Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt: A Revolution With Invisible Women

Egypt is going into its fifth day of protests against the Mubarak regime today. It is following the example of Tunisia who successfully toppled their government and replaced it with a new one that has said it will respect civil and political liberties to a greater extent than the previous government.

Interesting in violent uprisings like these is how the women are largely invisible. Firstly, this is because men are the primary perpetrators of as well as participators in violence in political uprisings (see The Gendered Society by Michael Kimmel as well as Cynthia Cockburn (2001) 'Gender in armed conflict and peace processes',
in The Cyprus Review), but it also has to do with the focus of conflicts and violence as male.

There is coverage of women in the revolution, for instance this piece on women in the Egypt revolution or this shorter piece kindly given to me by Twitterer @trishzanetti. The major news outlets' coverage of women is, however, shining with its absence.

I have mainly been watching the Al Jazeera coverage of the Egypt revolution because of its presence in the region and the availability of a live stream of video coverage rather than text, but I have also followed the news on various web sites, such as the Guardian's live blog as well as the BBC's live blog. What has struck me as really obvious is the lack of women in the commentary on the revolution. While Al Jazeera has had women reporting on the revolution, the experts and commentators from the ground have been heavily over-represented by male views. The Guardian's coverage is mainly by men, and in the expert comments provided on their live blog through Reuters three out of four are male.

In coverage of revolutions and violent clashes like these it is important to point out the absence of women. Militarism and violence are both attributed to masculinities by female and male masculinist and feminist scholars alike (again, see Kimmel above); it is a male system built on a male perspective that ironically relies on both males and females for its continuation. Males take an active part in violence, both in war and political revolutions, and females take over the male responsibilities while this is going on, added on to their usual continued responsibility for the family sphere as well as the bearers and rearers of culture (future and present children).

What is more is that males and females experience conflicts differently (see Caroline Moser, 'Victims, Perpetrators or Actors: Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence') in their respective roles. In a period of civil and/or political unrest and during violent conflicts, gendered violence, including domestic violence, increases (see any of the references above, as well as official UN documents on conflict) and this violence is perpetrated by men toward women.

During situations like this revolution in Egypt, women's movements tend to organise and join together for peace and progress in society (Cynthia Cockburn has written extensively on women's organisations in conflict). Where is the coverage of this? Where are the representatives of these organisations, and why are they not invited to comment on the revolution? Peace-promoting women's rights organisations have been organised for decades, and they are represented in the Arab world, so why do we not hear their voices?

United Nations Resolution 1325 stresses the importance of including women in (re)construction of societies in order to ensure that women are being sufficiently represented and that their concerns are voiced, included and implemented in social policy. This resolution has been drafted in the way that it has because it has been recognised that women experience conflicts differently and that they are heavily underrepresented in the (re)construction of a society, leading to their exclusion from the (re)constructed society in the wake of a conflict. Resolution 1325 is supposed to be a way to ensure that women are being considered and included in a society that is going through (re)construction, because a society cannot be fair and equal and guarantee people their rights if the entire people is not heard.

While what is going on in Egypt presently is not a war in the classic sense, it is hopefully an end of an oppressive regime into one where the people's concern is taken into consideration. Considering that women are also people, it is surprising and disconcerting that their voices are not heard more in the media. If 85% of the speakers, commentators, experts and news anchors are male, all sides of the conversation is not covered. It will inevitably become a skewed coverage working within a framework of male perspectives. The female perspective is invisible - it exists, but it is not heard. Consequently, what is heard is not the people's voice, it is the male voice.

I have written over and over about the importance of rhetoric. This includes the inclusion and the exclusion of voices as well as the normative framework one chooses to operate within. If this revolution is to ensure the Egyptian people's rights, it needs to include women too. Media can start by helping out to bring them onto the agenda, instead of allowing them to remain invisible.

These links to women in the revolution were posted in the comments section:
A Facebook album of women participating in the protest
The Humanitarian Space has also raised concerns over the invisibility of women in the Egypt revolution, with more specific references to women's movements in Egypt.



  2. Thank you for the beautiful photos! I'm also glad to see that I'm not the only one asking where the women are. Obviously we know that they are there, but they are just made invisible, unfortunately.

  3. Hey, Thanks for the link. I really appreciate what you wrote here. One thing I've found is that a lot of friends in Cairo report that the women are doing the majority of protesting now that the men are having to work to secure their neighborhoods. This is quite the reversal of the typically assumed gender dynamics of the mid-east, wherein men occupy public space and women maintain domestic space. As you said, where is the coverage of these important events? Having lived for some time in Egypt, I can attest that the social dynamics for men and women are quite different, but they are not necessarily oppressive. In fact, they are incredibly fluid, and it seems the most oppressive force right now would be the inability for media coverage to recognize this.

    The Humanitarian Space

  4. Thank you! I really enjoyed your piece on it. I don't know much about gender in Egypt specifically so it was interesting to see some analysis with a more country-specific focus. I was also glad to discover I'm not alone in observing this.

    I have actually heard the same thing: reports of women taking over protesting from the men because they need to rest after not sleeping for days are out there, if you look for them, but only then. What really frustrates me with this whole invisibility of women is that it seems to be an unconscious choice not to bring them in, not someone thinking 'nah, it's not relevant to have the women', but they simply do not think they are important enough. It's insulting to say the least.

    Gender roles in any country in an uprising become uncertain. This is one of the greatest problems and potentials for equality. If Egypt have fluid roles already, they are even more likely to become so now. Women are actively taking part in a revolution, and this cannot, and will not, be ignored after this is over. The time for including them was yesterday. This is a brilliant opportunity to ensure that this (hopefully new) society will include women and women's needs from the start. It is so frustrating to sit on the sidelines and watch media, experts and politicians ignoring them over and over again.