Sherine Hafez, The Women of the Midan: Untold Stories of Egypt’s Revolutionaries (Indiana University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sherine Hafez (SH): Writing this book was a privilege that I cannot overemphasize. There was never a doubt in my mind that this book had to be written. To me, it was imperative that the stories of these revolutionary women who occupied the Midan and front-lined a revolution had to be told. Recognizing the importance of this moment of history in Egypt and the Arab region, and the centrality of women’s roles in these events, had to be commemorated somehow—not to mention, problematized—from within the body of scholarship that we call gender studies in the Middle East.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SH: The book is based on women’s narratives of the revolution that began on 25 January 2011. It brings to light the experiences of women whose marginal social and educational status do not normally grant them access to the printed word or to public media. The ordinary women who left the comfort of their homes, their factory stations, or their rural villages to face the barrels of army guns and tanks. They were driven by various motivations and a myriad of revolutionary desires. Hoping to bring a better life for their families, to incite political change, to fulfill their feminist aspirations, or simply to see justice and equality for all—their hopes and their dreams fill the pages of this book. The stories they tell about their days in protest and resistance, their thoughts as they ventured into an unknown situation to join the mass protests, and the rich tapestry of their experiences are woven together in this book. It illustrates the tenacity and diversity of these women in the face of repression. Their testimonies bear witness to the drama of revolution as it unfolds. They counter ingrained constructs regarding gender, women, and sociopolitical action in the Arab region.
Theoretically, The Women of the Midan foregrounds the gendered body as the point of intersection of sociopolitical, cultural, and historical investment. Scholarship on the Middle East and North Africa has tended to study the gendered body in relation to specific topics, for example: women’s dress and veiling practices; oppressive sexuality norms and rituals (often in relation to Islam); female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); and reproduction and family planning. Few, if any studies have considered the body within contexts of protest and revolution in relation to the wider sociopolitical structures of power that discursively engage the corporeal form. With this in mind, the study aims at understanding gendered corporeality in the Middle Eastern and North African contexts by examining the relationship between governmentality and neoliberal transformations in Egypt, and the emerging forms of violence, dissent, and gendered identities in the region. Specifically, this book asks the following questions: What are the practices and processes through which the gendered body in the Middle East and North Africa is constituted, experienced, regulated, and represented? How do bodies intervene within these spaces of regulation? And how can we begin to articulate an analysis of the contours of corporeality in the region?
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SH: My previous work focused on the relationship between gender and religion in the Islamic context. I studied women’s Islamic activism in Egypt, looking specifically at the concept of subjectivity. This was also an ethnographically based work, but one that developed an epistemological critique of the binary assumptions implicit in the way we understand Muslim subjects.
However, I am not focused on religion this time; I am more interested in the full range of women’s affiliations in Tahrir square or the “Midan.” Instead of unpacking subjectivity, I was moved by women’s corporeal presence in public spaces and the impact of their intervention on the political and social context.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SH: Most important to me is that the women of the midan read the book and catch a glimpse of themselves and their experiences in the pages between its covers. To me, that would be the ultimate satisfaction after having spent five years getting to know so many of them. I also would hope that young girls, students, and scholars might read it, as it is a collection of rememories (or embodied memories) that will hopefully be evoked again and again in the quest for freedom and social justice.
If I can dare to think of an impact, I would hope that the book offers a gender inclusive lens to an important historical transformation in the region; that it helps us to understand gender and politics in a more nuanced way; that Arab women’s bodies can be seen beyond the usual scenarios of sexualized and victimized narratives; and that young women everywhere believe in their power to change their worlds.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SH: I am once again refocusing on women’s engagement with Islam, this time in Los Angeles, in order to develop a genealogical study of gendered Muslim difference across generations.
J: What was your experience writing this book like?
SH: An emotional roller coaster. As an Egyptian woman myself, I had my own frustrated political dreams; the beginning of the revolution brought me an elation and a giddy feeling of hope. I began writing, however, after the presidency of Morsi ended and the elections of the current president began. Seeing how things quickly unraveled in Egypt after that had a huge impact on my writing. Every word I typed on my computer conjured up the voices of the women in my head, the thoughts they shared, their laughter and optimism, but also their trauma and painful losses. Just going through my notes was enough to make my eyes well up with tears. It was the most painful experience I have had during this project. My only consolation is their reception of the book and it is my hope that, at least, it can give them some semblance of hope.
Excerpt from the book
Telling the Stories of Revolutionary Women
“Ana mish nashita, ana thawragiyya,” I am not an activist, I am a revolutionary began Nevine. Like many others who took to the streets to protest the erosion of their rights indeed, she represents revolution in all of its glory. Since the first uprising in midan al tahrir, on January 25th 2011 women like Nevine have radically changed the political landscape of Egypt. They are at the center of this book that attempts to redress an androcentric imbalance in the accounts of revolution. It is not a book however, about setting the record straight—rather the pages that follow are tasked with examining how politics and gender are fluidly intertwined to the extent that they shape one another. At the core of this mutually creative process is the dissenting body. The protesting body is embodied in women’s narratives of the uprisings, in the social and political discourses that circulated during and after the protests and in the often brutal encounters with those invested in maintaining the status quo. Women’s bodies are central to the processes of citizenship-making post the so-called, “Arab Spring.” In Egypt, these processes that delimit women’s political participation are continuously being reconstituted through vociferous corporeal processes in the wake of a revolution, post an Islamic-styled state—under a current militaristic regime. As women’s bodies protest on the streets of Arab nations demanding democracy and social justice, they negotiate a variety of sociopolitical factors that both repress and discipline their bodies on one hand and become sites of resistance on the other. State control, Islamism, neoliberal market changes, the military establishment and sociocultural patriarchal systems act as intersectional forces that demarcate the boundaries of corporeal dissent while women’s resistance to them simultaneously forges new paths of sociopolitical transformation.
Foregrounding the gendered body as the point of intersection of sociopolitical, cultural and historical investment is central to illuminating how it is at once produced while also acting as an agent in the construction of discourse. Scholarship on the Middle East and North Africa has tended to study the gendered body in relation to specific topics for example; women’s dress and veiling practices; oppressive sexuality norms and rituals (often in relation to Islam); female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and reproduction and family planning. Few, if any, studies have considered the body within contexts of protest and revolution in relation to the wider sociopolitical structures of power that discursively engage the corporeal form.
In this account of women’s role in the Egyptian revolution, I am interested in fleshing out—so to speak—the conditions within which the gendered body comes to be a signifying agent of collective action and of transformation; how it can be (re)constituted in revolutionary narrative and in the (re)articulation of revolutionary desire and civil disobedience. This study aims at understanding gendered corporeality in the Middle Eastern and North African context by examining the relationship between governmentality and neoliberal transformations in Egypt and the emerging forms of violence, dissent and gendered identities in the region. Specifically, this books asks the following questions: What are the practices and processes through which the gendered body in the Middle East and North Africa is constituted, experienced, regulated and represented? How do bodies intervene within these spaces of regulation? And, how can we begin to articulate an analysis of the contours of corporeality in the region?
By compiling Egyptian women’s accounts of the events of January 25th and beyond, my aim is to reconstruct their embodied revolutionary actions. Women’s narratives link corporeal practices to recollected knowledge where bodies become (re) imbued with revolution through narration. To refer to the potency of memory as a heightened form of remembering and as repeated experience, I use the term “rememory” from Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). In her epic saga about the history of American slavery Morrison’s “rememory” illustrates how women experiencing the scars of trauma and slavery come to engage with their repressed memories. Her characters exhume their painful memories against an impulse to move on and forget, against a spiral of refusal and acceptance. These rememories become a powerful tool for them to restore their identities, histories and sense of community. In some ways, the revolutionary women interviewed here also continue through rememory to engage with their struggle to reconcile their revolutionary experiences with a difficult present and an unknown future. Acts of remembering can be visceral, since the body is the locus of memory. I use “rememory” in this work more as an ongoing process than a sporadic act of recollection, to emphasize the inseparability of the links between the corporeal and material with the narrative and discursive. Rememory and the body are inseparable in reconceiving the transformative potential of revolutionary historiography. This is because as-I-see-it, the process of writing on the body—of intextuating it with rebellion often takes place in the narratives of revolutionary women. By linking corporeal practices to recollected knowledge, Paul Connerton views this process as one that shapes subjectivities and identities through shared social memory. Societies remember through memory of action and how it reconstitutes the body, he asserts (1989). The rememories of protest collected in this volume are where bodies and narratives both take shape and where, I believe, lies their potential to reactivate revolutionary bodies.
“Ana mish nashita, ana thawragiyya,” I am not an activist, I am a revolutionary, is a rememory of resistance and transformation. Nevine had never participated in furthering a political or social cause before 2011, never been to a protest nor carried a sign in a demonstration. Yet, on January 25th of that year, Nevine describes how she pushed with her body through the throngs of people attempting to cross Qasr El Nil bridge into Tahrir square. Nevine who drives her car everywhere, even a few blocks down the street, marched for hours that day. She recalled how she raised her voice with the crowd pushing her vocal cords beyond their limit to call for the regime to fall until her voice got so hoarse she could not speak for days. How she held her clenched fist high above her head, her face flushed and suffused with revolutionary fervor. And, weeks later how her hands wrapped themselves around the neck of Molotov cocktail bottles as she willed her arm to cast a wide circle in the air before it jettisoned the burning liquid as far as it could go in the direction of armed security forces. As she retold her story, her forehead creased against the effort to forget, still her words spilled out describing the popping sounds of bullets as they rained on the protestors and the muffled thud of bodies as they fell screaming in agony and the loss of life and limb that invariably followed. Nevine continued speaking against an impulse to silence the intensity of her emotions, to forget the fear and violence of the days and months of protest, embodying her material experiences as a revolutionary. Because bodies are mediums of transmitted knowledge, they archive information, convey meaning, they perform memory and become catalysts of social transformation. These embodied experiences are a rememory—one that she thoroughly inhabits as she told her story.
Central to the process of (re)remembering the uprisings that began in the Arab world from 2011 to this day is the gendered revolutionary body. It pivots at the heart of the multi layered, rapidly changing patriarchal power of a neoliberalizing system of an increasingly necropolitical state. Relying on first-hand accounts of the revolutionary women who protested in midan al tahrir and elsewhere in Egypt, the book delves into the socio-cultural dynamics behind the inclusion/dis-inclusion of women in the political sphere to question the role of gender politics in a revolutionary context in an Arab country like Egypt. It seeks to illuminate how marked and gendered bodies intervene within exclusive spaces to reassemble the complex weave of public space, state and government control, masculine politics, religious ideology and cultural and social norms. These forces in turn constitute the body, shaping individuals, their sense of self, their subjectivities and their political dispositions. Through the act of rememory, women revolutionaries reconstitute themselves. They intextuate their bodies with recollections of repressed violence, pain, and intimidation, but also with the memories of place, community, belonging and strength. This work captures the mutually productive, fluid processes that characterize the body, the forces that act upon it, the inseparability of rememory and the body in narratives of protest to understand how gendered human subjectivity is shaped in a revolutionary context. It sheds light on women’s relationship to the state in the Arab world today and how practices of citizenship evolve in the region.
Recentering the Gender Narrative
Neither the members of the “April 6th movement” nor those who belonged to the group, “We Are All Khalid Said” could have imagined that their protest on National Police Day on January 25th 2011, was to usher in an all-out uprising. At 28-years-old, Khaled Said was brutally beaten to death by two policemen. Pictures of Khaled’s disfigured face went viral acting as a catalyst for the protests against the police. The activists had hoped that people would join their neighbors and go out to protest around major cities. At best, they imagined that small protests could somehow converge into main squares like Tahrir. The organizers, who used Facebook to mobilize did not anticipate that tens of thousands would pour into the streets to answer their call for a “day of rage.” Cairo was not the only site of revolt. People rose up in protest in other cities all over Egypt, Alexandria; Beni Suef; Mahalla; Port Said and Suez as well as Mansura. By the end of that cold winter day on Tuesday, it became apparent that no one was budging—the protestors were in it for the long haul. In Cairo, makeshift tents and the beginnings of plans to make Tahrir square more sustainable as a site for prolonged protest, began to take shape. By the 28th of January the contours of a camp site began to appear and more and more people joined the throngs. Undercover police and hired thugs tasked with harassing and inciting violence and fear infiltrated the lines. The turning point came on the 2nd of February when an unimaginable scene unfolded as if from a tale from “A Thousand and One Nights.” Men on camel back, armed with swords and machetes came flying into the mass of people in Tahrir, brandishing their weapons, bent on creating mayhem. The protestors who lived these events and the ones who watched them across television broadcasts from their homes saw the end of the Mubarak regime unravel. The “Battle of the Camel” —named as such because armed thugs on camel back entered the square and began attacking the protestors—was considered a pivotal day in the history of the uprising. Finally, only a few days later on February 11th, Mubarak stepped down, thus marking the beginning and not the end of the uprising.
Among the thousands whose experiences of these pivotal days were noted and recorded, women were afforded only marginal attention despite their equal participation in the streets and squares. As an example, in an extensive bibliographic list published by the Project on Middle East Political Science (2015) only 16 articles were found to refer to gender in their titles and 26 referred to women with a total of 42 entries out of 888 articles, amounting to only a fraction, 0.2114%. I take this one example as a relative indicator of the dearth in scholarly articles that deal with women and gender-related issues and the marginal importance afforded them in the literature on the Arab uprisings. While singling out women has its own ramifications, the epistemic privileging of masculine politics results in an incomplete and skewed interpretation of events.
Feminists have long since challenged the androcentric bias of knowledge production (Anderson 2004, Fricker 2009, Haraway 1988, Harding 1996, Hooks 1994 Moraga & Anzaldua 1983) yet local and global discourses unfailingly frame women’s sociopolitical backgrounds in ways that rationalize systems of dominance. In conventional representations of Middle Eastern women, this androcentric logic continues to be exacerbated by a history of colonialism, oil war agendas and the neoliberal capitalism of World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s development imperatives. Persistent images of women from the developing regions of the world as monolithic, disempowered, victimized by culture and religion, still have currency today. Aside from a few notable exceptions (Abu Lughod 2013, Al Ali & Pratt 2009) feminist analysis that take into account Euro American military interventions in the Middle East and how neoliberal forces sustain a rhetoric that rationalizes specific social and economic transformations—are sorely needed. Examining issues of subjectivity and subject formation that are embedded within meta narratives of modernity, postcoloniality, nationalism and now, neoliberal economic shifts, are essential for a feminist trajectory that seeks to grapple not only with contexts and histories but also with the fluid issues of power and the impressions these leave on the subjectivities of gendered bodies. By taking the processes that shape human subjectivity and desire into consideration, the literature can be at once focused on context, cultural relativity and knowledge production as well as the formation of selves and persons whose desires and motivations lie at the nexus of these larger discourses of modern history. Chandra Mohanty (2003) tasks the scholar of gender in postcolonialist and Muslim majority countries in particular with the difficult job of undoing the dichotomous positioning of Muslim women vis-à-vis western women, of contextualizing the struggle of women everywhere but particularly in the global south, and eliding the specificity of these women to debunk homogenizing efforts that seek to lump all women of the developing world into one large, oppressed collective.
To tell women’s stories it is necessary to address these discursive tropes in knowledge production about “the other” woman (here understood as the Third World, Arab, Middle Eastern woman). Revolutionary women’s rememories produce a counter narrative to the dominant universalizing and androcentric coverage of western media and local official discourses about the revolution, its participants and its spectators. However, narrating these accounts of ordinary yet extraordinary women’s lives cannot be a task of direct translation nor does it purport to be more than reconstructive, imaginative and incomplete. After all, rememorying is necessarily dependent on one’s imaginative powers and ability to resurrect embodied past events. Nevertheless, in narrating these accounts I am attentive to how discourse reproduces power and power relations, that knowledge production is not arbitrary and that documenting lived experience is a praxis that is necessarily both ethical as well as grounded in a critique of knowledge. This research agenda, I believe is closely intertwined with what the ethnographic process in this contemporary, global and neoliberal world must contend with—an awareness that field research is ultimately intertwined with power dynamics embedded in issues of cultural representation. To begin examining these issues the next section will analyze the framing of the Arab uprisings from within a western media lens that shapes events and complex realities according to the grand narratives governing global conceptions of center and periphery. What news and events find their way into the international media and why? Who gets to be the players, the heroes and the villains? And how are women’s voices heard and silenced?