Razan Ghazzawi receives award; Egyptian women attacked in Tahrir Square

Video on Razan’s work, from Front Line Defenders

Razan Ghazzawi, whom I’m proud to call my friend, received the Front Line Defenders 2012 award Thursday, from the Irish group dedicated to the security of human rights activists at risk. Naturally, she didn’t go to Dublin to receive the prize. She’s too busy on the front lines in Syria.

I adore and admire Razan for a number of reasons. Three good ones are that she is fiercely feminist, anarchist, and queer. Another is that she studied English literature at the University of Damascus, offering evidence that lit majors are not fated to permanent irrelevance in the universe. More encompassingly, she’s been a beacon of bravery to her fellow Syrian activists, in her uncompromising resistance to a regime that is determined to murder as many of its own people as it can — not even pour encourager les autres anymore, but with a kind of perverse and pointless aesthetic pleasure: murder for its own sake.

Razan is one of the few Syrian dissident bloggers to write under her own name. She also works for the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, supporting other bloggers and activists fighting for free speech and basic rights against the dictatorship. She has been arrested twice. In December 2011, she spent two weeks in prison after authorities detained her on her way to a conference in Amman on media freedom. On February 16, the security branch of the Syrian Air Force raided the SCM office and seized her and several colleagues. They released Razan and five other women three days later; “those three nights,” she wrote on her blog, “were the longest of my life.” Mahmoud Darwish, head of the Centre, is still jailed incommunicado along with eight other activists; Razan and others fear that all are being tortured. Razan herself faces trial before a military court on charges of  “possessing prohibited materials with the intent to disseminate them.”

Among the SCM employees still detained: (L-R) Mazen Darwish, Bassam al-Ahmad, Hussein Ghrer, Abdel Rahman Hmada

I got to know Razan last summer in Cairo, where she spent a few weeks in solidarity with the revolutionaries in Tahrir. Not for a second did she lose touch with what was happening on the ground back in Syria; I would see her almost every evening in some cafe, hunched over her laptop as though it were a campfire on a freezing night, e-mailing or blogging away. One day, she and a friend cooked an immense Syrian meal (no country with so good a cuisine deserves so bad a government) for me and an Egyptian sexuality activist. Somewhere between the courses she began offering a critique of the nascent Cairo attempts at organizing around sexual rights, one so cogent that I simply got out my own computer and took notes. Here are some of them — reproduced without her permission:

There is a problem with people socializing and connecting only around sexual orientation and sexuality.   You have a gay community that only talks about gay issues, not any other issues. …

I am not trying to tell gay people they should be active politically. That is a very patronizing position coming from above. The question is: how do we ask gay people to come to Tahrir, to oppose SCAF, to push for change in the current system? Since gay people experience oppression and repression, they should understand other forms of repression, but they don’t …

In a strange sort of way here in Egypt I am much more comfortable with people who are straight, who know what is going on in the wide world. It is their privilege—as heterosexuals, their thinking doesn’t have to be limited by their own oppression. That is power. I recognize that. But I want us, as gays, to think politically as well. So that after the revolution people will recognize that they, that we were here.

Razan thinks constantly about the connections, meaning that her concept of the Syrian revolution embraces and tests itself against the Egyptian revolution, the Occupy movements, the Palestinian cause, women’s rights, Sunni Islamists, secularists, lesbians and gays. In addition to boundless courage and energy, she has something every revolutionary needs, but that often gets left out of the package: a restless mind, too busy with reality to let itself ossify into ideology. In the months since I’ve come back from Cairo, I’ve often found myself thinking how much I miss her.

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square

Another finalist for the Front Line award was Mona Seif, the Egyptian activist and founder of the No Military Trials for Civilians movement. I equally admire Mona; scion of a family of leftist militants, she’s done more than anyone in Egypt to call attention to the 12,000 or more victims of military detention since the Revolution, along with the tortures the generals have retained in the State’s punitive repertory. In addition to being a courageous and strategic organizer, she’s one of the least pretentious rights activists I’ve met. Her complete immunity from the vagaries of ego is like a genetic quirk, so uncommon is it in the profession; it’s like meeting someone who never caught the common cold. Now, I immediately have to stop myself, and wonder: Would I be saying that about her if she were a man? I don’t think I’ve fallen prey to some insidious essentialism about femininity. But there used to be an idea about feminist practice — that it was going to open the way to a different kind of politics: in blunt terms, one where not everybody had to be a jerk. Historically, revolutions have been heavily testosterone-inducing affairs. The cult of radical heroism is like Rogaine for the chest hair; “It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for so huge a phallic triumph,” as W. H. Auden wrote about another venture in history-making.  It’s true, you’ve got your odd Olympe de Gouges or two partly redeeming revolutionary history, but for every one of them there’s a dozen Robespierres or Stalins or Hazem Abu Ismails grunting and showing off their balls.  Mona Seif and Razan Ghazzawi are, among other things, both reminders of how central women have been to the shifting seasons of the Arab Spring. They signal how the Spring proffered a different kind of revolutionary potential, still unfulfilled, but still there.

HarassMap: a web initiative to collect reports of sexual harassment from around Egypt. (For more information in Arabic, see harassmap.org)

It’s good to remember this, today of all days. This evening in Cairo, a few dozen women tried to hold a rally against sexual harassment, as part of a larger protest in Midan Tahrir over the Presidential candidacy of neo-Mubarakite Ahmed Shafiq.  The day before, a coalition of rights groups had condemned what they called a calculated and growing campaign of sexual assaults on women protesters. Earlier in the week, for instance, a crowd of almost 200 men had assaulted a women in Tahrir, harassing and abusing her till she lost consciousness. The groups claimed

that the amount of sexual harassment and violence against female demonstrators in Tahrir Square and the surrounding streets has been “worryingly” increasing since the outbreak of the recent wave of protests following the verdict issued against former President Hosni Mubarak and senior Interior Ministry officials on 2 June. …

The organizations stressed that the attacks suffered by female demonstrators, which violate the sanctity of their bodies and their physical safety, represent a barrier limiting the participation of women in the public sphere and disabling them from shaping the present and future of the country.

Nice try. The Associated Press describes what happened today:

A mob of hundreds of men assaulted women holding a march demanding an end to sexual harassment Friday, with the attackers overwhelming the male guardians and groping and molesting several of the female marchers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. …

Friday’s march was called to demand an end to sexual assaults. Around 50 women participated, surrounded by a larger group of male supporters who joined to hands to form a protective ring around them. The protesters carried posters saying, “The people want to cut the hand of the sexual harasser,” and chanted, “The Egyptian girl says it loudly, harassment is barbaric.”

After the marchers entered a crowded corner of the square, a group of men waded into the women, heckling them and groping them. The male supporters tried to fend them off, and it turned into a melee involving a mob of hundreds.

The marchers tried to flee while the attackers chased them and male supporters tried to protect them. But the attackers persisted, cornering several women against a metal sidewalk railing, including an Associated Press reporter, shoving their hands down their clothes and trying to grab their bags. The male supporters fought back, swinging belts and fists and throwing water.

Eventually, the women were able to reach refuge in a nearby building with the mob still outside until they finally got out to safety.

Here’s video from Al Masry Al Youm, featuring interviews with women marchers (I recognize and salute some of my friends), and, at the end, scenes of the attacks:

The male supporters were there because this wasn’t the first time this happened. In 2011, less than a month after Mubarak’s fall, men assaulted a march celebrating International Women’s Day, March 8. Those attacks were more spontaneous: they seemed to be an instinctive way of drawing a line around the Revolution, saying “This far and no farther.”  Dalia Abd Elhameed, an activist who was there, told me, “The men said, ‘We are not ready to hear about women’s rights: You can take your demands to the street, but not as women.'”

We started to march from the press syndicate to Tahrir, and the moment we reached Tahrir, people started to humiliate us: “Women’s rights, what are you talking about?  You want to be  president,” and so on. “Women can’t be president, because the man is the ruler of the house.”

After a while the hostility began to increase. They started shouting at us.  They chose a women in niqab, pointed at her, and said, “This is the mother of the martyrs, this is the example of the Egyptian woman, not you, you are prostitutes, you have to go home, no one wants you in the streets.”  I left by 5 pm. I know that half an hour later they began the sexual harassment, physical harassment, running after protesters, grabbing them by their clothes, describing the men who took part in the protest as khalawalat [faggots], not real men because you are supporting women’s rights.

Two male colleagues of mine also in that march blogged about it, here and here:

They were dealing with us like we are a group of prostitutes and pimps that want to deprive them of their religion … They accused us of working for the former first lady’s interests. Others accused us of being westernized or working for some foreign agendas. What was really provoking for them is that men were holding the banners too. Some of them pointed at me and described me as a fag who should wear a scarf over his head like women because he is a disgrace to the man kind .

And a film about the 2011 violence, with interviews with activists and attackers, is here.

Manifold anxieties and antinomies converged in the assaults. These fights are always mythic for the fighters: poverty pitted against privilege, the indigenous against the foreign, the virtuous against the corrupted. Today’s violence undoubtedly draws on the same fears, but seems dominated by a simple SCAF strategy to halve protests by scaring women away.

It’s horrifying. One’s mind turns inevitably to Mona Eltahawy’s controversial (to put it mildly) article for Foreign Policy‘s “Sex Issue” this spring: “Why Do They Hate Us?” “The real war on women is in the Middle East,” Eltahawy warned. And Mona herself, one should note, was sexually assaulted by security forces when arrested near Midan Tahrir last November.

Versions of Foreign Policy’s cover photo: Paint it black

Now, that piece produced an uproar. Friends and colleagues of mine roundly denounced it as a superficial blandishment to imperialism (you can read some of the disputations herehere, and here, and there are many more). To a large degree, the outrage was inseparable from the article’s visuals and venue. Foreign Policy, which markets itself to the younger and cooler breed of US diplomats and wonks, packaged Eltahawy’s contribution under a cover showing an otherwise-divested woman in black painted-on niqab. (When you download the photo from their website, you find its title, tellingly if inadvertently, is “120418_Sex_Centerfold_193.jpeg”.)  “Cover” — and its opposite — are the operative words. If the “Sex Issue” in general –focusing heavily on Iran and the Arab world and presenting them as chock full of erotic peculiarities — sent the message that sex means the Middle East, the shot itself conveyed Get your Middle Eastern women, here, uncovered! You couldn’t miss the imperial implication that a US magazine had the power to display the Middle Eastern woman and her secrets, all stripped and splayed for perusal. The “Sex Issue” sold itself neither as fact nor fiction, but as pure fetish.

The Blue Bra: Photo accompanying Eltahawy’s article

Eltahawy’s article tried to argue about abuses rooted in power relations in the region, but inevitably the mind kept swinging back to the cover image, seemingly telling you where power really lay: saying that gender in the Middle East had been rendered a tool for US policy, as incarnate in Foreign Policy. Inside, the article came decorated with one of the more celebrated and frightening Egyptian images of the last year — a female protester in the hands of Cairene riot police, her black jilbab ripped open to show her blue bra.  But even that iconic photograph couldn’t override the shock-value strip-tease on the cover. The violent denuding had already been done. Woman with a capital “W” had already been stripped by the American gaze, even before you got to Eltahawy’s page.

I stayed out of the arguments Eltahawy’s article provoked, partly because I am not, as a general rule, a Middle Eastern woman. But the symbolic issue on which many of the attacks centered — who is being revealed or unveiled, for whose eye? — seemed less significant to me than a different issue of representation that other commentators took up. Eltahawy’s piece revolved around two categories, two pronouns, which seemed monolithic, unmodulated and uninflected. “They” hate “us.”

I thought about that in reading about the Cairo assaults today. i thought about it because those are the terms in which the oppressed are prone to think. Oppression elides fine distinctions. You don’t look for the delicate shades of difference among the oppressors, number the stripes on the truncheon that is beating you. Oppression presents itself as a huge and unanimous weight, crushing the breath out of you. Its exhaustive solidity prohibits breaking it down into agents, acts, and motives. From the vantage of those being crushed, it is a bulk that extinguishes tactility and a shadow that exterminates vision.

Oppression: The left sand knoweth not what the right sand doeth

And similarly, oppression makes the oppressed lose their sense of distinction from one another. Individuality, privacy, identity are the first things to go when freedom does. You experience an involuntary solidarity with the anonymous rest of the unfree, without alternative or option, the common interest of those who have no interests left. The massive burden of power pressing down grinds everybody into the mass. Who oppresses you? “Them.” Who are the oppressed? “Us.”

I’m pretty sure the women and men reeling from the attacks in Midan Tahrir felt like that today, as night set in. The problem is that you can’t act, you can’t resist, that way, trapped in the apprehension of monolithic forces. You can only fight back if you can analyze power, think your way past its apparent invincibility, see though its bland carapace into its separate interests and components. There is no single “them” hating women, in the Middle East or elsewhere. Patriarchy does many things, but it has never succeeded in uniting men (or societies) into a single undivided phalanx. There are different motives, different classes, different constituencies with different investments in different forms of women’s oppression. It’s not as though you can always play divide and conquer with them, but you have to know them and name them and recognize their partialities before you can resist.

Moreover, the solidarity that oppression imposes on the oppressed is ultimately a fake one. It won’t last. Real solidarities start with recognizing that you’re free to differ, not feeling the raw force that reduces you to the same. If you keep imagining there’s a solid “us” united permanently by the experience of somebody hating you, you’ll never get around to the hard work of politics: figuring out what else you share and what understandings can ally you.

Razan, I think, is particularly good at all this work, which is why her contributions to the revolutions of the Arab Spring will likely be lasting ones. The same is true of Mona Seif, who has engaged with a range of intersecting and cross-fertilizing issues as an activist. Moving the imagination a little beyond the vivid but paralyzing world of “them” and “us” is incremental and painful. But only that movement moves forward.

2 thoughts on “Razan Ghazzawi receives award; Egyptian women attacked in Tahrir Square

  1. Pingback: Hillel Neuer: Liar. Mona Seif: Hero. | a paper bird

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