The Issue of Framing

 

 

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.

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The Power of Discourse

A few weeks ago,  I woke up to the news that Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year old Iraqi refugee in America, died after being beaten by a group who entered her home. The mother of five was found with a note that read: “Go back to your country. You are a terrorist.” Read more here. (The story seems to have changed now; it is no longer clear who killed her. I’ll keep the example however since it illustrates the point I’m trying to make.)

My first reaction was to think of Trayvon Martin, a similarly racialized crime that happened very recently. I then began to think of the many discourses (or not so many, actually) that are present in the west about Muslims, Arabs, the Middle East, and Iraq. These discourses inevitably lead to some sort of violence against these groups, whether symbolic or actual. When entire groups are dehumanized or painted in a negative way, the risk of them being attacked/marginalized is huge. Someone tweeted that they hold everyone who is Islamophobic and spread these discourses in society personally accountable for what happened to Shaima, and I completely agree. Discourses & ideas are not just abstract things that float above us – they form us and impact our behaviour. They are very, very real.

Then I began to think of the Middle East, and the way the Salafis have spread their ideology during the past 30 years to the point of it constituting several major discourses in society. If we argue that Islamophobia lead to Shaima’s death, then shouldn’t we also be self-critical and question how certain Salafi ideas are leading to the dehumanization & marginalization of specific groups in Egypt, including the Copts, women, and liberals? It is clear tat Egypt has become increasingly conservative, largely due to the funding coming from Saudi/Qatar as well as the millions of Egyptians that went there to work during the oil boom. What kinds of discourses did they bring back? How did these discourses spread through society? How do they impact people in a very real way?

A final example is in the Netherlands, where discourses about Muslims/Moroccans/Turks/Surinamese etc are overwhelmingly negative. Some of my Dutch liberal friends *somehow* think these discourses are just “annoying little things that don’t really mean anything.” I beg to differ. These discourses are what led to what happened to Shaima, are what justified the invasion of Afghanistan & Iraq, are what cause many Dutch people to make extremely racist remarks and think it’s okay since they’re just saying what they think. These discourses hurt people, they marginalize people, they put people into boxes that are difficult to get out of.

As Foucalt said, discourses do not constitute themselves. They are produced by us & at the same time produce us. This makes them much more powerful than we think.