It will be wonderful… when women can walk freely

Can music and art bring together the many different political and religious factions occupying Tahrir Square?

Since the revolution, Egyptian women have much stronger and more collective responses to sexual harrassment carried out against them by men in the streets and male authority figures [GALLO/GETTY]

Cairo, Egypt – This story was supposed to be about how wonderful it can be when artists, activists and intellectuals from across the Arab world and the West come together to think through some of the most difficult issues separating their cultures.

“It Will Be Wonderful” is in fact the title of a project featuring a group of artists from Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Europe and the United States who first came together in Tunis in the wake of the democracy revolutions that swept the Arab world last year. For a week we shared experiences and wrote and performed several songs that reflected the dreams, challenges and suffering at the front lines of the region’s various revolts and revolutions.

The collaborations and discussions between audio and video artists, bloggers and activists, all of whom have spent their adult lives fighting repressive governments, was truly inspiring. In the ensuing seven months we recorded the songs – “Mamnoua” (Forbidden), about the impact of restrictive Western migration policies on young Arabs, and “al-Thawra mustamarra” (The Revolution Continues), about the need to continue struggling until true freedom is won – at studios in half a dozen countries.

Just lask week most of us reunited in Rome to perform them again at a conference cosponsored by the Aspen Institute Italia and Creative Commons, which backed the recordings. As one prominent activist explained after the show, the music was “precisely what we need to translate our goals and struggles into a popular language that can reach people”.

This sentiment was reaffirmed a few days later when I arrived in Cairo to work with the Jenin Freedom Theatre, which was staging a week of “Playback Theatre” across Cairo and then Alexandria with some of Egypt’s most powerful artists.

This article should have focused on the beauty and creativity of these encounters. But as so often happens in Cairo and the region more broadly, the everyday brutalities that shape the lives of so many Egyptians intruded on the most hopeful of narratives; leaving me wondering whether even the most powerful and inspirational art can overcome one of the most ingrained – and for millennia-worth of repressive leaders, useful – human drives: of men to dominate and control women.

Femina sacra and the roots of state violence

Three times in the space of 12 hours I was forced to question whether art can really enable change in societies where people’s most intimate core identities and sense of worth are based on oppression and domination.

The first challenge occurred on Saturday morning, when I went to the office of Aida Saif ad-Dawla, the director of the El Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture. As I entered her office and sat down in my usual seat across from her, she was just putting the finishing touches on the soon-to-be released 2011 report on torture and other abuses by the security system/military government against Egyptians. A gruesome photo of a tortured face, discolored and misshapen by abuse, took up most of the screen until, seeing me staring at it, she closed it. The situation, ad-Dawla confirmed, remains grave for thousands of Egyptians who’ve been caught up in the country’s brutal prisons since Mubarak’s departure.

The most serious problem today is the increased threat or use of rape. Innumerable interviews with former detainees have revealed the use of rape to be anything but the haphazard actions of low-level security personnel taking out their frustration on protesters who’ve politically humiliated them. Instead, she explained that “the stories are so similar, from people who do not know each other, that there is clearly a systematic policy in place to use rape and the threat of rape to torture prisoners.”

It’s not just that torture and other violations of basic human rights continue relatively unchecked. Rape and other forms of sexual violence, against male as well as female detainees, has increasingly become the rule in the 14 months since Mubarak’s ouster. Aggravating the situation is that, aside the widespread negative publicity caused by the “virginity checks” on a small number of female protesters last year, the issue is receiving little of the attention it deserves by most political forces or the media, which reduces pressure to stop such practices at a minimum.

What could be termed the “Obama problem” seems to be at work here. As with the president’s unwillingness to investigate the crimes of the previous Administration, too many members of the emerging political class seem content to “look to the future” rather than focus on yet another area of conflict with the military establishment. (It’s worth noting here that as the International Criminal Court explores the prosecution of ex-Gaddafi officials for the use of rape as a weapon of war against protesters last year, the government of Egypt continues to receive billions of dollars in Western aid while it goes about the business of abusing and in many cases, systematically raping, untold thousands of its own citizens.)

As I left ad-Dawla’s office to for another meeting, the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben sped through my head, as it does most every time I meet with members of the human rights community or victims of regime brutality. As I wrote in a column last year, Agamben developed a theory of the “homo sacer”, or sacred man, who from ancient Rome to the present day is considered completely outside the law and deprived of all rights of citizenship. Because of this, he can be brutalised or murdered with impunity.

Agamben deployed the idea of Homo Sacer to describe extreme events such as the Holocaust, and others have used it to describe the way colonialism or apartheid has aliented entire classes of people from the most basic human rights. But what makes the concept so powerful is that it also encapsulate the everyday minor violences of life in authoritarian states, where everyone who is not part of the power structure is, to some degree, homo sacer, because their most basic rights can be violated with impunity by agents of the state.

As I first pointed out in that column, the most routinely violated group in the repressive societies of the region is women. What I term the “femina sacra”, the sacred woman, is a primary object of violence because as the repository of honour and values they are seemingly the weakest link to break down the resistance of society as a whole.

Just how quickly and brutally governments resort to this tactic became clear later Saturday night, when I met up with the Freedom Theatre did its last performance in Cairo, at the “Syrian Tent” in Tahrir Square. The tent, which is strategically located next to the Arab League Headquarters (as a rebuke to the organisation’s unwillingness to defend Syrians against their occupier, the al-Assad regime), is one of the few permanent places left in Tahrir where Arabs from across the region who are in Cairo can come and vent their frustration at the ongoing repression they face at home, and show solidarity to the – currently – most victimised people in the region.

During the playback performance, participants took the microphone to share their experiences of the current situation in Syria, and several female refugees described the almost unimaginable level of brutality experienced by Syrian women during the last year. Women in their hometown of Homs have been completely trapped in their homes because Syrian soldiers have clear orders to rape and kill any women who leave their homes, and then to enter their homes and kill their families.

The stories were so intense that it was almost impossible for the actors, joined by musicians from the famed Egyptian folklore troop Tanboura, to reflect them back to the audience in a manner that could begin to do them justice. “I remember when I was forced out of my home in Port Said by Israel in 1967, explained a tearful Zakaria Ibrahim, Tanboura’s musical director. “I know what exile feels like.”

Trying to create art in the context of such intense and violent realities – where horror and humiliation become inextricably woven into the fabric of victims’ identities – called to mind the claim by philosopher Theodor Adorno that it was “barbaric” to attempt to create art reflective of the Holocaust. For Adorno such events were impossible to represent by any available language. And yet, even if the essence of the women’s suffering could not be captured by the performers, their presence enabled both the sharing of stories to a large audience who would otherwise not have heard them, and an outpouring of solidarity for the Syrian refugees which, at least momentarily, ameliorated some of the pain of the refugees, offering a bit of comfort and hope to men, women and children who have had little in the last year.

A young woman’s courage

The notion of Homo Sacer is rooted in the power of states to remove people from the protection of society. But as far as women are concerned, even greater damage is caused by the way society strip women of their most basic rights and dignity. I saw this first-hand in the mid-afternoon as I walked from Tahrir to a friend’s apartment in Garden City.

In order to leave Tahrir in the direction of Garden City on ‘Asr al-Ayni street you have to climb over a short wall, made out of cement cubes and barbed wire, which seperate the government-free zone of Tahrir from the state-controlled rest of the city. As I climbed over, I wound up behind a girl of about 17, wearing a full hijab and modest clothes as I through the narrow passage, lined with about half a dozen police, that completes the transition from free to SCAF-ruled Cairo.

Predictably, the young police leered at the woman, who visibly tensed up when approaching the passage, as she walked through the passage. As she passed the last cop, he broke the pole of the large Egypt flag she was carrying when the flag touched him. Stunned, she turned around and started screaming at the cop, demanding to know why he did it. In response, he took the flag and threw it on the ground, and then picked it up and wiped it on the bottom of his boot. A greater insult is hard to imagine in Arab culture, as President Bush learned in the famous shoe attack on him in during his 2008 visit to Baghdad .

What was even more startling, however, was the girl’s response to this attack. She exploded at the police, screaming curses at them, and then, when they failed even to acknolwedge her, picked up a crushed plastic bottle and through it at them. When that failed to elicit any response, she looked around, picked up a softball-sized chuck of concrete from the ground, and hurled it at them as hard as she could, forcing two of them to jump to avoid being hit.

Egyptian men at all levels of society [are utterly obsessed] with women’s vaginas as the single most important instrument of control left to them in a society in flux.”

This got their attention, and two of them started to walk towards the young woman, who was now sobbing as she continued to yell at them. At this point I and then several older men from nearby shops approached her to keep the cops away. The oldest man asked us what happened, walked us over to the cops and asked us to point out who broke and disrespected the flag. Neither of us could point him out, and after a few minutes spent berating them, the men walked the young woman back into Tahrir to buy her a new flag.

It is hard, indeed, nearly impossible to imagine a young woman responding to riot police like this before the revolution. Her actions are just one more example of what happens when the barrier of fear is broken, and young people are willing to confront the brutality of state power directly, with their bodies, with little thought of the consequences of so doing.

The young women’s actions were more specifically an example of what Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy, who herself was viciously sexually assaulted last November only two blocks from the present incident, described at the Aspen Institute meeting the utter “obsession” of Egyptian men at all levels of society, with women’s vaginas as the single most important instrument of control left to them in a society in flux. The young girl’s willingness to risk everything to force them away is one of the strongest legacies of Tahrir.

Ultras to the rescue, again!

Of course, Egyptian women are not alone in their desire to move from a state of sacredness-as-seperate from (male-dominated) society to the sacredness of a full rights bearing citizen. The Ultras (who despite their rough image are, according to the female activists I know, generally respectful to women) have lately led the charge against the ongoing repressive apparatus of the state and social groups who dare try to hijack the revolution. Their presence at last Friday’s mass protests once again changed – some would say saved – the basic dynamic of Tahrir.

The protests were billed as the first attended by most of Egypt’s major social forces – religious and secular, liberal and more radical. The reality, however, was that for much of the day Tahrir was a Salafi space, as thousands of supporters of the disqualified Presidential Candidate Hazem Abu Ismail literally took over the Square, set up at least two dozen large tents festooned with posters of him, and began a sit-in to protest his disqualification that is still continuing as I write.

So upset were liberal revolutionaries at the large Salafi presence that many activists stayed away from the Square. “I just don’t feel Tahrir today,” was how one friend, a co-founder of one of the most important post-Mubarak groups, put it. Twitter felt “like a funeral”, Aida Saif ad-Dawla added in disgust, as liberals tweeted their refusal to come to Tahrir because of the heavy religious presence rather than reclaiming their ground.

Even Ramy Essam, the “singer of the revolution” was so dispirited when he arrived for his first performance of the day on Tahrir’s only remaining liberal stage (in front of the Hardees on Muhammad Mahmoud street) that he at first didn’t feel like performing. But he sensed the importance of making a stand and wound up doing a set which immediately changed the dynamics in the Midan, giving a powerful voice to the thousands of people, religious and secular alike, who did not want to be represented, nevermind dominated, by the Salafis with their multiple stages and over-the-top loud PA systems.

For a half hour at least, the Salafis were drowned out by all the fans singing every word to Ramy’s revolutionary songs – from young men with slicked back hair to middle-aged women in hijab. But this was only a warm-up for what happened during his second set, later in the afternoon, when over 100 Ultras stormed into the Square, and, drums in hand, marched right into – in fact, right through – the Salafis and their black flags right as Essam took the stage. It looked from the stage like a knife cutting through warm butter.

When Essam did his newly famous song… ‘Oh SCAF You Son of a B*tch’, the crowd was in a near frenzy.”

With the Ultras present, the volume of the crowd grew even louder; when Essam did his newly famous song, “Ya Magles Ya Ibn El-Haram” (“Oh SCAF, You Son of a B*tch”), the crowd was in a near frenzy, and completely dominated the southeastern part of the Midan, which until then had been largely Salafi territory.

Thanks to the Ultras and their willingness challenge the Salafis directly for control of the public sphere and public space, for the duration of Essam’s performance the Salafis were pushed to the margins and at least part of Tahrir regained its old feel. That’s when it occurred to those of us who watched the unfolding spectacle that the Ultras once again have shown how to fight a revolution: Stay disciplined, never back down, come prepared to fight and sing as loud as you can.

It might be wonderful after all

Liberals and Left forces in Egypt by and large have little love for the Salafis, and the Ultra’s lesson was well-received by most of the activists I saw after the protests. But the reality is that the Salafis belong in Tahrir Square, as movements like April 6 acknowledged when they invited all the country’s main forces to join them in Tahrir for the day under the banners “Together to protect the Revolution” and “No to the Felool”. Where else should they be but Tahrir to press for their demands? They too suffered horribly under the Mubarak regime, when untold thousands languished in jails and suffered brutal abuses, even as their leaders were largely coopted by the system in the last 15 years.

Indeed, the Salafis may have come late to the revolution, but they remain one of the few and most organised truly revolutionary voices in Egypt – not merely in what many would perceive as the negative sense of desiring a state based largely on their conservative interpretation of the Sharia, but because they have a much stronger social justice discourse than the increasingly establishment Muslim Brotherhood. They are thus a crucial component of any alliance against the emerging political-economic elite and its deep state patrons.

“The most important job of art is precisely to represent the unrepresentable, to reflect a mirror back on society that shows not just its ugliest realities but the glimmers of hope they so often obscure.

And this is what makes Tahrir so wonderful. The Salafis conquered a large part of Tahrir, but even after doing so they were forced to listen to music sung with abandon by thousands of people, who didn’t go up in a poof of smoke or descend directly to Hell merely for doing so. Salafis on the street were dialoging with women and men from very different sociol-political orientations about the best way to complete a democratic transition, even as preachers regularly intoned verses from the Quran or the Shahada. The Salafis with dayglo vests who have suddenly taken over security for the Midan were no less polite or smiling than the Shabab who’d traditionally run Tahrir’s civilian security.

The more that Salafis or Brotherhood members have to share public space with other Egyptians (including, one hopes, a lot more Christians than were in Tahrir on Friday), the more both sides’ views of the other will begin to shift towards greater understanding, and just perhaps, the beginnings of some sort of shared political vision. This is, of course, the most fundamental role of the public sphere, to enable debate that, however spirited, ultimately leads to a conception of the common good that furthers the most basic rights of all citizens.

Of course, conservatives of all religious persuasions have a hard time accepting the necessarily pluralistic and tolerant definition of the public sphere. And here is precisely where art plays such an important role. As both Ramy Essam and the members of the Freedom Theatre explained after their joint performance Friday evening, the most important job of art is precisely to represent the unrepresentable, to reflect a mirror back on society that shows not just its ugliest realities but the glimmers of hope they so often obscure. And in so doing, to give people the strength and imagination to do the seemingly impossible, and in the process change the basic frameworks through which they shape their identities and act towards to those around them.

Watching the audience, including a few Salafis, move their heads to Essam’s guitar and the rhythmic motions of the Freedom Theatre’s actors, the future of Egypt seemed just a bit brighter than it had when I first left my friends’ apartment, 12 hours before.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

Follow him on Twitter: @CultureJamming

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