Egyptian women: performing in the margin, revolting in the centre

"We are constantly aware of our gender and of being watched and judged because of it, so we end up "performing". But in taking to the streets there are no performative acts and there is no audience. Now I feel that there is no going back, After all, there is no text to follow, and no director. It is as it has always been: us and them", says Zainab Magdy

Zainab Magdy
23 January 2012

On the issue of removing her head scarf after wearing it for over five years, a close friend of mine was hesitant - and it was not on religious basis. It was rather over the issue of facing the different audiences she has: the conservative audience and the liberal one. It made me think of my audiences and whether I "perform" in a certain way to each one. In September 2011, Egyptian writer Ahmed Elesseily published an article in Al Tahrir newspaper called "Revolution of Girls", in which he said that the duty of Egyptian "girls" (including those in their twenties) in our society is to please her audiences who are constantly watching her. I caught myself again thinking whether I do that, and again, I thought of the performances that are required of us and the effort we put into perfecting our roles. This has nothing to do with my love of theatre, but we – Egyptian women – are always on stage.

We are not on stage because we are appreciated, no, on the contrary, we are on the podium because we are threat. All of us are a threat: those who conform and those who don't. In either part of the stage an Egyptian woman is standing on – conformist, non-conformist, or that shady part in the middle – she is always under the scrutiny of her audience.

Those of us who conform, for whatever reason, are always made aware of our audiences so as to keep us in check. Those of us who don't conform, on any level, are also conscious of this audience which does not accept us because we are challenging it all the time. This audience is a constant presence which shapes our behavior and attitudes - and of course our self image. We are always being made aware of our gender and of being watched and judged because of it, and so we end up "performing" accordingly in either of two ways: how this society wants to see us or how we force this society to see us.

Egyptian artist Bassem Yousri's wall installation "Parliament of the Revolution"

Egyptian artist Bassem Yousri's wall installation "Parliament of the Revolution". Image: Bassem Yousri. All Rights Reserved.

During the 18 days of the sit-in before toppling Mubarak, Tahrir Square felt like a gender bias free zone. Women felt safe in Tahrir, and were not constantly  afraid of being harassed. They joined young men in the sit-in, staying for days away from their homes, in a society which places curfews on fifty year old women and not on men. For eighteen days, Egyptian women were just "Egyptians". Even the violence of police forces against the protestors did not separate them from the masses as women. However, once Mubarak was ousted, and the collective wave of those who were revolting retreated to see how things would change, women became women again. Things were losing momentum and people were still under the illusion that we were being protected by the army. Yet, during all the important events of the past year, when the same collective wave of revolting moved again - this time against the dictatorship of SCAF - women became just "Egyptians" again. Once this tsunami of revolution swept the streets, there were no longer any audiences watching women in the periphery of these revolutionary waters. There was only a purpose: to fight, bear the losses in lives as best we might and keep on fighting.

We have always been in the margins. Except for now, except for the times when we are in the middle of a protest or in a sit-in, when we become centre page along with all the 'words' with no distinction between genders. In taking to the streets in such a manner, there are no "performative acts" and there is no audience. The role which the society takes as the ultimate supervisor of women has no place in the middle of a protesting mass. However, there is a wider  audience which exists outside of this and it grows like a cancer. This cancerous audience judges those protesting first collectively, and then judges them based on gender whenever specific cases of women make it into the media. 

Of all the women who were arrested on the 9th of March and subjected to these "virginity tests", it was only Samira Ibrahim who filed a lawsuit against army officials. At the time when Ibrahim's lawsuit was a popular issue among the revolutionaries, another young Egyptian woman made it into press: Aliaa ElMahdy. ElMahdy  posed naked and posted it on her blog as an act of free artistic expression. While the Egyptian national media virtually ignored Ibrahim's case and the outrageous act of army officials, they fed on ElMahdy's photograph, mentioning that she did not just pose naked, but was also a member of April 6 Movement - SCAF's chosen scapegoat. As a result of which, Samira Ibrahim's story, which would have turned more people against army rule, was ignored by the public. The conservative society which condemned ElMahdy, would also have been outraged at the virginity tests. The media's unequal coverage of the two women's stories ensured that patriarchal society would remain on the side of the dictatorship.

During the events of the Parliament last December, the army's ruthless behaviour towards girls and women was documented in hundreds of videos, images, testimonies and tweets that were circulating on the internet, but none of them made their way into the national media. The veiled woman who was jumped on and kicked by at least five military personnel and stripped to her bare torso showing her blue bra, was blamed not only for going out to protest, or out in the streets when she is a woman, but for wearing an abaya (a long  black dress-like garment worn by some veiled women) with snap fasteners and not wearing a top under the abaya. The story of Azza Hilal Sulieman, who was beaten an inch away from death for trying to help the Blue Bra girl, never made it to national media. The army's attack on women last December was a reaction to knowing how powerful women are in the streets. To get rid of this portion of protestors, the army humiliated women in ways that would break them as "women".  

Egyptian women were outraged, and on Tuesday the 20th of December 2011 they filled the streets -  not just in anger against the violence, but calling for the end of the brutal military rule. My friend Bassem Yousri, a visual artist who lives very close to Talaat Harb Square, heard the sound of the marchers before even seeing them. "I ran to the balcony to see and I couldn't see anything; the voice of the women was so loud, it shook "wust Elbalad" (downtown) and I couldn't even see them," he told me. Yousri went down and joined the hundreds of men, some of whom were holding hands and forming a cordon of humanity around the women: young men, boys and old men from different backgrounds, chanting with them and moving as one body.

Artwork on display in the exhibition

Artwork on display in the exhibition. Image: Bassem Yousri. All Rights Reserved.

Yousri's work on the Revolution is being shown now in Egypt as part of a group exhibition entitled Shift Delete 30 where none of the artists are women. Yet, as part of Yousri's wall installation entitled "Parliament of the Revolution", a life size illustration of ElMahdy stands wearing a blue bra and behind her a woman in niqab stands showing her hatred, silently and ominously speaking out for women who are suffocating. Yousri's work is a cynical portrayal of the elections and the political crisis of military rule in which the only female presence is one that is the sole object of vision to the patriarchal audience: the woman as a sexual object. Even within the frame of the revolution and under the pretence of freedom, the patriarchal audience watches women through the lens that keeps it in power. As long as women are viewed as such, then things haven't changed; the dynamics of the theatre are still there, the fourth wall is still there and there is no negotiation of the power structures.

Revolting has given space to those who are oppressed to fight, to liberate pressure and suppression, and in this space there was suddenly no reason to oppress those around oneself. Once a person has come to feel the force of that wave, the one that will push you to a shore where you are released, there is nothing in you that would make you put someone else in that position. When women went out on December 20th they were angry at what we were subjected to; but more importantly they were calling for an end of a dictatorship. Even when the attack on the revolution becomes gendered, the revolutionary collective remains as it is: unbiased.

But when revolting is over, do we go back to performing in the margins, trying to shift our positions for a breath? Where do we go in those intervals when the majority of the nation prefers to live in the comfort of the lie that is SCAF's honesty? Now that we've taken a break from the performative act, I feel that there is no going back. There is fluidity in defining the performer and those watching. There is also an awareness of the difference between both states so that the performer becomes aware of the politics of such a performance and so becomes more powerful. After all, there is no text to follow, and no director; it is as it has always been: us and them.  And we are in a position to create change; we are the providers, they are just sitting there as receivers of the effects of a tradition that has kept them from their own humanity.




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