In the two years since its inception, the Arab Spring remains an extraordinarily difficult phenomenon to define and assess. Its local, national, and regional consequences have been varied and contradictory, and many of them are not obviously or immediately heartening. These observations certainly apply to Syria: although growing numbers of the country’s military personnel are abandoning their posts, the Assad regime’s war with the Sunni insurgency still threatens to draw Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan into an intractable sectarian conflict. But they are, if anything, even more relevant to Egypt. There the overthrow of the Mubarak regime occurred with less brutality, all things considered, than we might have reasonably feared. But, the nature of the country’s social and political reconstruction nevertheless remains extremely uncertain, given the delicate balance of forces between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nour Party, and the country’s diverse liberal and activist camps.
The effects of Egypt’s revolution have been particularly ambiguous for the country’s women. To be sure, women have played a noteworthy role in the Tahrir Square protests in January and February 2011, and many local and foreign observers commented on the lack of intimidation and harassment they faced in the days leading to Mubarak’s fall. But as Wendell Steavenson details in the most recent New Yorker, the protests were by no means free of gendered violence, and the revolution has yet to create a more comfortable or equitable place for women in Egyptian public life.
Let me touch on one example from Steavenson’s article. Hend Badawi, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, was protesting against the interim military government in Tahrir Square in December 2011 when she was confronted by a group of soldiers. In the course of her arrest, the soldiers tore off Badawi’s headscarf, dragged her several hundred meters by the hair, cursed at her, struck her, and groped her breasts and behind. One of the soldiers also apparently told her that “if my sister went to Tahrir, I would shoot her” After being taken to a parliament building, Badawi was beaten again and interrogated for several hours before landing in a military hospital, where she was treated for severe lacerations on her feet, a broken wrist, and multiple broken fingers.
The next day, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, at that time Egypt’s effective ruler, paid a visit to the hospital for a photo op with a state-TV camera crew. Despite her injuries, Badawi confronted him: “We don’t want your visit!” she reportedly screamed. “We are not the ones who are thugs! You’ve beaten us and ruined us! Shame on you! Get out!” News of the tongue-lashing quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, and when Badawi was moved to a civilian hospital, she used a video camera smuggled in by friends to issue a lengthier statement about her ordeal. The resulting video went viral, and independent TV stations used it to challenge government claims that the Army had not used violence against civilians.
One might expect that Badawi would be honored for her courage and conviction, and I can only imagine that she is, at least among pro-democracy activists. But her family, which happened to sympathize with the Mubarak regime, was appalled. Badawi had gone to Tahrir Square without informing them, and they blamed her not only for the violent treatment she had received, but also for the damage they believed she had done to the family’s reputation. Badawi’s relatives locked her in her room; her elderly aunt yelled at her frequently; and her brother Ahmed hit her. Later, when Badawi’s family did not allow her to return to Tahrir for the first anniversary of the revolution, she basically reenacted the protests of the previous year—only this time on a more intimate scale. As she related to Steavenson, she launched a hunger strike to protest her treatment at her family’s hands and made placards that read, “Hend wants to topple the siege! Down with Ahmed!”
Badawi’s experience is particular and inevitably her own, but it nevertheless exemplifies the conundrums that many women face in contemporary Egypt. As the daughter of a pious rural family, she has benefitted from the increasing levels of affluence, education, and occupational opportunity that at least some young people, both women and men, have enjoyed over the past several decades. But she has also come face to face with the possibilities and the limits created by Egypt’s Islamic Revival, which has established new expectations for women’s comportment on the street and in other public institutions. (If many women in Cairo went bareheaded and wore skirts and blouses at the beginning of Mubarak’s reign, almost all now wear headscarves, and the niqab is not an uncommon sight.) Finally, Badawi’s life has been shaped not simply by her family’s notions of appropriate womanly behavior, but by a wider climate of pervasive sexual harassment. According to one 2008 survey, sixty percent of Egyptian men admit to having harassed a woman, and the country’s police and security forces either openly condone such treatment or engage in even more serious assaults themselves.
Badawi chafes at the “customs and traditions”—a common Arabic phrase, which she employs sardonically—that mold and circumscribe her life. And, like at least some other women, she regards Egypt’s recent upheaval as a potential opening, an “opportunity to mix my inner revolution with the revolution of my country". But it is significant, I think, that Badawi does not seek a “Western” form of women’s equality and emancipation. Although she appreciates “the space and freedom” that appear to be available to women on American TV shows, she nevertheless intends to pursue them “in the context of my religion”. At the same time, many of the reforms that she and other women’s advocates might champion are now thoroughly tainted by their association with the autocratic Mubarak regime. For example, many Egyptians dismiss recent amendments to the country’s “personal-status laws”—which allowed women to initiate no-fault divorces and enhanced their child-custody rights—as cosmetic changes that only aimed to improve the government’s international image. Many other citizens, meanwhile, view Mubarak’s 2010 effort to mandate a quota for female members of parliament as a patent violation of democratic procedure.
These developments offer no clear path forward for Badawi and other Egyptian women, whether or not they regard themselves as activists. But they also pose a distinct challenge to outside observers—like me—who sympathize with their efforts to transform Egyptian society. Ten years ago, the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod drew on the impending American invasion of Afghanistan to question the notion that the U.S. should “save” Muslim women from oppression. Instead of adopting a position of patronizing superiority, Abu-Lughod urged concerned Americans to ally themselves with local activists in the Middle East and to work with them on the issues that they deemed most important. In the context of the Arab Spring, however, even this advice appears to have its shortcomings. I worry that American (or wider “Western”) support for women like Hend Badawi, however well-meaning, will unintentionally undermine the very reforms that the activists themselves favor. I also suspect that a considerable number of Egyptians will resent even the most “enlightened” coalitions as yet another instance of anti-democratic meddling if not neo-colonial imposition. After all, the U.S. did much to keep Mubarak in power for thirty years. Why now should Americans, whether they are affiliated with the U.S. government or not, attempt to intervene even indirectly in Egypt’s transformation?
I certainly believe, from a political and scholarly perspective, that Americans should care a great deal about the consequences of the revolutions in Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern states. In the end, however, I wonder if the most advisable practical course may be to adopt an attitude of principled non-interference in those cases where mass violence is not imminent. In short, we should allow Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) room to work out the consequences and implications of the Arab Spring on their own, even if we are not entirely comfortable with the results.
Note: Lila Abu-Lughod’s argument, which I reference near the end of this post, appears in “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 783-790.
Dan Gettinger is a student at Bard College.
Lately I've been reflecting on my activity surrounding Occupy Wall St. Remembering the minutes before I was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, I wonder what I was thinking in those moments. The truth is that I was there largely by accident. I read about the Occupy movement and a friend of mine who had gone down encouraged me to go that weekend. One thing led to another and I was spending eight hours at One Police Plaza, NYC. What led me there? Why did the NYPD decide to arrest 749 people? Why are people pitted against each other in anger?
These questions flew through my mind in a nervous rush in those interminable minutes. As my friend in front of me got hauled away he told me to call his Mom. A girl next to me scribbled a phone number on my arm but, sadly, it was that of the National Lawyers Guild and not hers. I looked up to another Bard student who was safe on the pedestrian walkway and smiled. Chaos and distress and sadness were etched across the faces of those around me. As I came to the realization that I would be arrested I felt more at ease and relaxed. And alone.
All my life I've been for or against something. Growing up overseas I was for America; representing a homeland that I barely knew but swelled with pride over. In the past decade it has become starker. I despised Bush and loved Obama, protesting one and campaigning for the other. My generation is one of extremes and totalities. We grew up defined by the trespasses of the last President, and now we watch as our confidence in this one seeps away. With a crushingly uncertain future we grasp at hope, looking to fill this void with promises.
Why is this? How is that we are so empty that we must be filled with language that is distilled into slogans and ideologically transparent? Why do we allow ourselves to be categorized and set into camps against each other? I think it is because we are lonely. A generation of drifters set loose by the misdeeds of those who came before. Around us we see everything being commodified and isolated. We value the world in terms of totalities, the cold language of polls. Discussion becomes debate. Politics becomes personal. Language gives leeway to the violence of our time. Philip Cushman writes, “We are told by self psychology and object relations theory that the empty self is the natural configuration of human being... that the essence of psychological growth is consumption”. Ideas become values, a list of priorities rather than inquisitions. Instead of questioning the origin of a problem, we invest in the answer. The world becomes a sheet of cookie-cutter shapes and we, the unseeing eyes of selfish sentimentality.
Occupy Wall St. has exposed us as a generation of reactionaries. This era is one of immediate responses instigated by the ceaseless swirl of the cyber world. The Internet, modern telecommunications and globalization outline our existence. The information age confines our imagination, creating shapes in which we can mindlessly ease into. It conditions our thoughts. “The greatest poverty is not to live/ In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire/ Is too difficult to tell from despair,” says the poet Wallace Stevens. The compression of information and language forces immediate reactions, instinctual expressions of sentiment. Instead of taking the time to think, our feelings gush into the abyss that is the Internet. And lost. ‘Once more into the breach!’ shouts the exhausted soldier and student alike.
The power of online reaction in the cyber world has prompted the opposite in the physical. I see it in the ease in which students are called ‘apathetic’. Apathy is the absence of pathos, the detriment of passion. Students, the supposed vanguard for intellectual pursuit, are considered to be endowed with such an extreme indifference that we are devoid of concern, excitement or motivation. This word shows the extent to which isolation has infested our campuses and social activity. It reveals how difficult it has become to really engage with politics and to create community. When the ancient Greeks entered into the public realm of life they expected to enter into discussion with each other. We’ve seen the opposite occur. As a result of the outpouring of ourselves in the cyber world we withdraw from the physical, preferring to slide into a virtual abstraction of reality and of ourselves. Our passion is put towards filling that inner void and in doing so we exhaust ourselves in chasing our own superficial creations. We live in a TV democracy, secure in our insecurity.
Hannah Arendt writes that loneliness leads to complacency, an unwillingness to judge truthfully and think. We fill ourselves with the tenets of ideology and in doing so we build walls around each other. This isolation prevents communication. It destroys dialogue and leaves us more susceptible to the shallow language of ideologues.
I'm far from regretting my experience on the bridge. It brought so much that I was feeling to the fore and was an illustration of the frustrations of a generation. But I do not revel in that act nor do I celebrate the movement as the answer anymore. The minute that we begin to consider Occupy Wall St the answer to our problems is the time to stop and think. Here is the time to re-evaluate the reasons why it's happening and why we should support it. It's when we've commodified Occupy, making the movement more about ourselves than the problems it confronts. That's when our loneliness is exposed.
The greatness of Occupy Wall St is that it gives people the opportunity to think. The absence of demands or a structured hierarchy allows the true problems that plague this nation to come first. It begins to cleanse the mind of all these barricades we've erected around ourselves by providing a space to talk about issues like class and privilege that we haven't confronted in decades. We've come to the threshold where unless we get a hard punch to the gut we'll continue to resort to phrases and slogans, packaging up our thoughts into sound bites and deluding ourselves with the belief that this is thinking.
David Graeber writes that the word revolution does not, and cannot, mean “a single, cataclysmic break with past structures of oppression,” a storming of the Winter Palace or Bastille. It is rather exposing and de-legitimizing the origins of an oppressive system, striking down the pillar of injustice that fuels our plight. Some of those in Occupy Wall St may say that pillar is the bankers that control our democracy. I say the roots of these dark times are within us. They’re the fictitious frames, the keyholes and the kissing booths that we use to define our world. A society predicated on constant caffeinated consumption, seeking desperate deliverance in passing fashions, is a violent one. One that seduces our imagination, leaving it languishing in infomercials and Italian leather. We may not be the cause of this crisis, but our complacency leaves us complicit.
Do not expect the revolution to be televised nor even talked about immediately. Hannah Arendt says that true thought occurs in solitude, in those quiet moments of intense reflection. This follows from the Socratic notion that thinking in solitude is the “conversation one has with oneself,” a particularly active questioning and critical self-examination.
I would add that the validation of these thoughts occurs in dialogue with others, in the inter-personal connections that we form through experience. Thinking is the relentless investigation of an idea, it’s an exploration, but it’s also engaging with others in this way on a non-emotional level, allowing for a substantive discourse. To separate one self from an idea and be open to the thoughts of others is an extremely difficult process that requires patience and critical listening. But it’s here where we must begin. The lack of curiosity is the greatest symptom of being lonely and the surest way to complacency. Questioning and imagining are activities essential to our freedom.
The raids with batons and bulldozers continue to intrude on unstructured spaces across the nation. The future of Occupy Wall St is impossible to predict and the consequences even more difficult to anticipate. However, we may be certain that Liberty Square has reminded us of a far darker occupation that exists within each of us. An oppressive installment in our hearts that leaves us yearning and fighting for the illusive insoluble ‘I’. But, “sudden as a shaft of sunlight,” we are experiencing ways of thinking and acting that free us from the past and future, placing this movement in our moment.