Women, the Arab Revolutions, and Dabashi

A few days ago I began reading Hamid Dabashi’s new book: The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism. Dabashi essentially proposes a new paradigm of understanding geopolitics today, namely that the colonial/postcolonial ideologies have run their course, and that the Arab Uprisings were a new way of understanding the world. In the last part of the book, he speaks a bit about gender and the uprisings.

He begins by reminding us of the image of Arab women before the uprisings: passive, docile, incarcerated inside a repressive religion, denied a public presence: “they were invariably portrayed in cages, desperately peering out through the bars – and this by women’s studies scholars and publishers and the publishers of fake memoirs of Arab princes and honour killings alike” (p. 183). He goes on to say:

Even when they were coming out in their millions in Iran to participate in public rallies, there were still some among the Arab, Iranian and North American ‘left’ who ridiculed their dresses, sunglasses or scarves – not having an inkling that their sisters were about to join them from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to the other (p. 183).

Now consider the pictures of these women defying the odds, domestic and foreign, defying tyranny, homegrown and imposed; look at them closely. Half of them would be denied the dignity of choosing their own clothes from one end of Europe to the other – particularly those who choose the veil in France, Germany or the Netherlands, upsetting the racist sensibilities of European mass murderers like Anders Breivik. These women would be denied full citizenship in Europe and yet they are at the forefront of a world-historic succession of revolutions in the Arab and Muslim world. That alone should tell us where the world is today (p. 183).

At the time of the Egyptian revolution, I was in the process of doing my second MA, and instantly thought of doing it on “women and the revolution” (how naive I was). Following the revolution in the media made it seem as though gender was THE defining issue. Channel after channel, article after article asked “where are the women?” This question continuously confused me, since the pictures, videos, live-streams and tweets repeatedly and clearly showed that there were women everywhere: from the front lines to the make-shift hospitals; from the activists to the organizers. This did not seem like a gendered revolution in the sense of men being in public while the women stayed at home (it’s amazing how durable this orientalist clichés are).

I went to Cairo for several months to do my fieldwork and, of course, every single protester I interviewed had no idea why I was asking questions about gender. “Of course women were part of the revolution” was pretty much the answer I got every single time. When I would ask if they were surprised that women participated, I would again get strange looks. “Why would that be surprising?” was the standard response. This was a wake-up call for me, as I realized the extent to which I had internalized western media representations of the Arab uprisings. To the people I know in Cairo, it was not at all shocking to see women there – they had expected that. It was more shocking for them to see different social classes. Yet this wasn’t the picture I got living in Holland and watching the revolutions unfold on multiple media platforms.

Dabashi continues:

These women did not appear out of nowhere. That ‘the war on terror,’ predicated on a whole history of Orietalism, had manufactured a docile image of Arab and Muslim women, waiting to be ‘liberated’ by the US army, the way they were liberated in Afghanistan and Iraq, was not their problem. This was the treachery of a propaganda machine fed by native informers and career oppurtunists. Arabs and Muslims were now risking their lives for their collective liberties in a manner that the world (awash with Islamophobic and Orientalist nonsense) was unprepared to witness (p. 185).

My question is the following: since this is not the first time that Arab and Muslim women have participated in social movements, why did Dabashi expect the Arab uprisings to change the Orientalist and Islamophobic images of Arab and Muslim women all over the globe? He almost seems to be suggesting that the uprisings changed these views of Arab and Muslim women; but did they?

Dabashi does later on clarify that Arab and Muslim women did not suddenly become active during the uprisings:

We should not disregard the reality that successive generations of women’s rights pioneers, social historians, imaginative theorists, community organizers, public educators, political activists, revolutionary leaders, poets, filmmakers and artists have paved the way for their daughters in Tahrir and Azadi Square. Generation after generation – in both colonial and postcolonial eras- women have entered the public space and changed it; in so doing assigned gender roles have been consistently challenged.

This is an extremely important (and refreshing) point. Arab and Muslim women didn’t suddenly come out of nowhere, just as the revolutions didn’t suddenly come out of nowhere. Both were the result of accumulating and built-up discourses and actions within Arab societies that eventually allowed for the high level of participation that was seen on the part of women.

Linking the role of women in these uprisings to previous activism and feminist organizing in Egypt is very important, and provides essential context to understand the situation of women in Egypt. It seems that more work like this needs to be done, from both a feminist perspective as well as a political, economic and sociological perspective. While women did participate extensively in the uprisings, it is clear that feminist activism has now taken a back-seat in Egypt. This seems to be a process that happens repeatedly in post-revolutionary nations: women participate and are then side-lined when they begin to articulate their own demands during the process of state-building. How to move past this? What kind of solutions are there to these issues? Do we keep delaying the ‘feminist project’ until the new government is solidified? My answer would be NO. The feminist project should not be de-linked from the phase of rebuilding the nation and institutions after a revolutionary process. The two must go together, otherwise women will, yet again, be told to go home after the post-revolutionary euphoria dies down.

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