Traffic crawls as usual through Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, making its noisy way around the 65-foot pole flying the Egyptian flag newly erected in the middle of the plaza. It is hard to imagine that in January 2011 this very spot was the epicenter of the grassroots revolution that toppled President Husni Mubarak. Since the summer 2013 coup, the military-backed regime has remade this space of insurrection into one of imposed national unity. The revolutionary graffiti is long since whitewashed; the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, incinerated during the uprising, is demolished.
Over the last two decades, issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity have gained significant visibility and attention across the globe. The case of Iran is particularly fraught, and has received plenty of coverage due to the work of international non-profits.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey is known for his strong pro-natalist sentiments. In 2012 his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, by the Turkish acronym) passed a law to constrain women’s choice to give birth by Caesarean section — “nothing more than a procedure to restrict and square a nation’s population,” says the AKP leader, since a woman who undergoes it usually cannot have another baby. Erdoğan exhorts every Turkish family to have three children, just like he does.
Michelle Obama tweeted a photo of herself on her official account last week using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, joining the Twitter campaign on behalf of the hundreds of schoolgirls, most of them Christian, who were kidnapped a month ago by the Nigerian Islamist group, Boko Haram. The purpose of the kidnappings remains unclear, but at least two girls have claimed to have converted to Islam, and at least 130 appeared in a video wearing, as the Guardian put it, “Islamic-style dress.” The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau, indicated a willingness to release the girls in exchange for jailed militants.
Undeterred by pleas for mercy, the high-ranking intelligence officer Ra’uf pushes the junior ‘Azzam to his knees. Ra’uf forcibly shaves the young man’s head as other officers look on. He commands ‘Azzam to remove his shirt and pants, do pushups, jump up and down, and slide across the ground on his elbows. When another officer pounds him with a bat, ‘Azzam breaks down. Crying that he has had enough, he grabs a gun, shooting into the air and then at Ra’uf’s feet. He orders Ra’uf and the others onto the ground, gathers his clothes and runs away. When Ra’uf presses charges, an exceptionally kind mukhabarat officer says, “I saw how you humiliated him and induced him to carry a gun.”
In June 2013 popular anger, excitement and apprehension rippled through Cairo. Lines at gas stations snaked into major roadways, paralyzing traffic. Artists occupied the Ministry of Culture to oppose a new minister from the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party who had fired respected cultural leaders. Artists, including the Cairo Opera ballet troupe, performed in solidarity in front of the Ministry, in a pointed retort to a member of the salafi Nour Party who said that ballet “provoke[ed] people to immorality.” Determined to oust then-president Muhammad Mursi, citizens signed the Tamarrud (Rebellion) petition calling for early presidential elections and planned to attend anti-Mursi demonstrations on June 30.
The 18 days of revolution beginning on January 25, 2011 united Egypt. A wide range of citizens, men and women, veiled and unveiled, young and old, middle-class and working-class, stood behind the goals of ending the 30-year rule of Husni Mubarak and stopping the planned succession of his son to the presidency, as well as winning bread, freedom, social justice and dignity. The military supported this national consensus and pushed its aims forward.
Gender is commonly understood to be the analysis of the social construction of categories of identity (feminine and masculine), as opposed to the biological determinism of physiological sex (female and male). “Gender” is nonetheless often uncritically conflated with “women,” and physiological or biological distinctions cannot be so easily distinguished from social constructions; the social inhabits the physical, which is itself experienced though social understanding.
Body politics refers to the formal and informal structures that shape the embodied experience of social identity; or the analysis of how categories of power are played out on and through actual physical bodies.
How is gender related to revolutions? What is the connection between “gender” and women or, for that matter, between gender and women and men? If gender is generally understood to be the social construction of sexual difference, what explains the differences in gendered identities across cultures or over time? And in thinking about gender, how can observers avoid the naturalization of the familiar, or the demonization of gender relations that seem foreign?
What happens when almost 3,000 men, women and transgender people march down the main street of a major Muslim metropolis, chanting against patriarchy, the military and restrictive public morals, waving the rainbow flag and hoisting banners decrying homophobia and demanding an end to discrimination? Or when a veiled transvestite carries a placard calling for freedom of education for women wearing the headscarf and, for transsexuals, the right to work?
"And now no one wants to get married,” says Muhammad, describing the reaction among men at his mosque to Morocco’s 2004 reform of personal status law. “Everyone is afraid to.”
In response to the patriarchal tendencies of the Islamist cultural revolution, a small group of Islamist and other Muslim women have reclaimed Qur’anic and other textual interpretation for their own purposes. The result is a new space for women within the Islamic tradition.
In the summer of 1993, True Path Party delegates — 99.8 percent of them males — selected Tansu Çiller as chairperson of their party and thus their candidate for prime minister. For the first time since 1934, when women gained the right to vote and to be elected to Parliament, a woman became prime minister of Turkey. If citizenship involves the rights and responsibilities of membership to a state, here was a woman who had fully exercised her right to head the government of her country.
F. Robert Hunter, The Palestinian Uprising: A War by Other Means (I. B. Tauris, 1991).
Joost Hiltermann, Behind the Intifada: Labor and Women’s Movements in the Occupied Territories (Princeton, 1991).
Julie Peteet, Gender in Crisis: Women and the Palestinian Resistance Movement (Columbia, 1991).
Writings on colonialism and post-colonial portrayals of the Third World are rife with constructions of the Other as feminine, or as subject, like women, to the passionate irrationality, weakness, cowardice, traditionalism and superstition that mark the feminine as subordinate in Western discourse. In the image of the Arabs, however, masculinity is foregrounded. The Western construction of Arab masculinity serves, like the ascription of femininity it displaces, to mark the subordination of the Other.
The Gulf way may ultimately transform Arab politics even more radically than the political-military defeats of 1948 and 1967. Those experiences were the midwives of self-critical reassessments that, while severe, accepted the fundamental legitimacy of Arab nationalism and its political project. In the 1980s a current of feminist thinking emerged, expressed most consistently in Lebanese women’s fiction about the civil war, that poses questions challenging the coherence and viability of this project and its ordering of political and social priorities.