The Subaltern of Your Dreams, and Mine: Egyptian Women in Tahrir Square
I’m very pleased to introduce a guest post from Mircea, a history grad studying South Asia, first published at his blog, Just Speculations. I’m particularly glad that he’s coined the phrase “subaltern of my dreams.” I can only hope this will be the title of his first book. – Luce
Over on facebook, Leil Zahra-Mortada has collected an album of photographs of women protesting in Cairo over the past weeks. Here are a few particularly striking ones:
My first impulse, after I broke out in tears, was to think about theories of subjectivity and the challenge of Berkeley anthropologist Saba Mahmood to feminist notions of agency in her book Politics of Piety. Mahmood had studied women who participated in the Islamic revivalist mosque movement in Egypt and focused on how they ethically “trained” their bodies and sensibilities to meet the demands of Islamic norms. In so doing, and building on the work of Talal Asad, she questioned the understanding of “agency” as a reflection of a subject’s conscious will and desire. Instead, it was possible for women to express agency even in the very act of following norms that Western feminism would deem oppressive and patriarchal. This, of course, set her on a collision path with those feminists who allied themselves with neo-conservative imperialism in order to “liberate” the women of Afghanistan, Iran and the wider Middle East. In a 2008 essay entitled “Feminism, Democracy and Empire,” Mahmood refuses to allow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Azar Nafisi and Irshad Manji to serve as spokeswomen for all Muslim women. Why not listen, instead, to the myriad women’s movements and organisations, across the political and religious spectrum, in the Muslim world?
The Revolution in Egypt, and especially the photographs above, have shown to whoever cared to listen that Muslim women can make their voices heard alongside with men, demand those same political and social rights that supposedly belong to the Western “liberal” tradition, and scream, cry, bleed and die for them. Of course, Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t care to listen. In a recent op-ed, written while Mubarak’s security apparatus was still beating people to a pulp in the streets of Cairo, she worried about the Muslim Brotherhood’s hypothetical takeover. Bemoaning the supposed weakness of the “secular democratic forces,” she paints a dark scenario based, it appears, on some turgid autobiographical stories from when she was 15. It is assumed throughout, based on her previous books, that one of the bad things about the coming reign of Sharia will be women’s oppression.
And then it hit me: what all these critics, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Glenn Beck to French legislators banning the veil, have done is to effectively de-humanise the majority of Muslim women. Any woman who wears a scarf and/or niqab, who bears the outward signs of the patriarchal oppression that lies beneath, cannot be heard in her own voice. Look again at those photos. Those women, caught in a snapshot of anger or passion, are not calculating their own future status under the Muslim Brotherhood, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali does for them while safely ensconced in the US. They are not theorizing how conservative or liberal they are, or how much agency they get. They stand side by side with women in jeans, T-shirts and fashionable scarves. Because what they’re wearing doesn’t matter, even their being women qua women ceases to matter for the moment. They are demanding Mubarak leave and the country see free elections. Subalterns do speak, and when they do they may not be the subaltern of your dreams, or mine. They don’t say, “Freedom, but as long as what comes next isn’t too Islamic, in which case we should just stay put.” They say, “Freedom. Now.”
So these are not Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s subalterns. But they aren’t Saba Mahmood’s either. At this moment, they’re not out in the streets to challenge Western norms from an Islamic perspective. They’re not questioning Western secularism or ethically training themselves for modesty. They want to topple the dictator, vote in elections, and live a better life. Egyptian women, Muslim women, Arab women, all different kinds of women, do not belong to theories and models, even those put forth by women in the West like Saba Mahmood or Ayaan Hirsi Ali. They belong to themselves, and all we can do is try and listen.
To her credit, Hirsi Ali (unlike Beck, for example) does seem to support the Revolution and is more concerned with the future. Rightly so, it must be said. But it still begs the question why she is writing against a hypothetical oppression and not against a real one that has gone on for 30 years. Why has she not worked tirelessly against the Mubarak regime and other corrupt Middle Eastern dictatorships, and written books about the struggle of women’s organisations in Egypt instead of shock-value memoirs about general Islamic oppression? What better example for her promotion of “Enlightenment values” to the Islamic world than women standing up for the right to vote? The hollowness of this kind of politics is here revealed. Because when the Revolution is made by women wearing niqabs and Muslim Brothers as well as by Western youths, it’s something to worry about and not celebrate.
It’s become sadly the norm to say that Egypt and other Arab countries aren’t ready for democracy because of their backwardness (including their “treatment of women”). Even the writer of this article, which otherwise highlights the role of women as active participants in the protests, is most impressed by the fact that she wasn’t groped! All the men were, you see, too busy making a Revolution.