In recent years to veiling of Muslim women has become a common image associated with radical Islamist politics. Yet in Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling and Change in Cairo (Columbia, 1990) Arlene Macleod demonstrates that lower middle-class women in Cairo who wear the hijab (new veil) rarely identify with radical Islam. This outstanding book combines feminist privileging of women’s experiences with imaginative deployment of social theory. Macleod’s approach is akin to that of Ph.D. theses by Diane Singerman and Homa Hoodfar that also integrate women’s testimony with gendered class analysis.

Accommodating Protest is based on a small and very specific case study: 58 women wage workers and 27 housewives from 28 lower middle-class Cairo households. The wage earners are mainly clerks in Egypt’s vast government bureaucracy who earned about 45 Egyptian pounds a month (then equivalent to about $40) and had a combined monthly household income of 100-150 pounds in 1984 when Macleod began her research. By 1988 the typical wage of government clerks had risen to 60 pounds, but it was worth only $26 due to falling exchange rates.

The declining purchasing power of the salaries of the women in this case study (for which the exchange rate is an imperfect measure, but official inflation statistics are unreliable) constantly threatens their families with impoverishment. Such precarious living standards exemplify the fate of public-sector employees since Egypt’s reintegration into the world capitalist market on highly unfavorable terms. Hence, Macleod appropriately uses global inequality (underdevelopment) and class, as well as gender, in her analysis.

Her central theoretical concept is Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, which conceives of the exercise of power as a dialectical relationship between dominant and subaltern groups entailing both coercion and consent, modified by Michel Foucault’s contention that “modern forms of power lack a center, an ‘eye’ which can be identified or targeted.” Thus, lower middle-class women’s decision to don the hijab (and Macleod emphasizes that it is their decision) is not “a reactionary attempt to revert to tradition,” but a protest against the loss of their traditional identity as Muslim wives and mothers — the only socially valorized roles for women in their subculture — and against the economic conditions requiring them to seek waged employment outside the home. Macleod views veiling as an “accommodating protest” — a specifically women’s form of struggle because it employs the “quintessential female communicative medium-clothing” and because it embraces the dominant values of Islam as understood in the lower middle-class subculture. Macleod’s most problematic assertion is that the accommodation of women is unique, “extending beyond mere strategy to an expression of intentions and purposes.” Despite this tendency to essentialize women’s forms of protest and “tradition,” she does not romanticize. Because the operation of hegemony creates “constraints on imagination, thought and discussion” and veiling “leave[s] the prevailing discourse of gender inequality intact,” she rejects the views of James Scott and others who have acclaimed the informal powers of subaltern groups. Hence, ambiguous tactics of the weak (like the new veiling) “while perhaps the most effective or the only possible form of struggle for some subordinate groups,” are “a limited and defensive kind of power and therefore inherently fragile, liable to cooptation from the start.”

What, then, is to be done, if this uniquely female form of protest is so innately limited? Does recognizing women’s (indeed, everyone’s) complicity in structures of domination and Foucault’s decentered theory of power mean that there can be no effective strategy to oppose hierarchies of gender and class (and, in other contexts, race and ethnicity)? Foucault’s influence on the left intelligentsia has burgeoned since the Reagan-Thatcher era. Many movements of resistance challenging centralized organs of power, including the state, directly and publicly have been beaten back, and it has become intellectually unfashionable to support them. But only tenured intellectuals can afford the luxury of a political strategy that renounces organized public politics and concedes control of the state and other large institutions to reactionaries (who have, of course, assumed it gladly). Acknowledging that power is dispersed throughout society — in the family, at school, through categories of knowledge — need not imply that organized public politics is irrelevant.

Direct forms of women’s resistance are hardly unknown in Egypt. On June 15, 1991 the deputy governor of Cairo dissolved the Egyptian branch of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association. AWSA, led by Nawal El Saadawi, embraced largely upper middle-class educated women and opposed the Egyptian government’s position on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. So despite its narrow social base, at least some elements of the state apparatus regarded AWSA as a threat to prevailing hierarchies (though the Foreign Ministry did not threaten AWSA’s operation as an international non-governmental organization). An administrative court now hearing this case is scheduled to deliver its verdict on May 7, 1992. AWSA’s lawyers believe their chances of winning are excellent because the legal basis for the government’s case is quite weak.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) condemned the law allowing the government to limit AWSA’s activities and eventually dissolve it (the law similarly restricts EOHR), and linked this to other attempts by the Egyptian government to obstruct freedom of association and freedom of the press. The latest report on EOHR’s year-long campaign against torture — Stop Torture Now: The Campaign to Stop Torture in Egypt (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, January 1992) — documents the links between gender hierarchy, sexual domination and the systematic abuse of police authority.

As Nawal El Saadawi’s books have been banned in Egypt, she appreciated the connection between efforts to suppress AWSA and the banning of ‘Ala’ Hamid’s novel, Masafa li-‘Aql Rajul (A Distance in a Man’s Mind), condemned by al-Azhar scholars for containing “ideas advocating atheism, blasphemy and denial of the heavenly religions.” In December 1991 El Saadawi testified at Hamid’s trial. But the Military State Security Court judged his book a threat to national unity and social peace and sentenced him to eight years imprisonment and a fine of 2,000 pounds. The contest over the dissolution of AWSA indicates that struggle around gender issues does challenge state power and is linked to other efforts to extend limits on political discourse and association. The upper middle-class women of AWSA share a different subculture than the women studied by Arlene Macleod. Forging links between their worlds is not a simple project, but a political strategy that minimizes the significance of state power and is suspicious of the possibility of building long-term alliances connecting the forms of struggle adopted by each group will likely contribute to the ultimate defeat of both.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Egyptian Women and the Politics of Protest," Middle East Report 176 (May/June 1992).
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