Essay: Soldiers ripping off the shirt and veil of a female demonstrator, and dragging her across Tahrir Square by her hair has set off unprecedented outrage. But there is a deep paradox in the reaction, even in the post-Revolution Arab world -- and even f
CAIRO - The most radical activists want that blue undergarment to become a new symbol of the revolution.
When Egyptian soldiers in Tahrir Square tore a veiled woman's clothes off her back, and stomped on the the unconscious woman's chest and face, her violet-blue bra was revealed for all to see. Now we're hearing: this is the underwear of a heroine. One caricaturist drew the victim covered up by the Egyptian flag and surrounded by naked attackers. The message: Egypt has been shamed. If you make an Egyptian woman suffer, the whole country suffers.
No event of the last ten months in Egypt – not the death of Christian demonstrators, not the conviction of bloggers, not military justice – has brought such immediate, and such sharp criticism from outside Egypt as those images of the soldiers dragging the woman across the asphalt paving by her hair. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of the "systematic degradation" of Egyptian women that "dishonors the revolution" and "disgraces the state and its uniform."
But Egypt too is scandalized. During a protest march on Tahrir Square, women warned that their honor was a "red line." And the ruling military council, once again rendered sensitive to pressure, expressed regrets about "violations' of the "great women of Egypt."
As is so often the case where matters of honor and sexuality are concerned, there is a lot of hypocrisy at play. Many people in the West believe that Islam is in any case notoriously misogynistic and such excesses confirm their belief. Women activists on Tahrir Square express public outrage, but secretly hope that the attack of a veiled woman will bring Islamists out into the streets to demonstrate against the army -- and in so doing give new thrust to women's marches amid dwindling protests. That women on Tahrir Square are routinely groped and intimidated; that they have long complained of harassment; that domestic violence against women is as widespread in Egypt as illiteracy -- in short, that the protection and intactness of Egyptian women is a collective illusion: nobody mentions that.
Shocking "virginity tests'
The military council has virtually done away with quotas for female candidates in the parliamentary elections, and wheels forth one transition cabinet after another in which women play little or no role. For months, the army has been describing male demonstrators as criminals and spies, and female demonstrators as women of easy virtue who must submit to shocking "virginity tests."
In accordance with the rules of a patriarchal society, violence against women is seen in terms of the moral credibility of their husbands, fathers, brothers, who were unable to protect them and whose reputation has thus been damaged. Even all the to-do about the honor of women confirms the basic reality -- woman as property, woman as battleground – in however a backhanded way.
So far, female Arabic revolutionaries have reaped little for themselves from their freedom fight. In Egypt and Tunisia, they have to stand up to the grotesque and inhibited fantasies of radical Islamists. Tawakkul Karman, a Yemenite woman, may have won this year's Nobel peace prize, but the power struggle in her country takes place between tribal chieftains, generals and presidential sons.
The tense relationship between revolution and women is nothing new: the Austrian social democrat Victor Adler used the term "hysterical materialism" in reference to Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin. In the Arabic revolts, women are political material but their rights are not the political aim – often not even in the case of women activists themselves.
In conservative societies, sexual violence not only hurts the psyche, it aims at social annihilation – also when men are the targets of it. The rape of a Cairo minibus driver by police – a video of the crime was then disseminated via mobile phone – kindled rage at state torture that years later helped fuel the downfall of the autocrat that was Hosni Mubarak. Is the scene of a partially nude woman on Tahrir Square really so much worse than other images that have emerged? There are pictures of a soldier jumping up and down on a prone man as if he were a trampoline. Men in uniform beat protesters as if possessed. One soldier urinates on demonstrators. A military advisor says he wishes the protesters were in "Hitler's ovens." Is this more acceptable?
By Egyptian standards, attacks on women cross a line, there's no doubt about that. But is it the decisive line? There are justified doubts that the generals are going to accept the results of the elections. Maybe there will be a putsch, perhaps years of instability. Maybe the economy will collapse. The breaking-up of even minor protests turns into bloody paybacks for critics of the power of the state – the army. If things go badly, more than civil and women's rights will be left by the wayside: so will the salvation of the country.
Ben Ali's Tunisia and Mubarak's Egypt were secular tyrannies with a certain amount of awareness about equality issues. Syria still falls into that category. But for many women that's just not an option anymore. They want more than "women's rights."
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Photo - Al Jazeera English