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The Backdoor and The Window: Narratives of Gender Work and Feminism in Egypt

By Mohamed Kouta
Editor-in-Chief

While gender work and feminism are generally viewed synonymously within mainstream discourse, Associate Research Professor at the Social Research Center Hania Sholkamy says they are in fact separate attempts at engaging with women’s issues.

During her lecture, part of the Interdisciplinary Brownbag Lunch Series hosted by the Department of Political Science on March 18, Sholkamy presented a diverse set of images, ranging from the infamous blue-bra picture, which showed officers stripping and dragging a woman in Tahrir in 2011, to queues of women waiting to vote to women protesting in the streets.

These all highlight what Sholkamy believes to be two redacted gender narratives that attempt to explain the positionality of women in Egypt in this historical moment.

“They are redacted because there are omissions involved. There are things that we find difficult to talk about or don’t make a lot of sense to us,” she said.

Sholkamy uses the first image – of women in line to vote – to argue that women are a key group.

“Women as a political constituency have been carved out and created by a number of events and intentional interventions to make women into a political group.”

Sholkamy rebukes both national and international media for this “sloppy” homogenization of women.

Her central point is that there are many women, and so there should be many narratives. However, these are eclipsed by two dominant ones.

The first is activism, in all its forms, ranging from the blue-bra story to women in political participation to the nationalistic love women expressed during the uproar.

At this point, Sholkamy showed the infamous image of an old woman kissing a soldier on the cheek.

But loss and retribution, such as that of women ousted from the political arena to the mothers of martyrs, are also forms of participation.

These diverse stories fit into the narratives that Sholkamy wishes to destabilize. The two approaches she critiques are the gender narrative and the feminist narrative.

“Gender narratives are prescriptions of equitable outcomes; what the state does, what the United Nations (UN) does, what development agencies do, through a variety of methods,” she said.

Feminism, however, is very different because it seeks to unsettle power, she said. This does not mean that the two approaches are not complementary.

In fact, much gender work refers to the work of feminists, who have informed many contemporary women’s issues.

This symbiotic relationship, she argues, is fractured and ultimately, cannot be sustained.

“This lovefest between what is essentially an agenda about trying to improve things within a certain parameter, and another approach that is about unsettling power is unstable.”

Feminism, she said, is limited in that it does not envision an end game. Gender work, however, is prescriptive not only in how it is achieved but also what it wants to achieve.

“You can describe it empirically and numerically to know you’re there. The problem with feminists is that they don’t have this. There is a very idyllic sense of liberation, but what does [that] look like?” she asked.

She then returns to the images from Egypt to show that power can unsettle itself.

The “co-optation” of women’s issues as a proxy for a certain type of progressive politics is the lowest bar and the most attainable, which can be demonstrated through women’s support for illiberal policies.

While it is indeed fair for women to be represented in parliament, what Sholkamy calls for is to go further and question the legitimacy of these institutions and acknowledge the extent to which they can deliver gender justice.

Feminism, on the other hand, can seem countercultural. And the global sisterhood that the international discourses on feminism is built on is weakened.

“You can have the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), but that isn’t global sisterhood because the mechanism for choosing who goes, who says what and what happens in the sessions is not what global sisterhood is supposed to be about.”

Sholkamy argues that therefore, there is indeed a contradiction between these two narratives based on how women construct their subjectivities. The good citizen and the outlier are in radically different places.

“This is why, in Egypt, collective action is appropriated and personal experiences are atomized and because of that, the space for engagement is getting smaller. Maybe there are more women in public spaces, but their ability to reach women in private spaces is diminishing,” she said.

Women in private spaces are absent in the public space because they are opted out and cannot be absorbed.

Sholkamy outlines three actors for gender justice: international institutions, national machineries and civil society. Turning to the first agent, she shows how the post-2015 Agenda while presenting typical gender issues is scarce in feminist issues.

For example, the gender agenda ensures greater access to work but does not recognize the particulars of unpaid work. Similarly, the gender agenda advocates female representation but does not question their legitimacy.

“The Iraqi parliament imposed by the American army had 25 percent women, but is that necessarily a good thing?”

She nevertheless concedes that the international feminist bureaucracy – the Femocracy – has been effecting change, but that this is a shrinking space devoid of critical engagement.

At the national level, Egypt is a prime example of how significant advances of women’s rights as effected by the state.

These include the right to vote in 1952, the right to mobility after the state allowed women the right to issue a passport on their own, the khul’ divorce and the child protection laws.

“Every girl that can escape FGM, no matter what the regime that instilled this, we have to recognize it as something valuable,” she said.

However, she questions how we can maintain the viability of a feminist movement if it has to rely on another – the state – to have an effect.

She then turns to civil society, whom she divides into two groups: one that is contested and an apolitical group that nevertheless has large community presence.

However, the women in both camps did not communicate with one another until the “extreme” duress they now find themselves in.

“That missed opportunity has weakened this movement tremendously.”

Sholkamy returns to the present moment to claim that there is definite lip service being paid to women’s rights, but that the emphasis is still overwhelmingly on basic needs instead of strategic needs.

Strategic needs, those which unsettle power, are being made basic. The tools being used are all about criminalizing and control.

For example, protecting women on the streets through increased police presence is not liberating for women, who still do not feel free to go out and be supported in their right to the street.

But there is progress in that the contentious has become acceptable at all levels of society, even if it has been appropriated by the state because they do effect real change for women.

“Is this a backdoor for depoliticized feminism or a window into activating women’s sense of their own rights? It’s difficult to tell.”

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