Asmaa Mahfouz, the Military, and Misogyny

March 1, 2011 Uncategorized

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Wael Ghonim has attracted much attention as symbol and spokesperson for Egypt’s revolutionary youth.  The administrator of the ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ Facebook page, who was kidnapped by Egyptian state security, galvanized the revolutionary movement with his tears for the revolution’s martyrs.  Ghonim refused the label of ‘hero,’ but without the language of heroism, it is hard to find a just way to describe his contribution to, and sacrifice for, the revolution.
Yet, in their capacity to galvanize, the tears in Ghonim’s glossy Dream TV interview are rivaled by the words of a young woman, uttered in grainy YouTube videos, one of which has earned the tag ‘the v-log that helped spark the revolution.’  Asmaa Mahfouz speaks about the imperative of human dignity that motivated her own revolt against the regime with a passion that is hard to describe.  Suffice it to say that the label of her YouTube channel and blog, ‘wolfinside1985,’ is wholly appropriate.
That Asmaa and her calls for revolution have received relatively less media attention than a figure like Ghonim only intensifies one of the greatest fears I have about the revolution and its progress thus far.  Despite the extraordinary role women from all walks of life and social strata played in the encampment at Tahrir and Egypt as a whole, the revolutionaries must guard against the danger that Egyptian women will experience the marginalization and disenfranchisement that have prevailed in the aftermath of past revolutionary moments.
Indeed, in the wake of the 1919 Revolution against British occupation, during which women were ubiquitous in both organizing the protests and participating therein, the ‘liberal’ regime would not permit Egyptian women either to vote or to hold office.  They were labeled ‘irrational’ and ‘apolitical,’ and such labels were used to justify the political marginalization of women.
Perhaps the aftermath of the 1952 Revolution is the more apt parallel for my purposes here, given the central role of the military then and now.  Nasser’s regime is frequently credited with measures intended to secure equality before the law, as well as unprecedented educational opportunities for women.  But there were limits to this purported ‘equality.’  Emblematic of these limits was the way in which the suffrage was extended to women: Although men were required by law to register to vote, there was no parallel requirement for women, resulting in an enormous disparity in voting numbers for men and women respectively.
Without doubt, the theoretical question of whether a military regime is inherently misogynist merits discussion.  But for Egyptian women in the ‘here and now,’ surely this is beside the point.  From a practical standpoint, the Egyptian experience with military rule has yielded a record of misogyny that is clear and unambiguous: Women have remained systematically marginalized from positions of power within the state hierarchy because they are women.  Rhetoric about the ‘liberation of women’ has remained just that, rhetoric, intended to advance the ‘modernization’ or ‘development’ agendas of given regimes.  Specific advocacy for women’s formal political rights has remained consistently suppressed. 
To my mind, there is no reason to suspect that the military regime now prevailing in Egypt will suddenly revert away from past military regimes’ misogyny, and this is what makes dislodging the military from Egyptian politics imperative.  There are, of course, countless reasons why this is imperative at this moment of extraordinary historical opportunity – but surely the shameful legacy of military rule that I have outlined here is reason enough.

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