President Obama’s recent speech laying out his plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Syria (or in the Levant as he prefers to call it) hasn’t drawn that much rhetorical analysis. But some have noted its strong appeal to American exceptionalism.
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.