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Online Anonymity: Between Fear And Political Power

Anonymity has gained importance in Egyptian activism
Anonymity has gained importance in Egyptian activism
Sayed Hassan/ZUMA

CAIRO — I've been thinking lately about my relationship with anonymity, and the way my understanding of it — which used to be somewhat one-sided — has been evolving, both in personal writing and in political work. In a polarized environment, we become trapped in a reactive position, especially as some of the approaches adopted recently by feminist organizations have come under heavy attack. Our energy is consumed by creating a discourse to counter our attackers, preventing us from reflecting more deeply on our tools and approaches. It seems that anonymity will be part of our arsenal for some time, so I believe it's important to understand it as a wide-ranging approach in which we can occupy different positions. Examining it in this way may help us arrive at a better understanding of its potential as well as its limitations.

Some years ago, I wrote a personal piece about a very private experience that caused me an immense sense of pain and frustration. I felt defeated by all the institutions of the regime. The experience made me realize that my body is not my own, no matter how much I try to take possession of it. I realized that the obstacles that stood in my way were institutional and structural, and that it was beyond my individual ability to change them. I published the piece under a pseudonym, but I also said how much I wished I could publicly declare the experience as mine, to own my anger and pain in front of everybody.

This personal experience expanded my awareness. Anonymity gave me the space to reveal it, a space free of judgments and debates. By foregoing public ownership of my experience, I avoided coming under violent attack. But what anonymity gave me is exactly what it took away. Herein lies the price.

I didn't fully understand this then; I only felt a sense of unease. But then, I've never felt completely at ease. Being a woman from an underprivileged background, paying a price has always been a fundamental part of my existence. I learned from a young age that I will never have everything I want.

Sacrificing something for another, more essential thing was always the frame that determined my choices. These limitations began, with time, to shape my aspirations and desires: I began, unconsciously, to not want what I could not have. I didn't complain or stop to think about it; I was so used to this feeling that it became invisible.

My understanding of this gradually began to evolve when I started being active, anonymously, in feminist political work. I would participate in a discussion, critiquing something that I was a part of. My critique would be heard, but my position as an insider would not be seen. I felt that some of what I said was lost because my position was invisible. A position is a kind of filter, allowing someone's words to be heard in a certain way. Anonymity placed me in a grey zone between absence and presence. Sometimes my words were present but my position was absent; at other times, my position was apparent, but other aspects of me were missing. Anonymity confronted me with the fact that I would never be fully present — that, in every context, I would need to forego some part of me in order to present another, more essential part.

Anonymity has been the subject of considerable discussion in feminist political circles in Egypt recently, in particular, the anonymity of published accounts of sexual violence. These discussions are often polarized. Those skeptical of anonymity argue that it cannot be used as a reliable tool for change, because the credibility of anonymous accounts, published through anonymous channels, cannot be verified. Credibility comes from knowing the identity of people, but declaring one's identity comes at a price. Credibility becomes a kind of commodity: I will believe you in exchange for the social price you will have to pay. On the other hand, those in favor of anonymity argue that it relieves women from part of the social and psychological burden of sharing their testimonies publicly. Keeping the intermediary anonymous, they say, is also a way of protecting them from the violence of society and the security apparatus.

The problem is that the focus of these arguments is on the burden that anonymity relieves from the women involved — those who share testimonies or those active in the field. The two sides only differ in their assessment of whether or not that price should be paid. But neither side is delving into the fact that anonymity itself comes at a cost.

Credibility comes from knowing the identity of people, but declaring one's identity comes at a price.

It has begun to scare me a little, the lack of attention given to this. Being unaware of the manifestations of oppression in the tools we've created for our liberation might limit our political ambitions to what our oppressive reality permits. Concealment is one of the manifestations of the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. The patriarchal order instills the idea that our natural place is within the bounds of the home, and so our public presence becomes a space for negotiation. Concealment is the price we pay in this equation. Sometimes we choose to conceal certain parts of ourselves in our daily life in order to avoid exhausting confrontations. In Egyptian society, this concealment takes material and immaterial forms. We hide our bodies in layers of clothes in order to avoid the reactions of people in the street. I personally hide in my house for days, because I know that simply being outside might expose me to something I have no energy for (and this is a luxury many other women do not have). We often hide aspects of who we are and the choices we've made from family, friends and people in our social circles to avoid the rejection, conflict and violence we might face if we reveal who we are. This, in part, is what anonymity does: it conceals certain aspects of ourselves while revealing others. It makes our thoughts and experiences apparent, but deprives us of public ownership of them. It helps us collectively reveal the truth of what we are thinking and going through, but prevents us from being entirely present as individuals.

These words are not a call to abandon anonymity as an approach. It's naive to assume that the tools we produce will not contain elements of our oppression: These tools, just like ourselves, are products of this reality. The absence of a cost would necessitate the absence of oppression, which is not our reality at the moment. What I am calling for, instead, is to constantly examine our tools and to point out the ways in which oppression is embedded within them. To know that we are always in negotiation with the systems of our oppression, that a tool is simply a political strategy that we can choose in one moment, and move beyond in the next; to expand our imagination and political aspirations between what these tools, derived from an oppressive reality, can offer us.

I recently had a conversation with two feminist comrades about the behavior of some other feminists in our sphere, which we concluded was motivated by a desire for personal achievement. We traced this back to the "professional" values that have plagued the feminist movement in Egypt. The movement has become a kind of career market, where personal accomplishment and competition are valued. This undermines our strategies, as they might be based on the visions of more influential feminists, visions which are not created in isolation from their professional interests. This is one aspect of the balance of power within the movement — the more professional and academic credentials someone has, the more her voice is heard. The movement itself has become a way for some people to enrich their resumes. I said to my two companions that anonymity represents a threat to the type of people who can't bear not to receive credit for their work, even at the cost of carrying out the task itself — a conclusion full of harsh judgments, but unfortunately also of truth.

After the discussion, this thought lingered in my mind and I began to reflect on my own experience. When I'm an anonymous participant in a successful political action, I feel a desire to publicly associate myself with it. When I write an anonymous text, and I find people reading, sharing and republishing it, I sometimes wish to hear words of praise and encouragement. I won't deny that I sometimes feel this way, as difficult and uncomfortable as it is to admit it. But I don't believe I'm the only one. I think the roots of this feeling can be easily traced back to the capitalist system that governs our lives and frames our definitions of success. Our sense of accomplishment comes from our individual achievements, and our sense of self-worth comes from other people's praise. Capitalism has given us certain definitions of achievement that highlight the value of individualism and differentiating ourselves from others.

During another discussion with a group of comrades about accountability, one of them pointed out various kinds of corruption that we might fall into. The discussion was not just about administrative or financial corruption, but also about corruption on the level of daily behavior in the network of complex relationships within the movement. These relationships intersect in many ways: political activity, friendships, romantic involvements, work relationships, etc. One of those present in the discussion said that her choice of anonymity was not just based on fear of the security apparatus in Egypt, but because she saw it as a way to reduce the possibility of corruption.

Our sense of accomplishment comes from our individual achievements.

I remembered the desire that creeps up on me from time to time, and it hit me that anonymity can be a way of working on ourselves and maintaining our integrity. I mean that not in a religious or moral sense, but in a political sense. Resisting the impulse for individualism, and the set of values that comes along with it, becomes a political act. The dominant desire for personal success is one of the biggest challenges in our attempts to create a movement based on solidarity and collective action. How can we build a movement based on individualism that is, in turn, fighting a system based on individualism?

I'm not posing this question from an ethical standpoint — I don't see a collective approach as morally superior — but I do see that the tendency for individualism leads to oppression and alienation. The system of production, which has shaped so much of our way of being, works to divide and separate us. The interests of the individual trump everything else, and individual achievement is the only guaranteed way to avoid a harsh life. The only possibility of salvation produced by this system is an individual one, which does not threaten its existence, but in fact perpetuates it. This emphasis on personal salvation drives people to work harder and produce more. Failure is attributed to an individual's lack of effort, rather than to the systemic inequality that determines our chances in life. Adopting the same approach as the system would spell failure for us, or at best, a limited degree of influence. We can never use the tools and approaches of the system as well as the system itself does, because it created them.

This is why I believe that anonymity can be part of my political training. It helps me rid myself of an individualist impulse so deeply ingrained that I sometimes no longer see it. It puts me in constant confrontation with the origins of my motivations. It allows me to see the inner workings of a system that I want to dismantle, to understand that I am a part of it, and that fighting it necessitates constantly questioning myself. To be aware that, in this battle, anonymity becomes a political choice, not just to protect myself on a personal level, but also to create a movement that is not based on individualism. That sees itself as fighting not only the patriarchy, but multiple, intersecting systems that perpetuate one another. We cannot dismantle one without dismantling the others.

How can we build a movement based on individualism that is, in turn, fighting a system based on individualism?

I don't mean to romanticize anonymity. During a conversation with another friend, she pointed out the fact that anonymity can also be used to help destructive people escape the consequences of their actions. This brought to mind the Killjoys* blog, which published testimonies of sexual violence and the misuse of power in civil society organizations without the consent of the women concerned. Anonymity became a cover through which the creators of this blog could claim to be working for the good of these women, while ignoring the price paid by these same women as a result of their actions.

While discussing some of these issues, one of my comrades pointed out that anonymity can also obscure the role of feminists who occupy less powerful positions within the movement. As mentioned previously, we don't all have equal positions in the balance of power. Anonymous work might mean that fewer women are included in certain spaces, especially in the creation and discussion of strategies, or even in general discussions and collective learning, because if they continue to work anonymously, we will never know who they are.

This brought something to my attention: The reason I'm now present in several platforms of discussion within the feminist movement in Egypt is that I've made — and continue to make — certain contributions without being anonymous. People became aware of my political stances, and some began to invite me to join them. This also helped me find and get to know other feminists with whom I feel a sense of comfort and familiarity, with whom I can exist in a shared space without any of us feeling the need to hide certain aspects of ourselves. This begs the question: Is it possible to work anonymously while remaining present and valued in our feminist groups? Seen from this perspective, anonymity comes at another cost. The celebration of feminist work gives some people social and political capital. They are heard, appreciated, invited and granted more opportunities. This means that those of us who don't get credit for their work are foregoing part of their social and political capital, which might help them grow stronger in the movement, present their views and be taken seriously, and negotiate with others from a position of greater power.

This calls into question a point I made earlier in this article. In an environment rife with the violence of society and the security apparatus, we don't all have the privilege of choosing anonymity as part of our political education. Some people need to thoroughly calculate the consequences of their actions if they think of revealing themselves to the world. This does not mean that the feeling of being safe is always based on actual safety — especially in this context, where the responses to the issues we raise do not seem to follow a consistent logic. (The contradictory reactions to the cases of Ahmad Bassam Zaki and the Fairmont rape are one example of this.) Our level of vulnerability when confronting the world also changes from one situation to another, depending as well on the position we take in each situation. What this means is that anonymity is not always a choice we freely and willingly make. In most cases, it's a decision made because we're aware of the vulnerability of our situation, or the oppressiveness of our environment — or because our life experience has taught us that we always have to give up something in exchange for another thing that we deem more crucial. And, as another colleague pointed out, some women (such as Menna Abdel Aziz and Bassant, the "Mit Ghamrgirl") decide not to opt for anonymity despite their vulnerable position in an environment of oppression.

And although anonymity can play a role in resisting individualism, it is also not a guarantee of collective work — as proven by the example of the Killjoys blog. Despite its anonymity, the blog's approach was both individualistic and substitutionary (by which I mean a person or a group of people who replace the parties affected by a situation with themselves). This arises out of a feeling of superiority — superiority of knowledge or politics or even moral superiority. This substitutionary group believes its path is the right one, that it alone has the ability to "implement," "transform" and "purify," unlike the women concerned, who are timid and powerless. They follow the logic of individualism in political work, thinking that change can happen through individuals or groups who work, at best, in isolation from the women affected, or, at worst, by ignoring their needs, wishes and priorities.

Anonymity can play a role in resisting individualism; it is also not a guarantee of collective work.

Anonymity can thus be an obstacle in the collective path of the movement, in the way we communicate as human beings and comrades and as narrators of testimonies and life experiences, and in the process of holding each other accountable. It can also be a hindrance to future interpretations of this present moment. When I conceal my identity in any of my contributions — whether in a written text or in political work — I'm not just concealing my name, I'm also concealing the many components that make up my identity, which would give a reader of history a deeper understanding of who I am and the aspects of my privilege. This means that I prevent a picture being formed that is different from the one I present about myself and my place in the world. I stand in the way of historical interpretations of myself and the role I played in my context, which I don't and won't fully understand because I'm inside it. Anonymity here comes at the cost of knowledge — knowledge about the creation of this movement, about its components and positions in life as well as in politics, which might be crucial to building upon these past and present experiences in the future.

Concealment is an essential mechanism of anonymity — although, as mentioned above, it is not intrinsically negative or positive. Sometimes it is a manifestation of oppression, in others a mode of resistance. Sometimes it is a way to practice self-vigilance and avoid corruption, in others a way to escape responsibility for our actions.

For me, our position is key to determining the implications of anonymity in any given moment. For example, if I am sharing a testimony of sexual violence or another personal experience that I can't reveal publicly for fear of violent reprisals, my use of anonymity here is a manifestation of oppression. The system forces us to conceal ourselves in order to negotiate with it. Anonymity becomes a decision and a political strategy based on negotiation — an exchange of what is revealed and what is concealed — which necessarily comes at a cost. We choose not to suppress our (already suppressed) voices and experiences, in exchange for suppressing our identities. But we have to be mindful of the price that we pay for anonymity here. On the other hand, if I am engaged in political work that attracts praise and a feeling of distinction and superiority, choosing anonymity would be a way of resisting the tendencies that the system has instilled in me. These might be a hindrance to the movement if I'm not aware of them and working on curtailing them. We also have to remain vigilant about the destructive behavior and escape from accountability that anonymity might enable.

These ideas arose through personal experiences with anonymity from different positions. Developing this piece would not have been possible without the help of friends and comrades who always motivate me to think and reflect. I wrote this article at different points in time, and I decided to keep the contradictions inherent within it, because I see them all as relevant. Contradiction is a part of our existence, and it's always present in political work. This piece does not claim to offer a comprehensive view, but it might be an invitation to begin reflecting on an approach we've often taken without fully realizing its implications. Because of the attacks on us, we've been cornered, most of the time, into defending anonymity. I hope this piece might serve as a call not to romanticize anonymity, and to keep exploring its many layers.

*This is a reference to the قاتلات البهجة blog that is separate from Sara Ahmed's blog, feministkilljoys

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