In our current day and age, Islam can now be seen to fit into the Western imaginings of the ‘bogeyman’, or what Edward Said referred to as the ‘Other’: something characterised by its savagery, despotism and on some occasions downright ‘lasciviousness’, diametrically opposed to the ‘rational and civilised West.’ Aside from the sometimes legitimate concern over terrorist threats, however, a more pervasive and subtle factor at play is our conviction that Islam as a religion oppresses women — and significantly more so than any Western-originated structure, religion or institution. It is true that thousands of women are oppressed, abused and discriminated against globally, via the instrumentalisation of Islam as well as most other religions and cultures. However, there is a growing narrative which wrongly suggests that all Middle Eastern women are oppressed by Islam and require Western help. Our imagery of Arab men, of the Middle East, North Africa and Islam are now irrevocably tied in with the idea that women living in these regions, or who are in some way affiliated with Islam, are in need of being ‘saved’ from the dominance of ultra-conservative men. Or as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak put it, we are persuaded of the need for ‘white men saving brown women from brown men.’ I would like to challenge the assumption that Muslim women are always ‘oppressed’. Instead, by using the example of the rise in attacks against women in Egypt, I’d like to argue that women have been caught in the crossfire of larger global dynamics such as the ‘war on terror’, but that these dynamics are hidden under the veil of the need to ‘protect women from the threat of Muslim men.’
The loose category of ‘Arab women’ — and the not necessarily correlated one of ‘Muslim women’ — is now irrevocably associated with connotations of oppression, and the need for their rights and safety to be protected. A classic example of this narrative is Laura Bush’s radio speech from November 2001. The former First Lady argued that ‘the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists.’ She added that ‘the civilised people throughout the world’ were heartbroken and distressed upon seeing that the Taliban wanted to ‘impose their world on the rest of us.’ Finally, she claimed that ‘because of our recent military gains in Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.’ Her speech constructed Muslim masculinity as ‘the Other’ (in opposition to the ‘civilised people’) and as a threat both to women and the entire world — thus attempting to legitimise the need for military intervention in Afghanistan.
Together with the correlation with ‘terrorism’, Arab and Muslim masculinity have been increasingly constructed as ‘hypersexualised’ and impossible to control. In the case of Egypt, below are two examples of some street adverts that appeared in Cairo after cases of harassment against women started increasing in 2008:
The first caption reads ‘a veil to protect or eyes will molest.’ The second example says ‘you can’t stop them, but you can protect yourself.’ The ads depict Egyptian men as flies, unable to stop themselves, whilst at the same time accentuating the idea of women as objects of desire and not safe enough to be present in the public sphere. Needless to say, the ads further the idea that if a woman is attacked while not wearing a veil, she is the one to be blamed.
Instances of street harassment were already common in Cairo, but following the Arab Uprisings in January 2011, cases of violent sexual assaults against women started increasing. They peaked on 25 January 2013 — the second anniversary of Mubarak’s ousting. On that day, 19 cases of assault against women were reported in the vicinity of Tahrir Square alone. All of the attacks occurred in an almost identical fashion and were highly systematic. They were also perpetrated by men who appeared completely free from any fear of repercussion (in some cases, they even attacked the ambulance that arrived on site to take the victim to the hospital).
Academics and human rights organisations alike have both argued extensively that the attacks against women in Cairo were actually orchestrated by Egyptian state actors themselves. These patterns were in fact reminiscent of Mubarak’s use of sexual violence to deter women from protesting. In 2005, for example, groups of men were hired to attack female journalists who were protesting against a referendum on constitutional reform. To date, the perpetrators have yet to be prosecuted. Nadje al-Ali argues that there is no doubt that Egyptian authorities have been instrumentalising violence — particularly sexual violence — after the fall of Mubarak’s regime. This organised violence occurred through the medium of the baltagiya (thugs from informal settlements in the Cairo periphery), who were appropriated in the early 2000s by Egyptian security forces. They were ordered to shout extremist slogans during protests to make protesters look like ‘terrorists’ as well as brutalise the protesters themselves.
Whether or not these attacks were actually orchestrated by state-affiliated actors, I think we can agree on a few things. Firstly, in the post-9/11 world the discourse on the ‘war on terror’ and the need to reduce the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is ever-present. Secondly, there also seems to be a massive emphasis on the need to protect women in the ‘global South’ from gender-based violence, particularly when somehow correlated to Islam. Just how much women would actually want to be protected by the West remains murky at best.
On the other hand, notions such as the rise in Islamic fundamentalism and violence against women certainly generated an interest amongst international actors, such as the US State Department and the UN. They also provided what appeared to be a solid and legitimate basis for the Egyptian state to justify an increase in the use of state-perpetrated violence, so as to allegedly ‘protect’ women and defuse the threat of an Arab ‘time-bomb masculinity’. Incidentally, that term has been widely used in the media, and is eerily reminiscent of the suicide bomber trope. I would argue that this terminology is not due to a random semantic choice, but rather an intentional effort to correlate the notions of ‘Arab man’, ‘hypersexuality’ and ‘fundamentalism’. Regardless of who was actually responsible for the attacks in Cairo, it is clear that their occurrence was useful to the Egyptian state and military apparatus. Riding on global dynamics such as the ‘war on terror’ and the fight against gender-based violence, the state was able to instrumentalise the attacks in order to legitimise its own human rights abuses, its criminalisation of Cairo’s ‘slums’, mass arrests and a continuation of the state of emergency decree.
However, mainstream discourse on the rise in violence against women in Egypt has yet to address the vested interest of the Egyptian state in the unfolding of these events and in the construction of their narrative. Instead, it continues to simplistically focus on debating just how oppressive Islam is towards women. This is an incredible reduction of the issue as clearly, in the Egyptian case, the violence is a reflection of a broader power struggle that has everything to do with squashing civilian dissent. A simplistic explanation based on patriarchal norms in ‘Arab culture’ is simply not enough to explain the organised violence which has been taking place.
In a time that seems characterised by rising levels of intolerance, I would argue that we need to steer clear of ‘essentialising’ and ‘othering’ attitudes. The events in Egypt are a case in point, and simply talking about Egyptian women being ‘oppressed’ offers a significantly thwarted understanding of the issue at hand. Another useful exercise might be that of refraining from protective attitudes, and alternatively trying to understand if they are masking vested interests. The only way to increase mutual understanding is to strive for a more subtle and nuanced comprehension of processes, events and their causes — and avoiding tendencies towards stereotyping .
In light of a more comprehensive analysis of events in Egypt, I now feel compelled to ask if rather than talking about ‘saving’ Muslim women, we should instead be trying to save ourselves from our own assumptions — and questioning whose interest lies behind creating the basis for those assumptions.