I find the issue of framing endlessly fascinating. How are events, people, & actions framed as they happen, and which discourses on those events/people become the most used, repeated & reproduced discourses? Which narratives become popular, and which don’t? And why?
To take the example of the Egyptian revolution, it’s very clear, over a year later, the ways in which the revolution has been framed. Two major frames in particular stand out: the Islamists, & women. Almost every debate I go to, every documentary I watch, and every article I read, discusses the revolution using these two dominant frames. What role will the Islamists play/how dangerous are they/what can we do to stop them AND/OR where are the women in “new Egypt”/how is Egyptian culture holding women back/how come the revolution was stolen from women? And so on and so on. And of course the ultimate mega-frame is when the Islamists & women are used together: so what effect are the Islamists having on women’s rights, for example.
Not only do such approaches homogenize groups such as “Islamists” or “Egyptian women,” which have many, many internal nuances; they also lead to a situation where the revolution cannot be discussed outside of these frames. Everyone must talk about these issues to be taken seriously.
In her brilliant article (here), Maya Mikdashi says the following:
This year, the ongoing uprisings in the Arab world have brought into focus some dominant ways that sexual and bodily rights are framed, gendered, and politicized.
The article shows three ways in which gender is being used to frame the Arab uprisings.
One is the equation of gender with women and/or sexual and gender minorities. Two is the fear of Islamists. Three, is the use of gendered and sexed violence to discourage or discredit protests and revolutionaries.
We have seen journalists and academics write about “protestors” without mentioning gender until they get to the “female protestors.” When we read of these “female protestors” are we to assume that all previous analysis of “protestors” has been about men? If so, why does this not factor into analysis? Are men not gendered? Is citizenship an ungendered and undifferentiated category except when talking about female citizens? If we believe that an attention to gender is important to understanding how women live their lives, then why not extend the same courtesy to men?
The important question we need to ask is essentially about power:
What power dynamics and hegemonic discourses are being reproduced with every selective deployment of “gender” in the media and in every syllabus on “politics” or “citizenship” that includes one or two weeks (yay!) about “women” or “gender?”
The same goes for Islamists. What power dynamics & hegemonic discourses are being reproduced with every selective use of “Islamists” in the media/academic world?
As Islamists gain ground in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria concerns over their potential gender policies continue to fester. While such concerns and interest are certainly important, why do they gain such momentous traction only when it comes to Islamists? After all, have non-Islamist Arab political parties and powers had such wonderful and progressive gender policies all this time? This selective fear of Islamists rests on familiar assumptions about Islam (scary) secularism (redemptive and progressive) and other religions (huh?).
Mikdashi’s point is excellent: hasn’t it been the SECULAR Arab state that has oppressed women & LGBTQs until now, not the Islamists? Yet we are terrified (the we here refers especially to liberals) of what the Islamists *might* do. It is normal, of course, to question Islamists & their policies; but why in such a frenzied manner?
Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do with Islamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.
The final frame Mikdashi discusses is the use of LGBTQs & women to judge how “good” or “effective” the uprisings have been, which is essentially a new form of pinkwashing.
The legitimacy of a popular uprising and/or revolutionary struggle can be gauged by how it treats “their women” and “their gays.”
Again, the problem is not the questions these frames raise, but the manner in which they are raised; the power relations behind them; and the fact that they are constantly the manner in which the uprisings are discussed.
These frames are highly selective and politicized. Furthermore, each reproduces and invites practices of patriarchy, Islamophobia, authoritarianism, and colonialism. By using these frames gender justice is divorced from struggles for economic and political justice, and the revolutionary potential of this three way marriage is once again smothered.
To finish off, I want to share an experience I had last week at a film festival here in the Netherlands. The documentary was about the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia & Lebanon, and right before there was a panel discussion. The focus of the entire discussion was 1) the Islamists and 2) women. I kept wondering why I felt so uncomfortable with this. Weren’t these real issues?
After reading Mikdashi I realized why. Yes, of course they are real issues. But they are not the only issues, and they are not the frames through which we need to understand the uprisings. Moreover, we need to be aware that in western contexts, the issue of Islamists, women and LGBTQs are brought up for different reasons: to, yet again, show how culturally backwards the rest of the world is.