Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Subaltern of Your Dreams, and Mine: Egyptian Women in Tahrir Square

with 14 comments

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

by Mircea

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.


Written by Kristen Loveland

February 14, 2011 at 06:50

14 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I have some problems with Mircea’s argument and they are very basic.

    I have had two experiences which I think are pertinent to her argument. First, I was raised in a very patriarchal home by immigrant parents (non-Muslim). Secondly, I spent a few years living in the middle east in a Muslim country.

    I remember thinking that while the women who wore the hijabs did have more power than most westerners were willing to concede, it was the “type” of power that was problematic. For example, my father did not want me to go to university, although he offered to pay for my brother to go. It was through the behind-the-scenes machinations of my mother that I went.

    That is, I openly defied my father and student-loaned my way through that part of my education, while my mother siphoned money where she could, lied, covered up, cajoled and created distractions to keep my father pacified. When he died, she paid off my student loans. Did my mother possess power? Of course she did. Was it healthy, direct and sane? Not at all. Did it remind me of what I saw when I lived in the middle east? Absolutely. These women did have power–in a let’s-navigate-around-the-power-structure kind of way. It’s power, but it ain’t great.

    I think this writer is romanticizing an idea about these women that does not deserve to be romanticized. There’s a lack of objectivity here.


    February 16, 2011 at 07:17

  2. I absolutely agree that I romanticize the experiences of women in Muslim countries with this post. In part, this is a regrettable consequence of the very fact I am describing – Westerners with very little first-hand experience theorizing about women’s lives in distant places. If anything, my post should hopefully provoke people to question the models they build to include subjects of analysis about which they know little (this is why they are subalterns of your dreams AND my own, the writer’s).

    I’ll still stand by romanticizing the actions of these particular women as they pertain to the Revolution. If we are to be romantic about anything anymore, this would be it: a rare and (to me, personally) very precious and valuable moment of popular expression and resistance taking these particular women out of the many, many daily encounters with structures of patriarchal power that I sincerely regret minimizing with my post.

    If it is true that women who wear hijabs do have some form of power, as you say, whatever that power is, then this is an opportunity to see it. It was not, to me, the kind of evasive power you describe at the daily level but something else altogether, which inspired me to write the post.

    I would not, even so, claim that I have any more knowledge about these women’s lives than the pictures I’ve posted and what I see on the news. This is the sad effect of writing and theorizing from a distance, as I’ve said. I hoped it would be a challenge, in the realm of ideas and debates, to a model of Muslim womanhood as eternally and uniformly oppressed (Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s) that is also romantic, in a different way.


    February 16, 2011 at 16:32

  3. “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.”

    Because her focus is different and as valid as yours.

    These images certainly capture the heroism of these women and of course we need to recognize and acknowledge their courage. But the fight for freedom exists at many different levels. I think allowing people to fight that battle wherever they choose–like Ayaan Hirsi Ali obviously is–is only fair.


    February 16, 2011 at 17:09

  4. The problem is, I don’t think Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s struggle is valid. I think her solutions – a spurious package of something she calls “Enlightenment values” backed up by Western military power – are not what is needed in the Middle East, now or ever.

    I readily admit that I don’t know much about these issues, but I do know who I can trust. And it’s not her. Compare her with Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi, who’s been fighting both Islamists and the military regime in Egypt for over 30 years. She was in Tahrir Square alongside the women I wrote about here. Here she is giving an interview:

    It’s easy to say, well wouldn’t she agree with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, given that they share a focus on patriarchal oppression? Not at all, as it turns out:

    “What does Saadawi make of the notoriously right-leaning, controversial, Dutch-Somalian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who campaigns against FGM and cites Saadawi as an influence? She winces at the mention of her name.

    It’s become fashionable to talk about female circumcision but divorced from broader politics. I look at you as a whole. If you support the war in Iraq but you’re fighting female circumcision am I supposed to say ‘Oh she’s a hero, she’s a feminist’? But you’re supporting the war in Iraq and standing next to Condoleeza Rice! I have to understand your ideology and vision to see if you’re really true or if you’re just playing the game.”

    My point is not to idolize or romanticize Saadawi, but to point out that this is one kind of voice that could be listened to more often in these debates. Instead, we get streams of books, op-eds and goodness knows how much behind-the-scenes political influence from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s brand of feminism, and precious little from other viewpoints. This makes us fall into terrible choices: Mubarak versus Islamists, human rights versus fanaticism, secularism versus religion. We have to try and do better.


    February 17, 2011 at 03:07

  5. “The problem is, I don’t think Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s struggle is valid.”

    But then she’s published and you’re not, right?

    “She winces at the mention of her name.”

    This shows that the fight for women’s rights is maturing…if women can openly disagree and compete with each other, it’s a good thing, no?


    February 26, 2011 at 07:07

  6. Whether or not I am published makes no difference to the validity of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s struggle. She has sold lots of books by spreading a message that plays on people’s fears of and prejudices towards ALL Muslims. Her message is not one of reform in Islam but of constant, systematic provocation. In claiming to speak for millions of women who may not want to be spoken for by her, she is threatening debate over women’s rights in Islam not encouraging it, snuffing it out and re-directing it to her own concerns about a civilizational war. I think this harms women more than helps them, creating confusion and discord and mistrust. This is the price of a book like “Infidel.”

    So yes, even though I’m not published, I sleep well at night. Do you?


    February 26, 2011 at 12:31

  7. It’s important that she’s published (and popular) because it says she’s striking a chord with people. You may not agree with her, but there’s no doubt she’s reaching a wide (and smart) audience, and I believe that’s because she’s a bit more intelligent than your average fear-monger.

    This may be grossly unfair, but because you’re a man talking about feminist perspectives–attacking one while supporting another–I find your comments a bit suspect. You’re entitled to your opinion of course, but I think one point of feminism is to allow women to fight their own battles.

    There is enough room for all arguments, I believe. Tolerance wears many faces.


    February 26, 2011 at 13:02

    • I don’t think Mircea is denying Hirsi Ali’s right to make her arguments (and in this sense he is being “tolerant” of them), but he does not have to accept them as valid arguments that will advance the freedom and welfare of women. And obviously, given that there are a variety of conflicting feminist arguments and always have been, judgments have to be made on which ones actually make for a valid feminist program. The world is not a feminist hotel where each faction can unobtrusively occupy their separate rooms, putting up a sign for “privacy.”

      And in this case, I don’t think “popularity” is a solid ground for determining “validity.” Partly because you need to ask why they’re popular (i.e. who’s making them popular–and if it’s a mainstream media, widely still run as an old boys’ club, then this conflicts with your argument that men shouldn’t be able to participate in feminist battles). There have been plenty of political systems and feminist platforms that have had popular support, yet which I would never want to live under (such as various forms of spiritual motherhood which argue that woman’s role is in the home with her children).

      While I understand your suspicion of a “man” telling women how to run the show, I think Mircea has made a series of thoughtful arguments which reflect the ideas of some very well-respected feminists. And as my example of the mainstream media points to, men are never going to not have some part in the conversation, so better above board than below.


      February 26, 2011 at 13:51

  8. I simply said I found his comments a bit suspect and I did admit that that might be a bit unfair. There were very few men in my Women’s Studies courses, you see, so I’m always a bit surprised to hear men talking about feminism when they didn’t seem very visible in the field, so to speak.

    Most feminism, well, at least the feminist theory I’ve been exposed to, supports the idea of multiplicity and a willingness to embrace (or at least tolerate) all women’s voices. To accept our differences. As a matter of fact, multiplicity was a key word in my feminist studies.

    I understand that there are different female voices emanating from the Muslim world. And, given my own experience of actually living in that world for several years, and spending a lot of time with these women, I’m not inclined to be as critical as Mircea. I simply see Ayaan Hirsi Ali as one voice of many.

    If there is disagreement among the women in that part of the world, I think we should let them be the ones to say so. To point out that one feminist is “wincing” over another feminist’s name (and to offer that as proof of the latter’s lack of credibility) isn’t an act that I feel comfortable entertaining, coming from a man, and a man with an obvious political agenda. Just my opinion.


    February 26, 2011 at 14:26

  9. I agree multiplicity is important and I just want to clear up any possible confusion– by using the word “program” I didn’t mean one universal program for all women of all time everywhere, but various contested programs. Nonetheless people still have a (very healthy) right to debate which of the multiple programs is a useful one for a specific historical situation at hand, since these programs don’t just exist in theory but seek to be implemented in the real world.

    I’ll leave it to Mircea to correct me, but as I understand it one of the main problems with Hirsi Ali’s program is that it in fact denies multiplicity– it doesn’t allow that a woman in a hijab might be a feminist.


    February 26, 2011 at 14:57

  10. I’ll leave it to Mircea to correct me, but as I understand it one of the main problems with Hirsi Ali’s program is that it in fact denies multiplicity– it doesn’t allow that a woman in a hijab might be a feminist.

    And it’s her right to think that. Just like other Muslim women have the right to think the exact opposite.

    Honestly, the women I worked with were split down the middle–some supported the hijab, others didn’t. They didn’t seem to have a problem with each other, so I do think that pitting them against each other creates something of a false division.

    I’m not saying that I don’t believe there’s dissension, but from what I saw, they themselves seemed very, very tolerant of one another. It seems to me that building on that peaceful connection, or perhaps tolerating that dissension within in a peaceful way, is more likely to produce peaceful results. Which I believe is what we would all like.


    February 26, 2011 at 15:57

  11. I agree, and as my final intervention I’ll let some more Egyptian women speak for themselves:


    February 26, 2011 at 21:24

  12. Have you taken any women’s studies courses yourself? If not, why do you consider yourself qualified to speak for these women?


    February 27, 2011 at 21:21

    • Io, I think Mircea’s final intervention was specifically about letting Egyptian women speak for themselves. And his references to Saba Mahmood should signal his immersion in gender studies. While I agree that it would be nice to see more male faces in gender studies courses, there are a number of men who have devoted themselves to this area of study. But why don’t we let one of the queens of gender theory, Judith Butler, have the last word on this [from an interview in Haaretz]:

      “[T]o Judith Butler someone” meant to say something very negative about men and to identify with a form of feminism that was against men. And I’ve never been identified with that form of feminism. That’s not my mode… I’m not always calling into question who’s a man and who’s not, and am I a man? Maybe I’m a man. [laughs] Call me a man.”


      February 27, 2011 at 23:16

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: