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Postcolonial Studies
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Challenges of thinking feminism and


revolution in Egypt between 2011 and
2014
Lucia Sorbera
Published online: 11 Jun 2014.

To cite this article: Lucia Sorbera (2014) Challenges of thinking feminism and revolution in Egypt
between 2011 and 2014, Postcolonial Studies, 17:1, 63-75, DOI: 10.1080/13688790.2014.912193
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2014.912193

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Postcolonial Studies, 2014, Vol. 17, No. 1, 6375

Challenges of thinking feminism and


revolution in Egypt between 2011 and
2014
LUCIA SORBERA
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The space of history in understanding the Egyptian revolution


We cant measure the nature of political current events unless we situate them in
the longue dure. More than 15 years since their first publication, the words of the
historian Alain Roussillon continue to illuminate our understanding of Egypts
republican history:
understanding Egyptwriting its history, describing its social or political systems,
and decoding present ideologiesinvolves highlighting long-term, quasi-ecological
continuities linked to the relation between river and desert, while showing how the
breaks, apparent or effective, that create the rhythm of this long historychanges in
language, religion, foreign mastersrecompose the meaning of continuity while
confirming it.1

One of the important and largely overlooked continuities in Egyptian political


history is the permanence of a patriarchal approach to politics by the ruling elites.
In this context, feminism stands as a resilient revolutionary force, and the idea of
revolution, as it has been conceptualized by Michael Hardt, and used by other
authors in this volume, sheds light on its history. Michael Hardt defines human
nature as changeable and constituted by the way people act. Human nature is
inscribed in a historical process of transformations, made of habits and practices
that are the result of past struggles, hierarchies, victories and defeats. The
following statement on revolution fits the development of feminism in Egypt, and
its contribution to political history:
revolution is not just about a transformation for democracy. Revolution really
requires a transformation of human nature so that people are capable of democracy.
Its a process that not only destroys habits of servitude and develops capacities for
self-rule but also inspires political imagination and expands their desires, which can
press far beyond the present political situation.2

In this essay I relate Egyptian feminist history to this conceptualization of


revolution. Building upon the compelling idea of human revolution, a concept
which, interestingly, recurs also in contemporary Egyptian discourse (thawra
insaniyya), I argue that, during the long Egyptian twentieth century,3 feminist
activism inspired a human transformation, which is part of the process leading to
25 January. But before articulating this idea, it is necessary to clarify our
2014 The Institute of Postcolonial Studies
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2014.912193

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LUCIA SORBERA

understanding of the relationship between revolution and feminism in Egypt. As


we learn from Joan Scott in one of the foundational essays in womens history,
THOSE WHO WOULD CODIFY THE MEANING OF THE WORDS fight a
losing battle, for words, like the idea and things they are meant to signify, have a
history.4 The ideas of feminism and revolution are not universal notions which
have been stated once and forever, but they are situated in a multitude of specific
contexts and, most importantly, their significance changes according to the time.
Words, as theories, travel5 and, during their journey, they intersect in a close
weave of relationships, which contribute to interlacing a cultural discourse.
In modern Egyptian history, if there are two words whose meanings are
constantly and deeply intertwined, these words are feminism and revolution.
Grounded on my own and other scholars research on the Egyptian feminist
movement,6 this essay explores the history of this encounter, and then focuses on
the evolution that has occurred in the last three years, when, in the aftermath of
the fall of Mubaraks regime, new forms of womens activism emerged from
underground. The views and actions of the emerging womens movement are
situated along the extended line of the feminist revolution, which I examine
through the methodology of oral history, and through the analysis of the idea of
protection in Egyptian feminist discourse, as opposed to the patriarchal
discourse.
A gendered history of revolution in Egypt
In Egyptian political history, some events are perceived as milestones, and the
Arabic sources refer to them using the word thawra (revolution). It is remarkable
that the long series of these events start out in the broader context of a long
cultural revolution, the dawn of Egyptian modernity,7 which had deep, complex,
and not always positive implications for women.
In 1881, the lower ranks of the Egyptian army (who were native Egyptians)
rebelled against the high ranks, belonging to the Turco-Circassian elite. This
revolt was titled, after the name of its leader, thawrat Urabi, and, as underlined
by the historian Juan Cole, it constituted a multiclass alliance which included
also an element of peasant revolt against large holders.8 The Khediv Tawfiq,
grandnephew of the first governor who strove to make Egypt an independent
countrythe official of the Ottoman Army, Muhammad Ali, ruler from 1805 to
1849called Great Britains army to suppress the revolt and to defend the crown.
The British were anxious to intervene. They needed to maintain their imperial
privilege and to defend European companies economic interests on Egyptian soil.
Egypt, which since the 1876 bankruptcy fell under European companies
economic domination, was then under military occupation. With the complicity
of a significant segment of the native elite (landowners, the urban high
bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy), the doors were opened to colonization.
It is remarkable that, in the following decades, the circumstances leading to the
Urabis revolt and its outcomes found space not only in imperialist and
nationalist political historiography, but also in an emerging literary genre:
womens memoirs. In fact, the memoirs of two pioneers of Egyptian feminism,
the founding leader of the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU), Huda Sharawi Pasha
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CHALLENGES OF THINKING FEMINISM AND REVOLUTION IN EGYPT

(18791947), and the pioneer in womens education, Nabawiyya Musa (1890


1951),9 both discuss the political events of their day, including the Urabis revolt.
As noticed elsewhere by feminist literary criticism, womens literature, and in
particular womens memoirs, do not just focus on private life, but rather frame the
narration of private life within a broader context, where the telling the intimacy
intersects with politics and may in fact be considered a political act in itself.10
The two authors relate their narrative of the 1881 revolts to their own familys
history, namely, to the role that their fathers playedor were credited to have
playedin it. More specifically, the aristocratic Huda Sharawi disavows
allegations against her father, Sultan Sharawi Pasha, who was accused of
facilitating the British invasion. On the other side, Nabawiyya Musa points out
with pride that her late father, a military in the Egyptian army, took part in the
Urabis revolt. At the time they wrote their memoirs, the two authors were
leading feminists. As has been observed by Margot Badran, Huda Sharawi and
the EFU inscribed their discourse about womens emancipation within the broader
frame of liberal and secular nationalism, Islamic modernism and humanitarian
discourse.11 In a period when women were still un-enfranchised, were not allowed
to run for or vote in elections, and were not even enjoying equal opportunities in
education and and paid work, feminists challenged two patriarchal cultures: the
indigenous patriarchal culture (both the secular and the religious), and the colonial
patriarchal culture. Both of them represented significant segments of modernity,
which was certainly promoting womens modernization, but was ambiguous
towards their emancipation. This was the context which was the dawn of womens
revolution.
Egypt had British troops on its soil from 1882 to 1956, when Gamal Abd alNasser forced them to leave. Between 1914 and 1922, while Egypt was a British
protectorate, women activists and intellectuals were vocal against colonial
policies, and the EFU included the fight against colonial exploitation in Egypt and
in the rest of the Arab world within its broad political feminist agenda. The debate
over the ambiguity of the word protection in the political field surfaced again in
the last decades of the twentieth century, when the writer Nawal El Saadawi, a
core voice of Egyptian feminism since the 1970s, deconstructed it, showing that,
in reality, this word has concealed colonialism and exploitation:
For example, the word protection seems a very positive word. British colonialism in
Egypt was inaugurated by a military occupation in 1882. It hindered our economic
and cultural development for more than seventy years [] Today the neocolonizers
do not use the word protection any more. The colonized people in Egypt, Africa,
India and elsewhere have seen through it. The word protection was demystified
through peoples living experience; protection to us in Egypt now means
colonialism.12

Under the British protectorate, plans to promote education, including womens


education, were hampered.13 In her memoirs, Nabawiyya Musa documents the
ambiguities of British officialsincluding womentowards Egyptian womens
education,14 and the journalist Doria Shafik (19081975) praises Egyptian
feminists and nationalist liberal male intellectuals role in developing womens
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LUCIA SORBERA

schools.15 History demonstrates that Egypt did not want to be left under
protection. Specifically, the Egyptian nationalists early last century were
opposing the Protectorate status the British had imposed on them. Within this
context, Egyptian women challenged the patriarchal discourse on protection
(both the nationalist and the colonial): they were ready to join the revolution,
and in March 1919 they took to the streets alongside men, demanding the
liberation of their nation.

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Feminists protecting the revolution against patriarchal powers


One of the most evident expressions of the continuing feminist and human
revolution in Egypt is the desire to reappropriate the public space. At the
beginning of the twentieth century, women faced both practical and symbolic
challenges. Part of the journey into public space was the journey of the voice in
the form of the written word that could transcend domestic confinement. This was
pursued through different steps, starting from the pioneering activity of women
writers and journalists from the late nineteenth century,16 to a broader acknowledgement of women novelists contribution to the literary canon in the second
half of the twentieth century,17 to the current overwhelming presence of women in
literature. A few decades after womens writing started to penetrate public space,
demands for equal access to all levels of formal education became a priority. The
first cohort of women students enrolled at Cairo University in 1929 and
opportunities for womens education became more frequent from the 1960s.
The political sphere was more challenging. Taking part in the 1919 anti-British
uprising was not enough to gain the suffrage. The liberal male elite, which in
1922 assumed the political leadership of the country, did not grant women
political rights. Women obtained the right to vote only in 1956, but, as denounced
by many feminist organizations, the political gender gap remained wide, and still
is today.18
A further, continuing, and historically rooted battlefield to re-appropriate the
public space is symbolic. It is the right for self-representation.19 Egyptian women
proposed their own vision of gender and history in biographical and autobiographical writing, a literary space where they were both authors and objects of
narration, and where narration was part of a broader political agency.20 At the
ninth congress of the International Women Suffrage Alliance, which was held in
Rome in 1923,21 Huda Sharawi appeared extraordinarly conscious of the
European obsession with Oriental women, and in her interviews with the Italian
and European press, which seemed only interested in her looks, she didnt simply
challenge orientalist myths, but she reversed them with the aim of addressing the
political issues which were her priorities: colonization, education, and health.22
Returning from this conference, Huda Shaarawi and Saiza Nabarawi gave the
press a picture representing their own unveiled faces.23 This was not the first time
that two women of their social class challenged the tradition of not appearing
veiled in public; in fact elite women were appearing unveiled earlier, specifically
the non-Muslim elites, and also Nabawiyya Musa had quietly uncovered her face
around 1909. However, this was the first time that two Egyptian women activists
undertook a feminist journey,24 and this was revolutionary.
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CHALLENGES OF THINKING FEMINISM AND REVOLUTION IN EGYPT

Womens reappropriation of the public space continued all through the


twentieth century, with participation in a range of political movements, from the
Marxists to the Islamists, with the achievement of the suffrage in 1956, and with
the fight to reform the personal status law, which is still an ongoing battle.
During the 2011 revolution, women writers and intellectuals, alongside students
and working-class women, inundated the public space, the square, to assert their
will, as Egyptian citizens, to remove the regime. Ahdaf Soueifs ardent memoir of
the revolution can be read along the line of this historically sedimented process of
womens reappropriation of the public space. Its title, Cairo. My City, Our
Revolution, is a statement. At a popular level, street art and, in particular, the
explosion of graffiti, is a clear sign of the will to reappropriate the public space,
and women are part of this movement. Women are both highly represented in
graffiti and they participate in their production. A 30-year-old woman artist told
me in December 2011: I make street art to represent my identity and express
myself and to express solidarity with people protesting in Tahrir Square and
everywhere in Egypt nowadays. I started doing it during the 8th July sit-in, after
25th January then. I am expressing myself through messages.25
The artist says that she uses graffiti as a powerful medium to communicate with
people and to contrast with state media, which are associated with the regime:
We want them to understand the truth of SCAF that killed people in Mohammed
Mahmud Street, and in recent days in November for example, they say that didnt kill
anyone, there were lots of martyrs instead. There is a lot to be searched yet. And also
about sexual harassment there is a big problem, because there arent a lot of graffitis
about this issue and it must be discussed.26

Among the numerous graffiti which were painted in Cairo in 2012, there is a
stencil representing a woman who protects a revolutionary man from teargas,
suggesting that women are not in need of protection, but they are actually
protecting the revolution against patriarchal violence.
The revolution is affecting the way women and men in Egypt perceive the
meaning of words. Revolution is producing a continuous re-semantization of the
political lexicon. This leads us to a further question: what does protection mean
in the context of the continuing revolution?
On the eve of 25 January 2011, a member of the April 6 movement,27
Asma Mahfouz, launched a call to demonstration to Egyptian people, in
which she appropriates the words of patriarchal culturehonour, manhood,
protectionand she re-invents them to claim her right, as a young Egyptian
woman, to join the protests: If you consider yourselves a man, come with me on
January 25. Instead of saying that women should not come, because they will be
beaten, lets show a bit of honour, be men, come with me on January 25.28 This
action of appropriation and re-invention of the words of the oppressorin this
case, patriarchal authoritarianismby the dissident is part of Egyptian feminist
heritage. The re-appropriation of the public space by Egyptian women is also in
continuity with their participation in the workers movement for labour rights in
the early 2000s, where, as highlighted by Tara Povey in her recent study, women
challenged the governments propaganda that stated that it was shameful for
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LUCIA SORBERA

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Muslim women strikers to sleep in the streets.29 The main contribution of feminism to Egyptian culture has been the effort to challenge patriarchal institutions,
and to promote womens emancipation. This is a legacy of anti-patriarchal
struggle which today can be vital to real democratic change. Nawal El Saadawi
relates this art to creativity, and she explains that the creative word is intrinsically
dissident. Dissident authors can use the languages of imperialism and oppression,
forging them into instruments of liberation.30
Young women activists are articulating new approaches to feminism, and the
experience of the 18 days in Tahrir Square has been crucial in developing a new
awareness, and experiencing what they call a personal revolution (thawra
insaniyya):
I used to have very bad fights with them, my brother and my dad. I got back home at
9 am and there was no mobile phone, they couldnt reach me anywhere during the
day, and they just saw on TV the army was in the street and this had never
happened before, because during the revolution they lost the control on me totally for
the first time. It was a kind of personal revolution as well.31

In the first instance, women activists rejected being explicitly labelled as


feminists, rather preferring a more inclusive and human-rights grounded approach
to political participation in the revolution, as emerges from the words of a young
woman blogger:
I dont think that gender is on the top of the list and I appreciated that when I was in
Tahrir, I wasnt a gendered, I was just an Egyptian that has a priority with respect to
my gender. But that was in a state where I was treated equal, because I was the
member of a huge force that was trying to topple a status quo. That was a beautiful
moment to live. [] Thats why when Im asked about women coming out and
leading the revolution and their role, I personally believe that women were
instrumental to the process of the revolution as men were regardless of their gender,
because it was about power and numbers, and it was about what you were saying and
what your beliefs are, and not about whether or not you have boobs [sic].32

For this activist, the Tahrir experience was also a liberation from a gender issue
which under the regime was manipulated by the authoritarian state and by
international actors. It is true that gender was not an issue in the 18 days of Tahrir,
but it became an issue soon after, when verbal and physical attacks against
women became recurrent. For growing numbers, the revolution increased the
awareness of gender as a political problem, both in the institutional sphere, where
the gender gap is immense, and in the public space, where sexual assaults are
becoming a tool to intimidate women (at least half of the protesters) to take part in
demonstrations.33 Since 8 March 2011 women have been under ferocious assault
by gangs of harassers and by the police, but neither street aggression, nor the socalled virginity tests intimidated them. Rather, these experiences again
positioned gender justice at the centre of the revolutionary agenda. A programme
director from the non-governmental organization Nazra for Feminist Studies
makes very clear that, in the view of her organization, gender issues are political
issues:
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CHALLENGES OF THINKING FEMINISM AND REVOLUTION IN EGYPT

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When I talk about political participation, I am talking about a more democratic political
environment, when I talk about violence against women, I talk about womens existence
and participation in the public and political sphere. [] If you talk about freedom,
dignity and social justice, well, these are also womens demands, if you think of what
women are demanding, they are demanding freedom, they are demanding social justice,
because a lot of them, you know that have you heard about the feminization of
poverty in Egypt? This is the consequence of what we have been dealing since the
1980s, so I mean all these demands are integrated in women issues. You cannot
segregate womens issues on the other political priorities, this is not true.34

The emerging new wave of the Egyptian feminist movement is trying to break the
representation of women as victims to be protected, focusing on sexual violence
as a political weapon which is used by patriarchal power. In this respect, even
denouncing sexual violence is a political act. In 2011 Samira Ibrahim denounced
the military who forced her and 16 other women who were arrested on 9 March
2011 to undergo an alleged virginity test. The patriarchal state institutions
acquitted the military and continue to violate women and male political prisoners.
But Samira Ibrahims revolutionary experience is part of a broader movement
resisting this violence from below. The publication of the testimony by an activist
from the group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment of the sexual assault that
happened to her is part of a broad campaign to change peoples mentalities, and it
continues the path set out by second-wave feminism, whose landmark, in Egypt,
was the publication of Nawal El Saadawis book Women and Sex (1972): The
attempt to terrorize us will not succeed; our anger and determination have
doubled. I am truly sorry for all the girls who have experienced anything like this;
I promise we will not be silent.35
Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment was founded in 2012 and it is composed of
both men and women as well. Its members underline that this is not a group of men
who are trying to protect women. It is a mixed revolutionary group who are trying to
intervene against sexual violence. They claim a feminist perspective in their work,
and they reject the protectionist approach.36 Young feminist activists criticize the
masculinization of the public space and the political discourse which, in their view,
is the result of the contraposition between two patriarchal conceptions of masculinity
and gender roles: the state (police) one and the revolutionary one.
We are not going to comply on this; we are not going along with the discourse of
protecting women. We are not going along with the discourse of the man, the brave
men, and this image of the brave revolutionary that protects everybody. No. We dont
want this, and this is not representative of us.37

The activists composing the revolutionary scenery reflect familiarity with feminist
theory, to which they refer during the interviews, and they also underline that, in
the last three years of political activism, they have made an empirical, and not just
intellectual experience of feminism: questions about feminism, which are
generally theoretical, became everyday stand.
And with staff operations like op-antish [Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment], things
became very clear. There was a huge fight within op-antish and within the revolutionary

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circles, because, I mean, in the beginning, most people didnt want to admit that this
was happening, that sexual harassment was kind like sexual assaults happening in the
square, to protect the image of the square, and then a big fight happened to admit that
this was happening, and then a second fight to take responsibility and act on it, and then
for the women to be part of this action, and then another fight for the discourse not to be
about protection of women but basically allowing everybody to be safe in a space that
we think is a revolutionary space.38

The discourse about the political use of violence to undermine the revolution and
to legitimate the abuse of security policies is among the criticisms underlined by
young women revolutionaries, who reject the idea that the state authority is there
to protect people. This reflects common sense in the society. In addition, they
argue that older feminist organizations do not deal with these kinds of issues as
they should:
Their position for police brutality. They deal with this brutality They dont deal
with that at all. When they talk about the police, they talk they are not doing sexual
harassment, but they dont see how, for example, op-antish refuses to deal with the
police. Because we say that the police is the main oppressor we are all dealing with,
and there has been sexual harassment all along and the police is supporting that, and
we dont want to We are not going to ask them to protect us, because they cant
protect us, we need to protect each other.

Womens mobilization against violence also encouraged new approaches among


men. Men activists experienced sexual violence like women did, but in the past
they seldom used to denounce it. Today, there is a shift in behaviour and in
perceptions of masculinity and femininity, and this shift can be read as a success
of revolutionary feminism.
The summer of 2013: contentious narratives on a revolution
The protest march of 30 June 2013 was the successful outcome of a vast political
campaign, tamarrod (rebel), which in few weeks collected over 22 million
signatures, querying the resignation of President Mohammed Morsi and the end of
the Muslim Brotherhoods government. A few months later, in November 2013,
most of the people I interviewed in Cairo referred to 30 June as a new wave of the
revolution which started on 25 January 2011: The 30th of June more than 35
million people were in the streets. All downtown, until Munira, was full of
people, even until al-Dokki square. And there were people even in the Nile.39
Protests occurred everywhere, from the countryside to the cities.
Unfortunately, and as noticed since the first days by one of the most attentive
and sensible voices of the Egyptian cultural scene, the writer Ahdaf Soueif, the
intervention of the army seriously undermined what was growing as a genuine
democratic peoples movement:
So, one year into Morsis presidency, weve arrived at Revolution phase III. But
phase III is in grave danger of being co-opted by our enemies: the supporters and
remnants of the NDP and the security establishment. On Sunday the revolutionaries

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whove been steadfast for two years found themselves in uncomfortable company:
the previous head of state-security led his own march.40

As occurs at all the turning points in history, there are contentious narratives about
these days. According to mainstream nationalist accounts, which at the time of
writing seem to prevail, the army protected the revolutionaries against alleged
terrorists. This is a transverse, widespread perception among ordinary people, it is
supported by state media, and echoed in the chat of taxi drivers and middle-class
retailers. In August 2013, a dialectic formulation of the discourse about democracy
was embraced also by prominent dissident intellectuals, like Ala al-Aswani and
Sonallah Ibrahim, who switched from their previous views about the military. In
the aftermath of the Rabea al-Adawiyyas massacre (14 August 2013), the two
writers gave interviews in which they supported the armys intervention. AlAwsani described the crackdown on pro-Morsi protests as unavoidable: I believe
that the Egyptian state didnt have any other choice, and I believe that the Muslim
brothers hold responsibility for this drama.41 Sonallah Ibrahim commented that
the priority at that moment was to combat terrorism.42
On the ground, the brutal repression of Morsis supporters was only the first
step towards a wider operation of repression of all the dissident voices, including
journalists and academics. Egypt between 2013 and 2014 is a space where it is
possible to apply Michael Hardts criticism of the dialectical Leninist relationship
between democracy and revolution. People become capable of democracy not by
its opposite: It can only be done in a sort of positive development; you can only
learn democracy by doing it.43 I am suggesting that what has been called by the
patriarchal institutional authorities the Egyptian transition, is not a transition
towards democracy. However, I am also suggesting that new spaces for a renewed
conceptualization of democracy are emerging outside the institutional precincts,
and that the womens revolutionary movement is playing an important role in
shaping these spaces.
Womens historical experience breaks the dialectical relationship between
democracy and dictatorship, and the political and cultural vanguard composed by
young radical women activists clearly challenges the institutional and maledominated polarization of the political discourse. In this respect, the words of a
young woman activist I met in Cairo in December 2013 are enlightening: Usually
things are presented as if resistance to the Muslim Brotherhood of June started on
that day. Its a joke! The revolution was fighting against the Muslim Brotherhood
all along, I mean for the last year.44 The interviewee carries on, mentioning a
long series of demonstrations and events taking place since Mohammed Morsis
election to the Presidency of the Republic (June 2012). She remembers that three
days after Morsi took power, someone had called for what she describes as a
joke/serious protest. People were marching carrying fake beards in their hands,
chanting we are not going to give up their beards [] which is a kind of a joke,
but at the same time people were like ready for the fight. She remembers that, a
few weeks later on, the assassination of 16-year-old Jeka engendered a popular
uprising and clashes: and clashes didnt stop for over three months, and then
there was Ittihadeya, and there were clashes in front of the headquarters of the
Muslim Brotherhood at the Moqattam all the time, people dying. In the narrative
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LUCIA SORBERA

of young women revolutionaries and many others, peoples resistance against the
government was taking place for more than a year, and the story of protection
does not reflect their personal and collective experience:

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So the story that has been told about the 30th of June, actually, is completely false,
its a big lie, because actually, the people were the ones at some point protecting the
army from the Muslim Brotherhood, and the only organized violence that the army
did was in two events, but actually nobody was in harm, they just wanted to evacuate
the space, or they wanted to stop these protests to approach the buildings.

On 3 July, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi removed Mohammed Morsi from the presidency,
and in the next weeks a ferocious battle against the Muslim Brotherhood and their
supporters took place, reaching its peak in the dispersal of the sit-in in front of the
Rabea al-Adawiyya mosque.
So the story, of course, the amount of violence that there was in Rabea its something
unbelievable, it was insane. I was not there in Rabea when it happened, but I was
there a few days later in the hospital, and the mosque where they gathered all the
bodies, and these are not like people were shot on the sight, on the body Most
of the staff I saw, it was in this part of the body [she indicates the chest] If you
have an enemy and you want to stop him, you know where to shoot, and you just
shoot at the legs And everybody knows that. Its not just that. They came to kill. It
was randomly. They wanted to kill. They just went there, fighting the people.45

The rejection of patriarchal violence, whoever is the actor and whoever is the
opposition, is the main marker of feminist revolutionary activism today, as it has
been in the past, and it qualifies it as different from other forms of dissident
grassroots and intellectual activism.
Conclusions
Feminist activism in the Egyptian revolution is both part of a long historical
process, where women have developed a tradition of political participation, and
has new elements, whose study can allow understanding of the meaning of
revolution in Egypt today.
There is a clear shift from feminist activism before the 25 January revolution
and feminist activism after that. At the same time, this shift does not exclude
segments of continuity in feminist thinking and actions between the twentieth and
the twenty-first centuries. The most evident is, for example, the continuous
participation of women in Egyptian revolutions. The will to rebel against gender
violence is a leitmotif in Egyptian feminist history. Since the beginning, Egyptian
feminism has challenged both local and colonial patriarchal violence. Then, after
1956, when citizenship was granted to women, at least on paper, second-wave
feminists denounced the sexual violence suffered by women in the private and the
public sphere. A few months before the 25 January revolution, a successful
feature film, Cairo 678, explicitly addressed the issue of sexual harassment,
emphasizing womens agency to counteract it. Today, womens discourse against
violence is multi-levelled, and it includes all the new citizens of Egypt. This needs
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to be read in the context of a broader cultural change underway, which is inscribed


in the long Egyptian feminist century, and which has been dramatically
accelerated since the 25 January revolution.
Notwithstanding current difficulties and political uncertainty, there is an
optimism of the will among Egyptian revolutionary women who, throughout a
century of political and cultural activism, contributed to shape the dissident
cultural field: Yes, we are going to the better, in spite of the entire backlash. I feel
better!, says Nawal El Saadawi, without hesitation, during a long conversation
about feminism and revolution in Egypt.46 Then, she carries on:
The problem with revolution is that it does not come easily. People are hungered, are
frustrated, and they come to the street, but the real revolution starts in the head. But
because people are frustrated and people are brainwashed by poverty, religion, they
rebel. But they dont know how to do.47

A lot is changing in the heads of young revolutionary women in Egypt. In the


past, feminism has been mainly an urban, upper- and middle-class, and highly
educated womens space of activism and mainly centred in the capital. Today,
feminist collectives are also emerging far from the main cities, in Upper Egypt
and in the Nile Delta, producing a new understanding of gender and class
relations, which will affect the political sphere. The change is already happening.
On 21 February 2014, Hala Shukrallah was the first Egyptian woman to be
elected to the leadership of a political party, al-Dostour (Constitution). Womens
movements welcomed her election as a good step towards equal representation.
One of her comments, two days after her election, seems to confirm the link
between human revolution as a change in subjectivities, which I have tried to
discuss in this essay, and womens political activism:
The road to liberation is a long and arduous one, who would have thought in the
fifties when blacks were not allowed to ride in the same place in a bus with whites
that one could be a president. All the worlds political problems are definitely not
solved, but still Obama became a president. Who would have dreamt that a woman
could become the head of a political party in Egypt, after Baradei I did not but
it happened. Yes, the struggle for social, racial equality and nondiscrimination is only
part of a long struggle for human liberation, and we are winning.48

The human revolution in Egypt continues, and feminism, with its long history, is
part of it.

Notes
1

Alain Roussillon, Republican Egypt Interpreted: Revolution and Beyond, in M W Daly (ed), The Cambridge
History of Egypt, 1st edn, vol 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp 334393, p 336.
Michael Hardt, Revolution, in Astra Taylor (ed), Examined Life, New York: New Press, 2009, pp 133154,
p 138.
This is a paraphrase of Ehud Toledano, Social and Economic Change in the Long Nineteenth Century, in
Daly (ed), The Cambridge History of Egypt, pp 252284.
Joan Scott Wallace, Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis, American Historical Review, 91(5),
1986, pp 10531075, p 1053.

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Edward Said, Travelling Theory, in The World, the Text, and the Critic, Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1983, pp 226247.
Margot Badran, Feminists, Islam and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt, Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1995; Nadje Sadij al-Ali, Secularism, Gender and the State in the Modern Middle East: The
Egyptian Womens Movement, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Juan Cole defines it as The Long Revolution. J R Cole, Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East:
Social and Cultural Origins of Egypts Urabi Movement, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999,
pp 110132.
Cole, Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East, p 6.
Huda Sharawi, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (18791924), Margot Badran (trans and
ed), London: Virago, 1986, pp 29, 148152; Nabawiyya Musa, Tarikhi bi Qalami (published serialized in the
womens journal al-Fatah, edited by Nabawiyya Musa herself, from 1938 to 1943); reprinted with an
introduction by Rania Abd al-Rahman and Hala Kamal, Cairo: al-Maltaqa al-Mara wa al-Dhakira, 1999,
p 22.
Marilyn Booth, Biography and Feminist Rhetoric in Early Twentieth Century Egypt: May Ziyadas Studies
of Three Womens Lives, Journal of Womens History, 3(1), 1991, pp 3864.
Badran, Feminists, Islam and Nation.
Nawal El Saadawi, Dissidence and Creativity, in The Nawal El Saadawi Reader, London: Zed Books, 1997,
p 158.
Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Musa, Tarikhi bi Qalami; Doria Shafik, La Femme Nouvelle, Cairo: E & R Shindler, 1944.
Shafik, La Femme Nouvelle, pp 5870.
Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, Opening the Gates: An Anthology of Arab Feminist Writing,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004; Beth Baron, The Womens Awakening in Egypt: Culture,
Society, and the Press, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.
The first novel written by a woman to enter the Egyptian literary canon is Latifa al-Zayyat, The Open Door,
Marilyn Booth (trans), Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2002. It was published in 1960 in Arabic.
Latifa al-Zayyat was also a journalist and a literary critic. Her work inspired generations of activists and
scholars. Said al-Barawi (ed), Lafa al-Zayyat. Al-Adab wa al-Waan, Cairo: Dr al-mara al-arabiyya lilnashr, 1992.
I discuss this in An Invisible and Enduring Presence: Women in Egyptian Politics, in L Anceschi, A Teti,
and G Gervasio (eds), Informal Power in the Greater Middle East: Hidden Geographies, London: Routledge,
2014, pp 159174.
For an analysis of womens journals in this period, with a particular focus on the EFU journal LEgyptienne,
see Irene Fenoglio Abdel Aal, Defense et Illustration de lEgyptienne. Aux dbuts dune expression feminine,
Cairo: CEDEJ, 1988. For a broader study of genders representation in modern Egypt see Beth Baron, Egypt
as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender and Politics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
Marilyn Booth, Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001;
Marilyn Booth, Womens Biographies and Political Agendas: Whos Who in Islamic History, Gender and
History, 8(1), 1996, pp 133137.
Lucia Sorbera, Gli esordi del femminismo egiziano. Costruzione e superamento di uno spazio nazionale
femminile, Genesis. Rivista della Societ Italiana delle Storiche, 6(1), 2007, pp 115136.
See, for example, Intervista ad Huda Shaarawi, Il Giornale dItalia, 23 May 1923.
The pictures were published on the first page of the magazine al-La aif al-musawara, 28 May 1923.
Lucia Sorbera, Viaggiare e svelarsi alle origini del femminismo egiziano, in A R Scrittori (ed), Margini e
Confini. Studi sulla cultura delle donne nellet contemporanea, Venezia: Cafoscarina, 2006, pp 265294.
Authors interview with HK, Cairo, 9 December 2011. Given the current political circumstances in Egypt, I
dont publish the names of the interviewees, to protect their privacy. I collected interviews and fieldwork
notes in Cairo in November 2011, 2012 and 2013. Unless otherwise indicated, all the interviews and
translations from Arabic are mine.
Authors interview with HK, Cairo, 9 December 2011.
The April 6 movement was established in 2008 to support workers in the industrial town of Mahalla al-Kubra,
who were planning to strike on 6 April. It played a crucial role in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. See Gennaro
Gervasio, Egitto: una rivoluzione annunciata, in Francesca Maria Corrao (ed), Le Rivoluzioni arabe, Milano:
Mondadori, 2011, pp 134161.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgjIgMdsEuk (accessed 6 April 2013).
Tara Povey, Voices of Dissent: Social Movements and Political Change in Egypt, in Lily Zubaidah Rahim
(ed), Muslim Secular Democracy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp 233252.
El Saadawi, The Nawal El Saadawi Reader, p 157.

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Authors interview with HG, Cairo, December 2011.


Authors interview with SM, Cairo, November 2011.
The Egyptian Coalition of Feminist Organizations addressed the problem of womens under-representation in
political institution in a public document which was issued on the 20 July 2011: Ignoring Women is
Unacceptable Particularly at this Critical Stage of our National History. The document was signed by The
Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, The Women and Memory Forum, Nazra for
Feminist Studies, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, eda Appropriate Communication Techniques for
Development, in http://www.nwrcegypt.org.en/ (accessed 6 April 2013).
Authors interview with SN, from Nazra for Feminist Studies, Cairo, Egypt, 1 December 2013.
Testimony by an op-antish member of a sexual assault, 25 January 2013 (TFEn). Published on the Facebook
page Op-Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault / on 4 February 2013 at 1.25
am (accessed 23 February 2013).
My notes from a conference against sexual violence organized on 25 November (International Day Against
Violence) 2013 in Cairo by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), where representatives from
Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (op-antish), EIPR, Nazra for Feminist Studies, and Tahrir Body Guard
were speaking.
Authors interview with LD, op-antish, Cairo, 4 December 2013.
Authors interview with LD, op-antish, Cairo, 4 December 2013.
Authors interview with the feminist activist AS, Cairo, 25 November 2013.
Ahdaf Soueif. In Egypt, We Thought Democracy Was Enough. It Was Not, Guardian, 2 July 2013, www.
theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/01/egypt-thought-democracy-enough-morsi (accessed 14 February
2014).
Interview with Ala al-Aswani by Robert Siegel, Morsi critic: What Happens in Egypt Is Not Very Clear
Abroad, 15 August 2013, National Public Radio, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=212356278
(accessed 22 February 2014).
A Voice of Dissent Joins the Nationalist Chorus, Mada Masr, October 2013, http://madamasr.com/content/
voice-dissent-joins-nationalist-chorus. See also the interview with Sonallah Ibrahim published in http://
maktoob.news.yahoo.com/, 24 August 2013 (accessed 24 February 2013).
Hardt, Revolution, p 140.
Authors interview with LD, No to Military Trials for Civilians and Mosireen, Cairo, 4 December 2013.
Authors interview with LD, No to Military Trials for Civilians and Mosireen, Cairo, 4 December 2013.
Authors interview with Nawal El Saadawi, Cairo, 26 November 2013.
Authors interview with Nawal El Saadawi, Cairo, 26 November 2013.
Hala Shukrallah Facebook page, quoted in Walid El- Kachab Facebook page, 24 February 2013.

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