x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Tahrir Square violence was not gender-based – that's what makes it scary

The Egyptian riot police were not disrobing and dragging a female protester away because she was a woman - they were disrobing and dragging her away because she was a protester.

A woman walks past anti-government graffiti in Cairo, where the authorities routinely commit acts of violence against women. Nasser Nasser / AP Photo
A woman walks past anti-government graffiti in Cairo, where the authorities routinely commit acts of violence against women. Nasser Nasser / AP Photo

By now, of course, most people who are interested will have heard about Mona Eltahawy's article Why Do They Hate Us? in last month's Foreign Policy magazine. Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American journalist, wrote a provocative cover story to call out what she sees as the "real war on women in the Middle East".

At root, what Eltahawy is arguing for is a revolution of the mind, a complement to the social and political revolution still being played out across Egypt. She sums this up by saying: "We need to remove the Mubarak in our mind, in our bedroom and in our streets." It is a neat phrase (though she doesn't use it in the original article, only in subsequent discussions) that clarifies her view that many of the abuses of women in the Arab world can be traced to "a toxic mix of culture and religion".

Since publication, the reception has been positive in shorthand but negative at length; while Eltahawy has been the recipient of plenty of congratulations on social networking sites, especially from young Arab women, the considered written replies from journalists, academics and political activists have been harsher.

There is some justification for that: Eltahawy's original article is deliberately provocative, invoking loaded descriptions of "us" and "them" without fuller definition. She also has a tendency to discuss the Arab world as if it were one monolithic entity, rather than nearly two dozen countries with very different histories and societies.

Moreover, many of the examples of female repression she offers are specific rather than endemic: women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, but they can in every single other Arab country. Clitoridectomy, also called female genital mutilation, is an African custom, not a religious duty: while it is woefully widespread across Egypt, it is uncommon or non-existent in other Arab countries.

Worse, she denies the agency of Arab women, ignoring or minimising two important facts: that women were at the forefront of the uprisings across the Arab world (indeed, the highest profile Arab Spring activist is a woman, the Nobel Prize winner Tawwakol Karman); and that women make up significant numbers of those standing for, voting for and supporting Islamist parties.

Other critiques of Eltahawy's article, as simplistic, startling or employing Orientalist imagery are less salient in this context. The article is meant to provoke, to raise discussion, and in that it has succeeded spectacularly. Eltahawy is dedicated to writing clearly about the modern Middle East and indeed was in Tahrir Square reporting on the protests in November when she was physically and sexually assaulted by Egyptian security forces and had one of her arms broken.

In any case, the essence of what Eltahawy is saying is true: there is gender inequality across the Arab world. That gender inequality exists the world over - across Europe, Asia and the Americas - doesn't change the fact that it exists in the Arab world. But whereas Eltahawy appears to locate the essence of the problem in the personal and the religious, a closer examination suggests it is actually located in the political.

Take, as Eltahawy does, a sweeping look across the Arab world and it is noticeable how often Arab states and religious-social movements focus on the minutiae of women's morality. These legislators and activists want their spheres of influence to extend into the realms of what women wear, where they can go, even which of their children can be given citizenship. The regulation of women's lives appears to be at the heart of the social and political programmes some of these groups espouse, just as the weight of the state in repressive countries falls disproportionately heavily on women.

At its core, this is about writing rules - laws and social norms - across women's bodies; using the rallying cry of women's modesty to attract attention and support, and the threat to women's modesty to coerce.

Indeed, were Eltahawy right that it is the male culture of the Arab world that represses women, that would, actually, be an improvement. For the problem is not personal: it is structural. It is not the men who espouse repression, it is the education system and the police and the courts and the law and the government.

As much as Eltahawy focuses on the idea that individual men hate women (perhaps overstating the point for effect) her article recognises the structural inequality. The examples she gives from unequal Egyptian laws, to child marriage, to an Egyptian Salafi party using photographs of flowers instead of female candidates on ballots; all are structural, within the remit of the state.

Eltahawy calls this hate - it is certainly obsession - but misplaces its origin.

Far from being borne of hate for one gender, it's borne of disgust for all citizens. The subjugation of women is a method of social control. The essence of the problem is that political groups - whether within the state or without - seek to arrogate to themselves the enforcement of decisions over what women can and can't do. Yet while the focus of these laws are women, their aim is at all citizens. There is no neat division between the genders, with the powerful on one side and the weak on the other: rather the abuses heaped on women affect everyone in the society, because women are wives and mothers and daughters and sisters.

The horror at the heart of these states is the very gender equality of their violence.

Take two examples used in Eltahwy's article. The first is a now infamous incident in December last year, captured on camera, when riot police beat and stripped a veiled female protester.

In this act, Eltahawy believes, is proof of the hatred Egyptian men feel towards women. Yet she profoundly misreads the act. Far from being discriminatory, the horror of that event lies in its complete equality.

For the Egyptian riot police were not disrobing and dragging that protester away because she was a woman - they were disrobing and dragging her away because she was a protester. The war on women that Eltahawy believes she sees in these actions is not merely a war on women: it is a war on citizens. In fact, what made the photo go viral was its very equality: Egyptians and other Arabs felt that natural chivalry would at least protect female protesters from the worst abuses of the riot police. What the photo demonstrated was the horrifying equality of their suppression: it didn't matter whether she was a woman or not, she was brutalised and beaten regardless.

The same applies to the loathsome forced "virginity tests" carried out by the military on some female protesters detained in Tahrir Square in March last year. A member of Egypt's ruling military junta claimed spuriously that the tests were to protect the military from any allegations of rape. In fact, these "virginity tests" were only carried out on female protesters, but they were aimed at all Egyptians. They were a brutal method of terrifying the population into leaving Tahrir Square.

Every parent with a daughter in Tahrir Square would have felt a jolt of revulsion on hearing the news: the idea of their daughter being so violated by the grasping fingers of a sweaty army reservist from an unknown village. Squatting clearly at the nexus of sex, power and class, the virginity tests were an incredibly visceral way of cowing a population in revolt. Even the most anti-government parent would think twice about their children entering Tahrir Square after that.

Nor is it only daughters: the implied message was clear for men as well. If this is what the regime would do to the daughters of Egypt, in a conservative country with strong sexual taboos, imagine what the regime would do to the sons. Indeed, it wasn't even implied: the regime had clearly demonstrated what it would do. It would, and did, maim them and blind them and torture them and kill them.

Mona Eltahawy is right. They do hate us. But in the context of modern Egypt, the them and us in the sentence are not men and women. The them and us are the rulers and the ruled.

Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for The National.