The dangers of protesting while female

22 Dec

In the midst of the continuing protests rollicking Egypt, several female protesters this weekend were singled out by the military police, and were violently and sexually harassed. One woman’s plight, in particular, has shocked people within and outside of Egypt. Beaten repeatedly, stripped of her abaya, and left half-dressed on the street, the woman’s experience has shaken both the protest movement and the military government.

The vibrant blue bra worn by the beaten woman has provoked an enormous array of contradictory responses. Some men were reported as suggesting that, perhaps she desired the attention–violent or otherwise–given her decision to wear such attention-getting undergarments. Others have used the occasion to opine that, had she stayed at home with her father or husband, such things would not have happened.

The Egyptian female response to the incident has seemingly triggered a more coherent response. Thousands of women have descended on Tahrir Square in the past few days, combining to produce the largest collection of female demonstrators and dissenters in the contemporary history of the Egyptian nation. Rather than convince politically and culturally dissatisfied women to stay home, the violent, degrading  and humiliating sexual assault has instead encouraged women of all stripes to join in the otherwise generally male protest movement that continues to threaten the fragile detente between the current Egyptian military government and the people.

Further, this particular image strikes a series of chords connected to personal feelings, cultural customs, and religious traditions situated within Egyptian history in a much more unstable and complicated way than the focus on the Tahrir Square protests would suggest.

The wearing of the veil carries connotations of choice, freedom, restriction, unknowability, autonomy, desirability, chauvinism, orientalism, feminism…I could go on. The point is: the veil’s meanings remain extraordinarily contradictory, complex, and opaque.

An image of a woman protesting: in a veil: stripped down to an electric blue bra: all these singularities themselves carry very strong waves of connotations; the combination they produce together is overwhelming in its capacity to mean so many different things to so many different people.

For the moment, it must be enough to think on the women in the square–angry, in solidarity, and unafraid.


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