can be found in the author’s new book, Resistance, Revolt and Gender Justice published by Syracuse University Press.

About the author

Mariz Tadros is a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University. She is the author of The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy redefined or confined?; Copts at the crossroads: the challenge of building an inclusive democracy in contemporary Egypt, and Resistance, Revolt and Gender Justice published by Syracuse University Press, 2016.


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