Egyptian Riot Grrls: Finding the Feminine Face of Fury

by Beenish Ahmed

(AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Much has been aflutter on twitter about the very visible presence of women among the protests that have taken Egypt by storm over the last few weeks, but images of them have remained sparse amid the digital slideshows strung together by major media outlets, portraying mainly dense crowds of the manly.

What falls within these frames does not necessarily paint a full picture, since as Egyptian Organization for Human Rights activist Ghada Shahbandar claims, the crowd in downtown Cairo is up to 20 percent female. Others have put the number much higher, at 50 percent.

Although they are less prevalent, some efforts have been made to depict the role of women this popular uprising. The Global Post put together a slideshow on the Women of Egypt among the March of Millions in Tahrir Square, and a compilation of photographs from various sources can be found on sawt al niswa, a self-described “feminist webspace.”

A quick look through the reels of these images reveals the feminine side of fury and eliminates any remaining shred of doubt that the issues of unemployment and corruption that are widely cited as the primary causes for this unrest effect only men.

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A Class War by Any Other Name

IDF Economics: Keynote Speaker Chief of the IDF General Staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi addressing the audience at the Friends of the IDF 2010 National NY Gala Dinner, where 20 million dollars was raised

About a month ago I wrote an article about a bill proposition to heavily fine initiators and encouragers of a boycott directed at the state of Israel. On Wednesday, I joined a “Non Violence Short Course”. Today a friend posted an article on my Facebook wall [translation of important parts below] about the inflated “security budget”. I’m an activist in Israel, so naturally the boycott, nonviolence and the IDF budget all fall within my interest span. But this morning, as I read this very not-new news article about wining and dining generals, the assumptions tickling at last month’s article were driven home like a punch in the gut: Class war.

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“Veil in the Time of War” or “Veilin’ the Time of War”

In the context of the current multiple arenas of war and occupation in Muslim-majority regions, the issues of gender and sexuality are vitally linked to the casus belli, both within and without academia. Such linkages, with a long and complicated genealogy thoroughly imbricated in the politics of colonization, decolonization, and neo-colonization, also indicate an obsessive desire to re-enact the “discovery narrative” or the “rescue narrative.” Examining current contestations in popular media – including recent articles written by Maureen Dowd, Naomi Wolf and Phyllis Chesler et al and the poster designed by Alexander Segert, which was integral to the success of the anti-minaret Swiss referendum – this essay investigates whether, how, and where the neoconservative, neoliberal, and the mainstream feminist discourses converge, diverge, and intersect.

Segert's Anti-Minaret Poster

by Huma Dar

In the context of the current multiple arenas of war and occupation in Muslim-majority regions, the issues of gender and sexuality are vitally linked to the casus belli, both within and without academia.  Such linkages, with a long and complicated genealogy thoroughly imbricated in the politics of colonization, decolonization, and neo-colonization, theorized by Inderpal Grewal, Gayatri Spivak, Lata Mani, Leila Ahmed, Sherene Razack, Saba Mahmood, Sunera Thobani amongst others, also indicate an obsessive desire to re-enact the “discovery narrative” or the “rescue narrative.”  Examining current contestations in popular media – including recent articles written by Maureen Dowd, Naomi Wolf and Phyllis Chesler et al and the poster designed by Alexander Segert, which was integral to the success of the anti-minaret Swiss referendum – I investigate whether, how, and where the neoconservative, neoliberal, and the mainstream feminist discourses converge, diverge, and intersect.  I undertake to deconstruct the ongoing debates that obsessively revolve around the veil or the sexuality that is variously professed to be suppressed, annihilated, or even “discovered” beneath the veil by some liberal explorers.

Continue reading ““Veil in the Time of War” or “Veilin’ the Time of War””

A People’s Guide to the Health Care Bill

It’s socialism! It’s historic! Actually, it’s neither but the pundits have to call it something if they’re going to spend all day talking about it. So what should we know about the health care “reforms” that Obama and the Democratic Congress have just passed? For a quick rundown of the talking points and the unsurprisingly differing facts, consider this PDF. But to really consider the impact of this bill, let’s start with this editorial from The Socialist Worker appropriately entitled “Worse Than Nothing At All”:

In spite of the hysterical complaints of Republicans, the truth is that the health care measure House Democratic leaders hope to ram through this weekend is a disaster in the making for working people and a massive giveaway to the medical-pharmaceutical-insurance complex.

It will “mandate” people to buy policies from private insurers, without any guarantees of affordable premiums or adequate coverage. It won’t have a “public option.” It will slash spending and benefits for the federal government’s Medicare program by $500 billion. It will impose a tax in some form on employer-provided insurance–supposedly aimed at expensive “Cadillac” plans, but in reality affecting any insurance that has decent benefits.

The article continues to lay out how the twenty million Americans promised coverage under this bill are really getting a hollow promise that disguises the tremendous bonanza this legislation offers to the health care industry and opportunistic conservatives keen on using this to lay siege to women’s rights. Which brings us to our next point.

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Let’s talk about America’s record on women’s rights

America's second-class citizens?

After Jasmin brought my attention to this story, I thought I would roll out a few more coincidentally timed reports that highlight the contradictions between America’s self-proclaimed equality and our astonishing contemporary failures in the area of women’s rights.

Firstly, Amnesty USA has released a new study on the quality of maternity care for American women. It notes:

The USA spends more than any other country on health care, and more on maternal health than any other type of hospital care. Despite this, women in the USA have a higher risk of dying of pregnancy-related complications than those in 40 other countries. For example, the likelihood of a woman dying in childbirth in the USA is five times greater than in Greece, four times greater than in Germany, and three times greater than in Spain.

Unsurprisingly, there is a tremendous racial disparity as an African American woman’s odds of dying as a result of child birth is four times greater than that of white American.

Secondly, Democracy Now! explored the disparity in median wealth for American women. The median for a single Black woman is $100, $120 for a single Hispanic woman, and $41,000 for a single white woman. Seriously.

If you’re playing along at home, you can check off both “post-racial” and “feminist” on the list of things we hear about America but know are not true. I will also give you a prize if you can tell me how many of America’s governors are women and explain how that reflects the country’s diversity.

Image by Maze Walker on Flickr.

(Neo)Orientalism with an Attitude: In the Footsteps (and Beyond) of Richard Burton

Getting one’s picture taken with the Dalai Lama or the Pope will guarantee neither Buddhist enlightenment nor beatification: my apologies for shattering the hopes of some New Agers. Similarly, entering the Ka’aba in Burtonesque disguise — specially minus his arguably relevant though shifty linguistic skills and textual knowledge — will not and cannot necessarily guarantee much “learning” about Islam.

by Huma Dar

The March 10, 2010, page A27 of the New York edition of New York Times carries an Op-Ed piece by Maureen Dowd titled, “Pilgrim Non Grata in Mecca.” Dowd writes about her desire to “learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11” via “sneaking” into Mecca in “a black masquerade cloak.”  Her self-proclaimed inspiration is Richard Burton’s “illicit pilgrim[age] to the sacred black granite cube…in Arab garb” thereby “infiltrat[ing] the holiest place in Islam, the Kaaba [sic].”

Dowd, however, decides to “learn about Islam” in a way “less sneaky,” “disrespectful,” or “dangerous” and yet more entitled and privileged than Richard Burton could ever have dreamed of.   She herself describes Burton as “the 19th-century British adventurer, translator of “The Arabian Nights” and the “Kama Sutra” and self-described ‘amateur barbarian.'”  The words “illicit,” “Kama Sutra,” and “infiltration” and Dowd’s voyeuristic desires resonate with the Orientalism of yore.  Moreover Dowd’s valuable US passport and USA’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia (read: enabling of the oppressive monarchy) entitle her to meet Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister — of the “sometimes sly demeanor” — on her “odyssey” to that country.  “Infiltration” in disguise is no longer required, and yet this ease of access also disguises and makes more difficult the complexity of any real learning.

Dowd “presses” al-Faisal for the privilege to watch in Mecca, the “deeply private rituals” and “gawk at the parade of religious costumes fashioned from loose white sheets” although she knows in advance that “Saudis understandably have zero interest in outraging the rest of the Muslim world.”  While talking to this high-ranking minister, Dowd bristles at al-Faisal’s reassuring suggestion that if she desired to see any mosque in a place other than in Mecca or Medina, and was prevented from doing so, all she had to do was to contact the “emir of the region” who would comply and enable the fulfillment of her desires.  (Anyone else reminded of Aladdin’s djinn/genie?)  Without conceding the irony of the situation that she, after all, is speaking to Prince al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, Dowd quips, “Sure. Just call the emir. I bet he’s listed.”   Imagine what Richard Burton would have done with the special privileges of this particular magic lamp provided by the New World Order!

Finally Dowd does indeed witness the Hajj — in an IMAX theatre watching Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta. Dowd, much to her surprise, makes the belated discovery that “the Kaaba [sic] was built by “Abraham, the father of the Jews” [why Jews only?]— a reminder that the faiths have a lot to learn from each other.”  It is also a reminder that journalists like Ms. Maureen Dowd have a lot of homework to do before they set out on their surely expensive travels — and I am not even including the much recommended language lessons.  Any commonly available text on Islam, for example by Karen Armstrong, Jamal Elias, Michael Sells, or Ziauddin Sardar, might have served the purpose.  Dowd could thus have avoided relying solely on the “amateur barbarian” Richard Burton or Newsweek’s own Fareed Zakaria.  The former’s scholarly credentials are hardly beyond doubt — see his problematic remarks on “Jewish human sacrifice” in The Jew, the Gipsy and el Islam (1898).  The latter’s forte is not his knowledge of Islam — or at least no more than Zakaria’s mentor, Samuel Huntington’s forte is Christianity.  Dowd might thus have disabused herself of the notion of “the sacred black granite cube.”  The “sacred black” stone is not a “cube” and neither is the “sacred cube” — the Ka’aba — all granite!

Getting one’s picture taken with the Dalai Lama or the Pope will guarantee neither Buddhist enlightenment nor beatification: my apologies for shattering the hopes of some New Agers.  Similarly, entering the Ka’aba in Burtonesque disguise — specially minus his arguably relevant though shifty linguistic skills and textual knowledge (See Parama Roy’s excellent essay for more on Burton) — will not and cannot necessarily guarantee much “learning” about Islam.  On the other hand, a trip to any local library with a willingness to read and learn, and engagement with an open mind in meaningful conversations with the (gasp!) American Muslims, might be better starting points for undertaking this particular journey.

Did the Editor of The New York Times not know the price difference between the ticket to the IMAX theatre plus membership to a local library and the cost of Dowd’s lavish travels to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?  The Neo-Orientalist fantasy to tread in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton is accelerated with privilege and precisely because of this privilege skips and misses its target even more widely.

It is in the spirit of a gift that I offer Ms. Dowd this image:

Labeled elements are as follows: 1 – The Black Stone; 2 – Door of the Kaaba; 3. Gutter to remove rainwater; 4 – Base of the Kaaba; 5 – Al-Hatim; 6 – Al-Multazam (the wall between the door of the Kaaba and black stone); 7 – The Station of Ibrahim; 8 – Angle of the Black Stone; 9 – Angle of Yemen; 10 – Angle of Syria; 11 – Angle of Iraq; 12 – Kiswa (veil covering the Kaaba); 13 – Band of marble marking the beginning and end of rounds; 14 – The Station of Gabriel.

The ‘First Wives Club’ or the Politics of Visibility and Invisibility

by Huma Dar

In her article in The Observer, ‘The First Ladies Of The Arab World Blaze A Trail For Women’s Rights’, Helena Smith waxes eloquent about a very exclusive, seven-year-old club, called “Arab Women Organisation” with only fifteen members so far: the first ladies of Jordan, the Emirates, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Syria, Oman, Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Yemen.1

The first wives of the other seven Arab countries with “some of the more traditional societies” have also been invited and there are “tremendous hopes” that they, too, will join up, Smith gently reassures the reader.  This article carries the tag line: “A large and powerful alliance of leaders’ wives is making huge strides in breaking taboos and getting feminist issues on the political agenda.” The list of issues being “sexual slavery,” “trafficking,” “child exploitation,” “prostitution” and “rape” in the Middle East,” and, of course, this is duly prefaced by an obligatory, pious declamation that these “societies [are] not known for their commitment to feminist agendas.”

One wonders if this particular set of issues has indeed been adequately dealt with in any part of the world, and immediately thinks of the epidemic proportion of violence against women in the United States of America, which happens to be one of the more violent places for women as far as the proportionate rates of rapes, assaults, and murders are concerned, with every two minutes a woman being sexually assaulted, and every eight minutes a woman being raped.2

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Get Out of My Vagina, You Filthy Zionist!

This image was not taken in Petah Tiqva.
This image was not taken in Petah Tiqva.

In woman’s womb, reposes the people’s future and in her soul the heart of a nation.
~ Frau Siber of the Ministry of the Interior (Germany 1933)

I know, I know, the Nazi comparison has been sooo done to death, but so has my statement that if the swastika fits- choke on it. Books have been devoted to the study of racial purity theories and practices, and what you’ll usually find is not only racism, but chauvinism, restricting women to mere purity producers.

Keeping Petah Tiqva Girls Pure
Many people find it insulting when I say Israel is a chauvinist state and nation. “Compare it to your beloved muslim regimes!” They spit venomously, as they tell me that “if all women were like [me], [they’d] turn gay”. Institutionalized chauvinism and racism has been prevalent in the Israeli government and institutions, since its inception. Municipal racism certainly isn’t new (definitely not to the city of Petah Tiqva); Palestinian citizens of Israel have been discriminated against for 61 years.
Continue reading “Get Out of My Vagina, You Filthy Zionist!”