Thursday, 5 January 2012

Egyptian Woman Protestor Beaten at Tahrir Square

I have been deliberating on issues related to ‘Commodification of Women’ and ‘Objectification of Women in Popular Culture.’ It has become imperative that a sharing of thoughts takes place amongst friends so that an appropriate approach or alternative perspective emerges to negotiate this complicated and controversial aspect of human behaviour. The proposal is to post a series of notes and for friends to respond with their take on the issue. These postings are a preliminary exploration of the issue and trait observable in everyday life.

There has been a mediated image of a woman protestor from Cairo (Egypt), which has become a showcase for Arab Spring, courtesy Mass Media. The picture has drawn comments and narratives from all corners of world. However, reacting to most bloggers' response to the Egyptian Security Forces' manhandling the woman, I am constrained to point out the perceived hypocrisy on the part of most Arab commentators.
Why are most Middle East narratives screaming about how armed personnel manhandled a ‘Muslim’ woman (the operative word being Muslim), her ‘blue brazier’ exposed and she robbed of her honour, dignity, and who now has to wear a veil of shame. It seems by implication that it is ok to strip a non-Muslim woman! Further the Egyptian male's media consumption habits indicate that women are viewed as a commodity through advertisements and other popular culture. But when a woman protester finds herself exposed at the hands of security forces, we hear voices crying foul. One can sense the male hypocrisy in apparent social sanctions where woman is a property and in need of protection. Worse still, one can detect the deep-rooted tradition of women’s objectification in a society torn with civil strife.
In fact, Egyptian society has consistently betrayed the sexual objectification of women, be it in their films, dance form or fashion. According to Rebecca Chiao, one of the principal players behind HarassMap, an online crowdsourcing resource that allows women in Egypt, to anonymously report incidents of sexual harassment, "every time you walk out of the house, you are under attack – physically and verbally." Los Angeles Times, dateline November 17, 2011 | 12:34pm, reports how a young Egyptian feminist and political activist, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, recently startled the Egyptian nation by posting a nude self-portrait on her blog. She explains her action as a scream “against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy” in contemporary pro-puritanical Egypt. According to Mona Eltahawy of The Guardian, dateline Friday 18 November 2011 15.36 GMT, “when a woman is the sum total of her headscarf and hymen – that is, what's on her head and what is between her legs – then nakedness and sex become weapons of political resistance.”
It is pertinent to note that images of women, like children, historically become commodities during war or conflict scenarios in ways that men’s are not. Male patriarchal societies view them as goods to protect or spoils for the victor. War or agitation, like so many other things in life, objectifies women. Thus, the mediated image of the Egyptian pro-democracy protester is an act of enforcing the familiar. We are accustomed to seeing the limp, half-naked bodies of women and girls as a vehicle to market perfumes to cars to shoes. These images, also, form a familiar landscape of popular culture and reports of war, honour killings, and gender targeted crimes. Such a cultural conditioning eggs us to adopt an interpretive frame of reference for such images. We find ourselves adopting a posture and a viewpoint where the protester is a victim and therefore an object of either pity or shame.
In reality, what we see in the picture is a universal response of any security force when dealing with forceful protestors. Protestors, like revolutionaries have no gender but are defined by the cause and driven by a passion for change. Somehow, the choice of adjective used to qualify the protestor has left a bad taste in the mouth. It would be saner to use qualifiers like dedicated, passionate, angry, disgruntled, frustrated, or vociferous as security forces come heavily down on protesting Egyptian Intelligentsia.
Why is the 'sex' or for that matter even the religion of the protestor important - why are the highhanded efforts of the Egyptian army not the centre of discussion in this context? The two images on the right show security forces elsewhere on the globe forcefully handling protesters. Yet we do not hear about the need to protect the honour of these violated men. Social conditioning does not permit members of society to view men as commodities, therefore it is considered manly if you came back scarred from a war. But for a woman,  these are scars of shame. The Burqa (or Abaya) is a symbol of women’s modesty; therefore, the protestor’s gender becomes the focal point as does the woman’s subservient role in a conservative male dominated society. One hears disturbing voices of young knights wanting to embark on a quest like modern day Don Quixotes to “retrieve” her “honour.” This mind-set reinforces the concept of women as property, which men need to constantly guard and goods that serve the victor as trophies of war.  
Modesty and Honour are not problems in themselves! Many women may choose the veil for reasons they find meaningful and significant. Modesty as defined by the veil, becomes a serious problem only if it serves as an instrument to continuously and obsessively focus on women as sex. Modesty, as some Taliban, Wahabi and Salafi voices argue, does not permit women to go out in the streets rubbing shoulders with men as workers and entrepreneurs. Women, as per conservative voices, have no business to be out and protesting! Well, they are out protesting because they are equal in suffering; in denial of rights to express and exercise choice, they are equal in expressing their desire for change and removal of an oppressive martial regime! Oppressors have no gender; they are the powerful elite who have everything to lose in any popular revolution!
The image assumes its true potency and import once we liberate the ensuing narrative of its misogynistic fetters. Today women are agents in conflict and agents of change. We see in the picture, a saga of an everyday protestor facing the wrath of security instruments of an oppressive regime. We see no flesh, no gender, no shame, but an activist of a popular democratic movement. We see a warrior! Moreover, it is difficult not to see the photograph as a social document. It does raise some questions, and it speaks volumes… Let us not go to battle for her. Why not go to battle with her!

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