One of the unmistakeable notes of euphoria during the 'Arab spring' uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia came from women proclaiming that they finally felt safe in public spaces in societies where the record of sexual harassment and violence against women ordinarily leaves much to be desired. The fusion of a mobilized citizenry - young and old, veiled and unveiled, male and female, Muslim and Christian - into a civic bloc demanding their rights will remain a compelling - if ephemeral - image of the events leading to the overthrow of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes. We have since been treated to a deluge of images, news items and commentary concerning public acts of violence against women without - so far - finding an adequate explanation for these phenomena, or having level-headed dialogues about their meaning and implications. Peeling off the various layers of determination behind violent episodes that have shocked their societies and sparked off protests appears to be an urgent and pertinent task.
Patriarchy-as-usual or a question of governance?
Putting episodes of post-Arab spring violence against women down to a routine manifestation of patriarchy and its allied misogyny in the societies concerned is simplistic and may unwittingly shield power-holders from more searching scrutiny. Without denying the existence of patriarchy and misogyny, I would like to suggest that several complex and pernicious dynamics appear to be at work simultaneously.
Let us consider the much publicized rape of a Tunisian woman on September 3rd 2012 by policemen who apprehended her and her fiancée in their car. They allegedly demanded money from the young man, handcuffed him, and took his partner to the back of the car where she was raped. This could have remained a tale of police brutality and impunity - which we witness in many parts of the world - had a court not upheld a charge of alleged indecency against the victim when she filed a complaint, a charge that could carry a six month prison term. This was followed by massive public outcry and furious protests, resulting in the dismissal of the case and a public apology by the Tunisian president.
Protest against rape in Tunisia. Photo: Demotix
Intimidating victims of sexual violence into dropping charges, especially if the perpetrators are powerful people and/or agents of the state, is quite a widespread practice. What arrests our attention in this particular case is that the intimidation came not through informal pressure, as is often the case, but from a judiciary that took upon itself the task of protecting the perpetrators by accusing the victim of a crime of dubious legal status - an infringement of decency. Had this unmarried couple been apprehended in the Islamic Republic of Iran or in Saudi Arabia where the so-called morality police is empowered by the state to intervene at will, they may well have been charged with zina (adultery) which carries severe penalties. This is clearly not the case in Tunisia. So questions remain as to what may have motivated the policemen in question. Were they enraged by the sight of a young man and woman possibly flirting in a car? Did they hold convictions that made this sight an abomination, something the public domain should be cleansed of (although no country features rape and extortion on its statute books as suitable punishments)? Or did they simply abuse their power and act opportunistically in the belief that they would get away with it? Was it some combination of the above? We may never know what toxic mix of motives animated their brutal actions.
However, we do know a great deal more about the fear and the fury unleashed by these events among a section of the Tunisian public; fear that this may be a sign that for all its pretensions to inclusive pluralism, the ruling Ennahda government may start policing “decency” and criminalize activities that many ordinary Tunisians may feel entitled to. And fury at the prospect that this may send signals to would-be enforcers of public morality that it is now open season for the harassment of women (and indeed of men) when they are considered to be in breach of “decency” or, in the case of women, when they are seen in the public domain, most particularly if they are unaccompanied or unveiled. This opens up the frightening prospect of a state that absolves itself of responsibility for the safety of its citizens unless they acquiesce to rules enforced by self-appointed arbiters of morality. The public revulsion felt in Egypt when female demonstrators were subjected to forced virginity tests whilst in police custody and harassed in other contexts echoes similar anxieties, the implication being that only young women of loose morals participate in demonstrations. In Egypt inconclusive court cases followed, which are now under appeal. It now remains to be seen whether the Tunisian offenders will be dealt with severely, or let off lightly in the end.
In cases where the breakdown of law and order is extensive, as in the aftermath of revolutionary upheavals or in post-conflict societies, a resurgence of unchecked criminal activity is not uncommon, and women are known to be at great peril. However, whether the so-called forces of law and order, enfeebled as they may be, remain passive onlookers or choose to act as predators themselves - as was the case with assaults against women demonstrators in Egypt - constitutes a profoundly political act aimed at intimidating activists, rather than just random acts of misogyny.
Needless to say abuses perpetrated by agents of the state hardly exhaust the continuum of violence against women, which includes a wide variety of offences alongside sexual violence, at the hands of related and unrelated individual men, family groups, gangs of youth or even other women. But what constitutes a significant departure from patriarchy-as-usual is the increasingly public nature of both the offenses, and the popular reactions to them. Women try to defend themselves, they speak up, they press charges, they form anti-harassment groups and some men join them, as we saw in Egypt, in the case of anti-abuse vigilantism.
Yet the “who speaks for whom” dilemma continues to stand in the way of an informed discussion of the sheer novelty of what we are witnessing.
Violence and silence: the "who speaks for whom" dilemma
A documentary shown on Channel 4 titled Sex, Mobs and Revolution spoke of a surge of violence against women in Egypt with perpetrators ranging from (presumably sex starved) young men treating harassment as a form of entertainment to paid mobsters (dating from the Mubarak era and allegedly continuing their nefarious activities) using abuse against women as a weapon of political intimidation. More noteworthy than the documentary itself were the reactions to it. Whilst some received it as a relatively well researched piece of journalism, others were outraged by the pretensions of a foreign reporter presuming to speak on behalf of Arab women. The defensive reaction elicited by the film was eloquently encapsulated in the words of Ala’a Shehabi who experienced the video clips she saw as a clear instance of patronizing, racist discourse: “One could assume” she stated “that Caucasian women have now successfully eliminated the problem of domestic violence, the sex trafficking industry and gender-based discrimination and these are now brown-only afflictions.”
The fact the presenter was probably of South Asian origin, that she spoke to Egyptian women who were quite vocal and that the film made some effort to move beyond the “sex-crazed Egyptian men” stereotype by delving into politically organized gender-based violence were not apparently enough to temper charges of racism. The message of Shehabi’s and many similar critiques appears to be that violence against women is universal, that there is nothing particularly noteworthy about post-revolutionary violence in the Arab world and that any suggestion to the contrary smacks of orientalism and racism. There is of course a feeling of déjà vu here, reminiscent of many previous debates leading to a similar cul-de-sac. When Mona Elthahawy, despite being Egyptian herself, wrote about misogyny in the Arab world, most commentators were so busy branding her as a neo-Orientalist who was pandering to the West that they mostly failed to pick up the obvious flaws - analytic and political - of some of the points she was putting across. Discrediting the source rather than engaging with the argument itself only serves to induce an unproductive silence that neither abused women themselves, nor they societies they live in, are apparently willing to tolerate.
Women protest in front of the Federal Palace, Cairo. Photo: Demotix
The complement to “patriarchy-as-usual” used to be a deafening silence concerning gender-based violence. Most abused women knew their assailants (and mainly still do so); they were battered by husbands, raped by relatives or co-villagers, made to marry their tormentors to hide their shame, killed by their families to cleanse their “honour” when they refused to do so, or were abandoned by their would be seducers…The list goes on and on and is subject to regional twists and variations (brides burnt by mothers-in-law in South Asia, lower caste women routinely raped by their overlords etc..). These patterns of violence, of course, gave the lie to the notion that the domestic domain was a safe haven for women. This hardly made a dent, however, in everyday discourses about gender-based violence (“if we could only keep them off the streets everything would be OK !” and its natural corollary “what was she doing on the streets”?). States on the whole upheld kin prerogatives over the control of their women (and most still do): honour crimes carrying lighter sentences and marrying one’s victim extenuating the crime of the rapist are relevant illustrations.
These patterns of violence are still massively prevalent. But amalgamating them with the wave of femicides in Mexico, the gang rape in New Delhi that created a public furore and the forms of attacks on women during and after the popular uprisings of the Arab spring does us a disservice. There are now women and men on the streets protesting, filming, blogging and organizing in groups. They know that this is not a “family affair” to be hushed up and brushed under the carpet but something that goes to the very heart of the polity they are fighting for. They want to be rid of the gangs used as auxiliaries to power, of the corrupt police forces that enjoy impunity, and (as was alleged in the case of India) of the abusers and rapists who enjoy immunity when they become politicians as well as the propagators of discourses that inculpate women victims when they dare to show their faces in the public sphere. The shame has turned into rage and the silence has been broken. We have to ask ourselves the question, why?
Patriarchy in action or patriarchy in crisis?
My observations in Turkey, where the issue of violence against women became the subject of heated public debates, initially alerted me to the possibility that we may be witnessing new phenomena. The murder rates of women had allegedly increased by 1,400 per cent between 2002 and 2009, and hardly a day went by without media reports of some fresh atrocity. Meanwhile, the outrage against domestic violence and honour crimes led to a new ritual consisting of groups of women acting as pall bearers for the coffins of victims of those crimes, even in the most conservative provinces, in total breach of Muslim funerary etiquette. Going behind the headlines of murder cases and other crimes of violence showed that female disobedience and insubordination acted as primary triggers - women murdered by husbands they wished to divorce or ex-husbands they had dared to divorce, rejected suitors, obstinate, wayward girls refusing to fall in line with their father’s wishes in the choice of marriage partners etc…
Women’s aspirations have never been higher in terms of educational attainment, professional achievement and civic participation and even families with modest means - just like the family of the young medical student who was gang raped in New Delhi - will make sacrifices to secure their upward mobility. The fact is that women are in the public sphere in many parts of the Arab world as elsewhere, and they are there in numbers. Apart from elite women who can shelter themselves from unruly public spaces by driving their own cars or employing chauffeurs, the bulk of middle-class and working class women, whether they are professionals or involved in menial labour, use public transport to get around, need to frequent markets and shops, go to clinics, collect their children from schools - and, yes, they also participate in protests and demonstrations. The world where a narrow urban elite could lead parallel lives while a large rural hinterland eked out its separate existence has gone and with it the type of patriarchy that it underwrote.
I contend that a new phenomenon I call masculinist restoration comes into play at the point when patriarchy-as-usual is no longer fully secure, and requires higher levels of coercion and the deployment of more varied ideological state apparatuses to ensure its reproduction. The recourse to violence (or the condoning of violence) points not to the routine functioning of patriarchy or the resurgence of traditionalism, but to its threatened demise at a point when notions of female subordination are no longer securely hegemonic. The process of Islamization can attempt to boost this hegemony, but,as we have seen in the case of Iran, this cannot ultimately stifle women’s demands for equality and dignity nor diminish their activism.
The fact is that the provisions that underwrite the positional superiority of men over women in Islam are, sociologically speaking, in tatters. The male provider image jars with the multitudes of unemployed male youth who are unable to provide for themselves, much less protect women from bread-winning roles and the rigours of exposure to public spaces. We are witnessing a profound crisis of masculinity leading to more violent and coercive assertions of male prerogatives where the abuse of women can become a blood sport - whether it takes place in the slums of Soweto, outside the factories of Ciudad Juarez, in the streets of Delhi or the alleyways of Cairo. Whether these acts of violence are presented as deviant criminal acts or sanctified under the banner of religio-political movements, states are inevitably implicated. We have every right, and indeed a duty, to turn our attention to the holders of political power and ask how, when and why they choose to become accessories to misogynistic atrocities and/or collude with individuals, groups or movements that perpetrate them. That is why people are on the streets. Their target is no longer just women and their bodies but the body politic itself.