Article by Farah Desouky
Featured GIF: Media “Veto” observed that a member of the Nour Party responsible for guiding voters in Kerdasa danced with a woman to song “Bushret kheir” – Egypt.
This article is part of the “Hopefully Tomorrow” issue
On the 26th and 28th of May, Egyptian women danced in the streets in front of election polls celebrating their vote for their candidate at the time and now president, Al Sisi. They waved the Egyptian flag and belly danced to “Bushret kheir,” women formed circles and one would do the honors and hop in the middle, clapping, singing, fingers dipped in pink ink and signaling the peace sign, waists following the beats of Jasmi’s tunes. Little girls wore t-shirts resembling the pattern of the Egyptian flag, nudged into swaying to the music and cheering as well. Their videos were praised and flooded Egyptian state controlled media platforms.
Egyptian TikTokers/influencers Mawada el Adham and Haneen Hossam danced virtually and posted their videos on several social media platforms, gaining fame especially through TikToks. Haneen filmed herself in her room, wearing her veil and signature red lipstick, she would face the front camera of her phone lip syncing and dancing to Egypt’s top hits, watched by millions. The same platforms that provided the TikTok women with fame and views were also the site of targeted campaigns that escalated to a national scale, deeming Haneen’s videos as a threat that society needed to be “saved” from. National TV talk shows talked with urgency about the “TikTok girls,” going as far as inviting Haneen Hossam as a guest speaker and then slut shaming her on air. The anchor firmly told her with his authoritative and condescending tone, “does your dad see your videos?” Haneen, Mawada and several other TikTokers were arrested facing charges of violating Egyptian family values, promoting debauchery and immorality as a result of their videos.
There are many reasons why the same behavior was received/treated differently in these two contexts, but all of them lead back to the essential question: How are Egyptian women allowed to exist and present themselves, and what is the identity of “Egyptian woman” that we are supposed to fit?
Rhetoric that celebrates the woman who danced in 2014 but shames the woman who danced in 2020 is essentially what “state feminism” embodies. The “governmentalization” of women’s rights is what Lila Abu-Loghod named the state’s “feminist” efforts, such as 2017 being “The Year of the Egyptian woman.” Of course this does not apply to every woman. State feminism resembles white feminism in its exclusionary and oppressive narrative, a narrative that universalises the struggles of women, fails to acknowledge privileges and disregards and actively silences marginalized women. It monetizes our rhetoric of liberation and survival, for women-empowerment-branding purposes, except it is empowerment solely within existing acceptable social roles. State feminism is what puts the future of every woman who transgresses its borders in danger.
State feminism is not only harmful because it does not allow space for women to challenge and fight systemic oppression, but also because it mirrors feminist rhetoric. It fools women into believing it is a product of true allyship when this is only performative, and results in the further entrenchment of the dominant structures that it claims to dismantle. Sisi’s description of the ideal Egyptian woman demonstrates this clearly: he praises her for her selflessness, her ability to endure pain, her capacity for caregiving, her sacrifice, but she is not a person, she is a provider. Similar one-dimensional depictions are also reflected in mainstream Egyptian media.
In July 2020, another clear example of this deception and mistaken allyship occured in the “ABZ case” of a serial sexual predator. The case garnered national attention and, as a result, triggered conversations on sexual violence in Egypt on a wider scale. The National Council for Women (NCW), headed by Maya Morsy, was active in public discourse sparked in July, even offering to connect women willing to file reports with NCW lawyers. But afterwards, NCW not only betrayed the movement and betrayed the witnesses they encouraged to come forward during the famous gang rape case known as “Fairmont incident”, they also stayed shamefully silent during the arrests of TikTok girls. Additionally, they targeted women on their social media accounts with gendered language, essentially warning them against violating family values because this could land them in jail. For example, in a post titled, ‘تعرفى؟’, NCM stated that “Any attack on family principles or values in the Egyptian society, or a violation of the sanctity of private life is publishable by law.” This ends up validating critiques of the law’s misogynistic application. Rather than help these women, NCW tried to cut down the future of any woman who lies outside of the role of el sitt el masreya Sisi talks about. This is the approach of a pinkwashing entity, and the selective fight for Egyptian women they are fighting is classist and oppressive. They fight for the ideal victim, challenging patriarchal structures through panel discussions and PR campaigns, not on ground. They fight for a future where obedient women only live with dignity. They will only “empower” women who don’t disrupt the family institution; those who do are deemed criminal or too dangerous.
A post titled, ‘Do you know?’, National Council For Women stated that “Any attack on family principles or values in the Egyptian society, or a violation of the sanctity of private life is publishable by law.”
What happens when we settle? What happens when we clap and salute oppressive institutions when they occasionally don’t kill us or occasionally give us a crumb of our rights? We regress and we start normalizing the violence we are subjected to, and we lose the ability to imagine a future where women are not violated and shunned. We send a message of naivety and we accept the injustice others are facing from the same institutions.
The reality is so tragic that we cling to the possibility of justice even when it inherently doesn’t serve us, and in fact harms us further. We must remind ourselves to remember who we are fighting against. The State’s feminist rhetoric is a barrier seperating us from a future where we are safe and liberated.
It isn’t easy to envision a future outside of the realms of governmentalized “feminist” structures in Egypt, and it feels like a privilege to imagine such a future when we are so consumed fighting fights that should have been resolved years ago. Our capacity for imagination and hope is limited, but I’ll try.
I imagine a future where virginity testing is not used to punish women in prison. I imagine a future where our activism extends into the private sphere and not just the public sphere. I want family values to be about family bonding and unity, and not something used as a weapon to silence women and imprison them, literally and figuratively. I hope for a future where women facing violence don’t have to fear social stigma more than the violence itself, and a future where men don’t feel safe using the law to threaten their victims rather than fearing prosecution. I want a future where we are able to declare that state feminism is not the aim of our advocacy and where state feminists are not our allies.
We can’t settle for state feminist propaganda efforts that offer only the bare minimum of saving lives of some women because they lack of intersectional understanding and capitalize on strife for their own gain, superficially alleviating some issues while deepening and dismissing many others. The only way we can achieve that is by not losing sight of who we are fighting and why. The least we can do is not shake bloody hands.