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The 'feminism' of patriarchy in Egypt

Images of women and the brutal violence against them, whether committed by the Army, Police, Muslim Brotherhood or thugs, are commodities that sell a certain shade of patriarchy to the people, says Zainab Magdy.

Zainab Magdy
5 December 2013

Women form human chains during "The women of Egypt are a red line" day. Credit: Al-Ahram

On Friday the 8th of November, Muslim Brotherhood members and Morsi supporters participated in a day they called "The Women of Egypt are a Red Line". The day was arranged as a statement denouncing the arrest of several young women who support Morsi, in which they demanded that his trial be stopped and that he resumes his position as president. The marches were many, around the country, raising stencils of women martyrs on yellow cloth. 

Two days later, a picture of Ms Awatef Salem Ali being comforted by Colonel Ahmed Mohammed Ali, the official spokesman for the Armed Forces, was available online. Ms. Ali is the woman who went to Morsi's trial to support the Army and Police carrying a picture of General El Sisi, who was slapped by a Morsi supporter outside the Police Academy where the trial took place. She was received by El Sisi and others for an official apology and was comforted by Army officials.

The two stories create quite appealing mental images. I'm sure if an alien dropped down from Jupiter, they'd think we are all really big on women here in Egypt.

That's what we would all love the alien to think of course.

Almost a year ago, a bearded man, Salafist as papers stated, put his hand over Shahinda Maklad's mouth, shutting her up. Maklad, an icon in political activism over the last decades, was supporting the sit-in at Itahedeya Palace when the MB members attacked the sit-in violently. The picture of the man with his hand on her mouth is said to have been taken when Maklad tried to open her mouth to object.

A man puts his hand over political icon Shahinda Maklad's mouth. Credit: Twitter

A little less than two years ago, a young woman was stripped down to her blue bra and dragged in Al Qasr Al Eini Street. She was wearing an abbaya, which was sweeping the asphalt beneath her as Army soldiers dragged her, beat her, jumped on her and kicked her in broad daylight after they cracked down on the sit-in by the Cabinet early in December 2011.

The alien might think, coming upon these incidents by chance, that they are accidents, one time happenings or merely a personal attitude from the offenders.

Last March, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) denounced and attacked the UN Declaration to End Violence against Women CSW. They stated that it went against Shari'a and gave women, God forbid, sexual, reproductive and legal rights, which would cause the Egyptian society's homogeneity to disintegrate.

In March 2011, the Army cracked down on the sit-in in Tahrir Square. They arrested 174 people, around 20 of whom were women. In custody, the Army performed "virginity tests" on these women, allegedly to make sure that these "women" would not later accuse the Army of raping them. Samira Ibrahim took the Army doctor to court. After denying that this happened, an Army general admitted to the tests having been performed on the women and said that they were necessary, because these women "were not like your daughters and mine".

Samira Ibrahim was detained along with 16 other women, and held by the army for four days. During that time she was beaten and forced to under go a 'virginity test'. She subsequently took the army to court. Credit: Youtube

Now the alien, looking back to these two positions, almost two years between them, would really start feeling sorry for Egypt, and not just Egyptian women. My grandmother tells me a saying she knows from her childhood: "We say back home 'stuck between a rock and a hard place', that's what Egypt is like now." That does sound like where Egypt is right now, stuck between these two entities; imagine that the whole nation is stuck between this and the other. Egyptian women, concluding from the above situations, are therefore in a state similar to the worms under the rock and the hard place in question. 

The struggle between the Army and Morsi supporters in the past months has been very telling about the way women are positioned in between them. During the crack down on the Rabaa sit-in, anti-Muslim Brotherhood media and Facebook groups posted and shared a picture of soldiers and officers taking elderly women by hand and helping them under clouds of tear gas and (of course we can't hear it) sounds of flying bullets. The argument was of course, that the Army and Police forces treat women with care and therefore are not violent with citizens. 

During one of the Muslim Brotherhood's marches against El Sisi in El-Mansoura, the women were placed at the head of the march. The march was attacked by thugs and three of these women were killed. Despite the fact that you can never really know the definite truth about anything in Egypt, there were testimonies from youth in the march who stated that they were warned and told to change the route of the march and yet refused and let the women lead it. The result of the loss of three souls was mourning, and the MB arguing that the Army has killed our women in cold blood.

Yet in the middle of all this, it would seem to our alien, if they were new to the notion of feminism, that though patriarchal, the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood have a feminist sensibility that comes out occasionally. They have demonstrated a concern for women to a certain degree, despite revealing patriarchal instincts.  

Patriarchy, with our rock and our hard place as examples, manipulates specific statistics to enforce its own agenda. This has been most clear in the struggle of the past months between the Army and the MB, where each side only showed images of its own supporters who had been killed. The number of those killed has been multiplied by both sides to show the ruthlessness of the one in opposition. Patriarchy has bargained repeatedly with its losses and sadly, the two have gained the amount of sympathy they called for.

If our alien however is well read in feminism, they would see the danger of patriarchy's use of its own interpretation of 'feminism' and 'women rights' to gain ground and popularity and ownership of what is 'right'. Just like the number of dead, these images of women and the brutal violence against them, whether by the Army, Police, MB or thugs, are commodities that sell a certain shade of patriarchy to the people.    

The different 'feminisms' of patriarchy all grow like a fatal fungus within a very specific framework: Islamic Sharia, Army protocol and the traditions of the society. Basing their argument on a ridiculous interpretation of Sharia law, the MB denounced the UN declaration on Women's Rights. They are protecting women from the West with its malicious intentions to ruin and colonize the area. The Army performs virginity tests to protect its daughters and the women of society from 'fallen women'. 

This commodification of women and the violence practiced against them is far more dangerous than the commodification of the numbers of the dead. Not because women are more important but rather because this has been practiced long before the other. Turning the dead into commodities has risen in popularity since the political game kicked Mubarak out and starting including other players. The numbers of the dead were at first remembered, memorized in the hearts of strangers and remained as reason to continue the struggle. Once it became a game between two, the numbers became just numbers.

Women have always been numbers to continually assert the importance of keeping patriarchy ahead in everything. No matter what the numbers are, or what they are telling, the numbers all point out to the supremacy of patriarchy.

Are we calling for a false sense of freedom that will only be given to us through patriarchy and we are trying to change the rules of the game? 

One of the campaigns against harassment displayed in stencils on walls around the city, was using slogans like "protect her instead of harassing her", "be a man and don't touch her", and "will you be a man or a harasser?" Despite believing that this tone of voice and this language could be the one to make an actual change in the attitude of the street towards women, we cannot disregard the fact that it is one that is based primarily on patriarchal beliefs.

Can we have a feminism that is not attached to patriarchy? One that does not stem out of patriarchy, or in response to it, but in spite of it.

Read more 50.50 articles published during 16 Days: activism against gender violence

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