North Africa, West Asia

The representation impasse: accounting for Egyptian women in the post-Morsi age

To move towards a more accurate account, it is imperative that we dissolve the binaries of tradition and modernity, relativism and universalism that these hegemonic narratives are contingent on, since they undermine the heterogeneity of the Egyptian woman and bind it to the political ploy du jour.

Rishita Apsani
6 August 2013

When recounting the grand midan Al-Tahrir narrative, nuance always gives way to stereotype. One need not look far to make this point: the status of women in post-revolutionary Egypt makes it sufficiently clear. Despite having played a strong and distinct role after the Mubarak and Morsi era, Egyptian women have indisputably been met with blatant and systemized violence. While the material manifestations of this phenomena—gang rapes, virginity tests, physical assault—are jarringly apparent, there is another subtle yet equally damaging violence at play: a discursive manipulation of the Egyptian woman’s agency.

I suggest that the voice of the Egyptian woman in its immense complexity and heterogeneity, has been usurped by the contending ideologies of the Egyptian Armed Forces, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the tensely poised west. It is significant that all sides are fighting important battles for power in post-Arab Spring Egypt, in which the “protection” of women serves as an important victory.

As such, each camp claims to offer a true account of her condition yet does not provide the appropriate institutional infrastructure to capture her insurgency in its right form. To make my point, I will draw upon various comments by the Muslim Brotherhood regime, the Egyptian Armed Forces, and the western media to analyze their representations of Arab society, and examine the impact of these narratives on the “voice” of the Egyptian woman. Against what I perceive as ahistorical and essentialist accounts, I embed recommendations for alternative modes of gender analysis that may help to docket the condition of the women’s movement. 

In first analyzing western accounts, the (in)famous Foreign Policy article by Egyptian correspondent Mona Eltahawy comes immediately to mind.(1) Writing in the context of a fledgling post-Mubarak Egypt, she pointedly asks, “Why do they hate us?”, only to conclude that, “They,” that is all Arab men, “can’t control themselves on the street.” To be clear, Eltahawy does not make these claims lightly, as her article was written precisely after she was sexually assaulted by the military in the midst of the Tahrir protests in November 2011. To bring further weight to her thesis, I was recently at a conference where a native Egyptian academic named Fidaa Shehada also painfully recounted the way in which groups of males would circle a female protestor, slowly isolate her from her friends, knife her clothes off, and proceed to assault her, all while imperturbedly chanting the call of the revolution.(2) If these were the conditions during the last ousting, the downfall of Mubarak brought similar circumstances to bear. The New York based non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch estimated that over 91 sexual assaults took place, with many more gone unreported. 

Sure enough, pieces similar to Eltahawy’s soon followed to showcase the tyranny faced by Egyptian women.(3) CNN’s Nina Burleigh, for example, pointed to the “planned theocracy that was keeping women powerless” and asked: “If one fervently believes women should stay inside their homes and out of the business of public life, what better way to accomplish that than rampant sexual harassment and sexual assault in a country in which women's virginity and honor is the sine qua non of female participation in society?”(4) 

When presented with these accounts, a picture surfaces in which women, completely deprived of subjectivity, are objects tyrannized by various racialized conceptions of domineering males and traditional society that withhold power from them. There are two related problems with this account: first, while there is no denying that misogyny is pervasive in Egypt - and indeed, the world entire - such a simplistic account rather overlooks the complex systems of oppression that problematizes the agency of the Egyptian woman. Instead, it reduces it to a form of vague Arab patriarchy. The banality of this claim can be paralleled with the equation of terrorism with Arab men or Islam: both accounts are not only essentialist, but pathologize a racial Other, a violent category that demonizes men and restricts women to docility. By invoking such imagery, we implicitly conceptualize power in a binary way—men withholding from women—that rather underestimates its dynamism.

In this sense, rather than focusing on how power is withheld from or oppresses women, it might be more fruitful to analyze how gender dynamics are constructed in relation to the various sociopolitical systems that have shaped Egypt over the past year and how those constructs have informed the power structures that play into the attitudes of both men and women. More concretely, we might analyze how shifting authoritarian regimes and severe economic crisis have instructed what it even means to be masculine and feminine in Egypt over time and what connections this has to the rape epidemic.

On a secondary note, the west’s account also tends to treat Egyptian women as ahistorical objects that are frozen in time. In contrast to the essentialist “culture of impunity” that was used to describe Egyptian society, the Egyptian women’s movement has been strategically carving out spaces for gender gains since the age of Nasser in Egypt. Scholars have noted the complexity of the relationship between the state and women over time, arguing that, despite constant political obstacles, it often changed variously with presidential offices and contrasting conceptions of state feminism.(5) This is not to suggest that the conditions of women in Egypt are ideal, but to emphasize that when seeking to establish healthy gender relations between men, women, and the state, we must replace the picture of a stationary victim with critical questions regarding what tactics have been most successful in delineating space for a women’s movement in the Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and Morsi eras. This can be important not only to capture dynamism that has shaped their condition in historical time, but to help us all strategize effectively moving forward. 

As a final and more general point of analysis, it should be noted that western pieces are written for a certain audience, for whom authors like Eltahawy mobilize rhetoric such as: “They [Arab men] don't hate us [Arab women] because of our freedoms, we have no freedoms because they hate us.”(6) This invocation of Bush-era pseudo-feminist doctrine speaks rather strongly to a neoconservative “clash of civilizations” between “Jihad” and the “McWorld”. Such notions of cultural essentialism and, indeed, civilizational regress justify imperialist missions to “save the Egyptian women” that do little to improve conditions on the ground.(7) As an Indian, this practice rather resembles the British abolishing widow immolation in India as a way to save women from the “pity of a system,” and congratulate themselves in establishing a “good” society.(8) Egyptian anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod similarly recounts the way in which tropes of oppressed Iraqi women were used to justify interventionist tendencies during the “war on terror.”(9)  It is not unfounded to relate these historical lessons to the contemporary Arab World and distance Egyptian women from the figure of, as postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak puts it, “[w]hite men saving brown women from brown men.”(10) 

If these disfigurements are apparent in the western accounts, I want to stress that the nativist discourses are equally problematic and should, at all costs, be addressed. This is not, in any sense, a banal invocation of the “cultural relativist” argument, but rather a criticism of how dominant ideologies disfigure the representation of powerful women. With this said, I turn to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Armed Forces. By now, the world is cognizant of the irony behind the Shaura “Human Rights” Councils’ comments on the continued sexual assaults of women in the Arab Spring. When confronted with the epidemic violence faced by women in the public sphere, they mobilized the tired cliché of “they are asking for it.” “[A]s long as women protest in places full of thugs,” the Human Rights Council claimed, “they should take responsibility for the harassment they face.”(11) Comments have also been made to suggest that such activism on the part of women “would lead to the complete disintegration of society”(12) Similar comments have been echoed by the Egyptian Armed Forces, albeit for different reasons. When faced with questions about the military’s virginity tests, General Abdul Al-Sisi, a leading player in Morsi’s oust, suggested that they were conducted “to protect the girls from rape and protect the officers from rape accusations”(13) In this way, the woman’s body is politicized as a tool to measure by which both sides measure the sanctity of the state and a misplaced sense of culture.

It is here that the profound paradox of both ideologies comes into play: if the western account articulated the trope of a woman oppressed by her culture, the nativist accounts counter with a promiscuous figure lost to western principles. While it is easy to falsely place this in a sense of religious rage or “culture of impunity,” I would rather argue that the Brotherhood and Egyptian Armed Forces’ comments are based largely on the political need to exert control over something among the social chaos of a post-Arab Spring Egypt. To the Muslim Brotherhood, it was rooted in a need to maintain a veneer of coherence to a “Freedom and Justice” party that was exposing the hypocrisy of its name day by day. This, when compounded by the proliferation of a new pan-Arabism, manifested itself as an inclination to protect women from the vagaries of “Western frivolity” by embedding them into an image of an Islamist Egypt that has since withered away. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood has only been replaced by the military, for whom it currently serves the political need of protecting the sanctity of the force that facilitated Morsi’s oust in a deeply divided Egypt.

In recognizing these paradoxical images, one is able to problematize the impasse that faces the Egyptian woman: poised among contending ideological battles over political power, the insurgency that she fights to create is undermined. Imbued in these conflicts, her voice—her subjectivity—rarely surfaces. She is instead shuffled back and forth between the contending representations, producing a displaced figuration of a “third-world woman” caught between tradition and modernity. To move towards a more accurate account, it is imperative that we dissolve the binaries of tradition and modernity, relativism and universalism that these hegemonic narratives are contingent on, since they only undermine the heterogeneity of the Egyptian woman and bind it to the political ploy du jour. With this analysis laid out, I should leave on the note that Egyptian woman are often held to be leaders of the Arab world. Perhaps, then, what we should be looking out for is a women’s (counter)modernity; and what we should be hoping for is the perspective to recognize it.


[1] Mona Eltahawy, “Why Do They Hate Us? The Real War on Women is in The Middle East, Foreign Policy (June 2012).

[2] Fidaa Shehada, “Silencing Women in Tahrir Square,” Paper presented at the Women’s Quests for Rights in the Middle East and North Arica Conference. Toronto, ON, April 6, 2013.

[3] Suhaib Salem,”Mob rapes in Tahrir Square worry rights groups,” CBC World News (July 2013).

[4] Nina Burleigh, “The Dark Side of Egypt’s Protests,” CNN (July 2013).

[5] Sika, Nadine and Yasmin Khodary, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? Egyptian Women within the Confines of Authoritarianism,” Journal of International Women’s Studies 13, no. 5. October 2012.

[6] Eltahawy, “Why do They Hate Us?”

[7] See: Samuel Huntington, “Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs (1993). See also: Benjamin Barber, “Jihad versus McWorld” 

[8]  Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture , ed. Carly Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 302.

[9] Abu-Lughod, Laila, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” American Anthropologist 104, no 3. September 2002.

[10] Ibid., 295.

[11] Virginie Nguyen, “Shura Council Committee Says Female Protesters Should Take Responsibility, If Harassed,” Egypt Independent (February 2013).

[12] Patrick Kingsley, “Muslim Brotherhood backlash against UN declaration on women’s rights,” The Guardian (March 2013).

[13] “Ambitious men in uniform,” The Economist (August 2013). 

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