Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
13Nov/120

The Aftermath of the Arab Spring: Women, Activism, and Non-Interference

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.

-Jeff Jurgens

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.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
30Oct/121

The Burqa and the Political Realm

“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”

-Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition

Over the past decade, European public opinion has roiled with controversy over the full face covering – the niqab or burqa - of Muslim women. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, conducted between April 7th and May 8th 2010, the majority of citizens in France, Germany, Britain, and Spain approve of banning veils that cover the whole face. Subsequently, France and Belgium have implemented national laws that ban the full veil in public places.

Municipal bans are sprinkled across Europe as a whole. Is there an Arendtian angle on the discomfiture that one finds in Europe over the niqab and the burqa (hereafter N/B), a properly political angle that avoids pathologizing the response as simply Islamophobic or xenophobic?

Arendt claimed that the word public evokes two “interrelated phenomena”. First:

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life – the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses – lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance…The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves…

The second referent of public is “the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.”

Arendt captures an idea prominent in Western traditions: the notion, both intuitive and articulated, that being visible to one another is an integral part of politics. This expectation is registered in theories of judgment (consider the role played by the “spectator” in Adam Smith and Kant’s theories of judgment) and in some of our most potent democratic metaphors: enlightenment, openness, transparency, illumination, recognition, social legibility, accountability, “publicity” and, not least, public. Liberals trumpet the virtue of the Open Society and liberalized Marxists idealize the translucent speech-situation. Socialists and radicals extol debunking, the heir of Rousseau’s crusade to remove the “deceitful veil of politeness” which conceals “fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud”. Negating these images are opacity, the Dark Ages, the dark arts, dark times, heart of darkness, artifice, living in the closet, a shadowy realm, cave-like illusion,  Stygian gloom, moral blindness, the id, concealment, inscrutability, subterfuge, murkiness, obscurantism, and backroom deals - notions which variously imply various states of ignorance, menace and deceit. True, prominent French intellectuals of the last century sought to demote vision’s status in the pantheon of sensibility, while conservatives still remain attached to the “decent drapery of life” (Burke). Yet these perspectives have done little to impede the centrality of seeing within the Western, Apollonian political aesthetic.

This formulation suggests what is discordant about the N/B’s existence in the Western political space. While for its bearer the N/B may be understood as a badge of tradition and piety, from the standpoint of a constitutional pluralist citizenry it is a mode of concealment incompatible with public recognition in which visibility of face is central. The N/B denudes facial and, to a degree, vocal recognition. It standardizes human features and hence contributes to the very stereotyping that N/B wearers themselves deplore.  Faces and voices are all different, evidence of human plurality. The N/B literally effaces these variations, with the partial exception of the eyes that may sometimes be seen. The N/B also symbolically ruptures the bond of citizenship reciprocity because while its wearer can see her real or potential interlocutor, can take advantage of the visibility of others, non-wearers are denied such access.

Consider two objections to this line of reasoning.

Users of the Internet are often obscured from view and no one assumes that their being invisible is uncitizenly.  Indeed, under some definitions of politics, the internet might be considered the quintessentially modern medium of political life: informing the public of political events, orchestrating voting, requesting or inciting people to participate in demonstrations, directing attention to abuses of rule, mobilizing citizens for collective action.  Search engines like Google ever more assume traditional government functions. Its engineers claim that the company’s predictions of flu epidemics and employment trends are already more accurate than those of the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even so, in Western societies the Internet is an ancillary to public display not a substitute for it, a tool to expand communication, rather than an obstacle to constrict it. Computer webcams are employed between interactants and in web chat rooms; interviews of foreign job applicants conducted via Skype grow daily in popularity. And it is no coincidence that the world’s most prominent social networking site is called Facebook. Moreover, where Internet use takes place without face recognition (as with email or instant messaging) it typically does so reciprocally: both users are in the same position and hence issues of visibility imbalance and citizen asymmetry do not arise.

A second objection to the claim that N/B attire in public places is uncitizenly turns the tables on the author: it draws on the Graeco-Roman tradition itself, the origins of Western notions of citizenship. In that tradition, being a public person was considered a kind of theatricality in which an agent adopts a persona, a mask. But the comparison between the N/B and the persona is superficial and not only because one mask is made of cloth while another is a metaphor. In antiquity, the function of persona was not to conceal public visibility but precisely to do the opposite: to shine the light of the ­polis on the political actor, to dramatize the fact that the individual had entered the public stage and that, as such, had left the private world of intimacy so as to consort freely with his peers and deliberate on political affairs. The political persona was, then, an addition to, or rather a rupture with, private life, not a replication or extension of it, a vehicle of distinction, not a mantle contrived to expunge from public view the unique personality of the woman beneath its folds. Politics, in Western traditions, entails a split within the being that engages in it, the construction of a second self: as an equal of others who are familial strangers bound together by the common tie of citizenship; a self able to cooperate with these strangers, to “see” things from multiple points of view and be seen seeing.

The N/B, however, is not a fictive mask designed to open up its wearer to the public recognition of peers acting in concert or in conflict; it is a carapace projected into the public space, a material mask that signals exclusivity, an emblem of segmental occlusion, of what Durkheim, discussing the primacy of resemblance in tribal societies, called the politico-familial.

Nor is the N/B artificial or dualistic. On the contrary, it signifies Sharia’s total claim on the individual in all her activities, the type of claim that the public-private distinction expressly repudiates. It transpires that the classical concept of the mask and the N/B have nothing substantively in common.

These brief reflections, prompted by my reading of Arendt, are not a rationale for banning the full veil but they do allow us to think of the European response to it in a political way. Readers who are interested in the more extensive argument that Dan Gordon (UMass Amherst) and I have developed on this topic, contrasting American and European legal regimes, may wish to read our “On the Edge of Solidarity: The Burqa and Public Life,” and “From the headscarf to the burqa: the role of social theorists in shaping laws against the veil,” Economy and Society 2012 (forthcoming).

-Peter Baehr, Lingnan University Hong Kong

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.