The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture
By Bonnie J. Morris
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016, 247 pp., $22.95, paperback
Reviewed by Jen Manion
The narrative arc of The Disappearing L moves from the lesbian culture and politics that pioneered a social revolution in the 1970s, ̓80s, and ̓90s to the marginalization of lesbians in the twenty-first-century LGBTQ community. Author Bonnie J. Morris claims that the power of those early lesbian subcultures, which centered around music, literature, and politics, is now silenced and forgotten in both feminist and gay community histories. Not only is lesbian history disappearing, but lesbians themselves—as the title asserts—seem to have less of a place in the contemporary LGBTQ community, as many people embrace fluid identity categories such as “queer” and “trans” rather than those that are more precisely defined, such as lesbian.
Morris begins by explaining the importance of music festivals to the creation and growth of the lesbian feminist movement. The first of these festivals was held in 1974, at the University of Illinois. Morris captures the festival scene beautifully in this description of what a night out could mean:
Concerts were a novel, affordable date night that couples could look forward to; they were places for the newly out and/or single lesbians to encounter each other; and as large-scale community events they served as radical awakenings for entire audiences. Every revolution needs anthems, and a charismatic performer could transform a crowd into a thousand activists—instantly.
These vibrant, transformative, and culture-defining events popped up across the country and drew thousands of women, year after year. Some women travelled from festival to festival, while others attended only the one nearest their home. Audience members carried with them the energy of these all-women gatherings in their hearts and minds, drawing on it for strength and power long after they returned to their regular lives.
The erasure of the women’s festival movement could be seen in both the feminist and LGBT press. Lesbian readers of Ms. magazine complained to the editor throughout the 1970s that it neglected to cover the women’s music movement sufficiently. The lesbian magazine Curve and the gay newspaper Washington Blade both celebrated the Lilith Fairs of 1997 – 1999, characterizing them as the first women’s music festivals—and neglecting the trail blazed by their very readership in the process. When Lisa Vogel, a co-founder of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which took place every August from 1976 – 2015, pushed back against this erasure in the pages of the lesbian magazine Girlfriends, its readers took offense at her claim that Lilith Fair organizers were “afraid of being seen as dykes” and “bent over backwards to be nonfeminists.”
Morris contends that two of the forces responsible for the demise of lesbian culture are the broader acceptance of LGBTQ people in mainstream society and a shift in the lesbian community from public cultural events to domestic normativity. These forces are intimately bound together: mainstreaming shifted LGBTQ community priorities, from nightlife and culture to religion and daycare. Morris writes,
[B]y the late 1990s, the mainstreaming of LGBT rights made separate (or secretive) institutions serving the lesbian community less necessary as couples found warmer welcomes at established places of worship or at “family” vacation destinations and restaurants. A “gayby boom” saw more and more women having children in a culture gradually accepting lesbian families.
We lesbians had a hand in this loss and are not simply the victims of external forces. While some of this shift can be attributed to a younger generation who never knew lesbian bars and music festivals, a segment of lesbians from older generations played a part as well, embracing the wider range of social and cultural outlets newly available. How many of us abandoned gay-owned restaurants, bars, and businesses when we found acceptance in other ones? How many of us traded in our lawn chairs at music festivals for mezzanine seats in concert halls when lesbian performers such as K.D. Lang and Melissa Etheridge broke through? How many of us retreated from the public sphere of political activism into domesticity when the urgency of the political fight for basic rights seemed to abate?
The third element of Morris’s theory of the “disappearing L” is much more polarizing. She laments the “gender turn”—scholarship and activism that aims to deconstruct categories such as “woman” or “lesbian”—and claim that it marginalized histories and communities of women and lesbians. This line of thinking is woven throughout the text. For instance, Morris claims that the renaming of “women’s studies” as “gender studies” devalues women in an attempt to make men and trans people feel more welcome. But women’s studies programs’ shift to include “gender” and now “sexuality” in their mission is not necessarily part of a pernicious woman-hating agenda. Rather, it reflects feminists’ desire to understand women’s lives relationally—through gender—rather than in isolation.
Morris’s thesis, that the once robust and distinctly identifiable lesbian community is now disappearing, presumes that “lesbian” as a category was always clear, unifying, and uncontested in the first place. It implies that there was a golden age of lesbian feminism, unmarked by intergenerational tension or debates about who belonged. Yet the book is sprinkled with examples of long-running conflicts over who could and should be counted as one of us. The organizer of the first women’s music festival at the University of Illinois—that pioneering lesbian art form—was not a lesbian. Kristin Lems, the feminist producer, was motivated by the exclusion of women artists from a folk festival she had recently attended. While some lesbians were apolitical and many feminists were homophobic, a tremendous amount of important cultural work was done under the umbrella of lesbian feminism. Many women—no matter what their sexuality—were drawn to women’s concerts for the music, culture, and politics.
There are many reasons why the category “lesbian” is not embraced by everyone who, by virtue of their sex or sexual orientation, might claim it. I can think of three that are most salient: race, gender, and culture. For example, Morris cites a conversation with the LGBTQ Center director at Georgetown University, Sivagami Subbaraman. A native of India, Subbaraman identifies as khush, which translates as “queer.” Subbaraman could identify as lesbian but feels that khush captures her experience and feelings more precisely. Although Morris glimpses through this door, she leaves the territory largely unexplored.
She effectively demonstrates how difficult it is to document and make available the history of the lesbian feminist movement in its prime. But her claim that the category of lesbian is newly imperiled is less well substantiated and mostly anecdotal. While fewer young people seem to identify as lesbians, we never really understand why this is the case. Lack of access to lesbian history is certainly part of the problem—but to what extent that has resulted in youths’ embrace of other categories, such as queer, trans, bi, or pan, rather than lesbian, is unclear. Numerous studies show that more Americans actually identify as bisexual than lesbian or gay. The power and allure of 1970s and 1980s feminism, with its woman-identified culture, may have impelled a significant number of women to claim a lesbian identity in order to fit into this exciting movement. Rather than mourn the loss and decline of lesbians, we might celebrate the tremendous influence lesbian feminism has had, enabling significant numbers of people to embrace a range of gender identities and sexualities. Morris captures the real ambivalence among some lesbians about today’s LGBTQ community:
Progress had proven to be a mixed blessing. It offered the next generation of younger women visible role models in entertainment media—yet it took away feminist bookstores and other sheltering hangouts. Ironically, now that LGBT leaders and smiling, empowered lesbian celebrities declared that it was safe to come out, there were in fact fewer lesbian places to go in America.
A sense of loss—probably greater among “Ls” than among “GBTQs”—has heightened the stakes for protests against “certain long-lasting lesbian institutions,” such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, for policies that refuse to recognize transgender women as women. Some lesbians see the boycott as an unfair attack on one of the few cherished community institutions that survived into the twenty-first century. This is no small accomplishment, as so many lesbian bars, bookstores, and organizations folded or became queer spaces that welcome people with a diverse array of gender expressions and identities—a far cry from the once dominant androgyny of 1980s lesbian feminism. But it is important to note that most lesbian activists and institutions have not been the focus of protests, because they accepted transgender women and men all along. The emphasis on the debate surrounding Michigan elevates a sideshow to center stage.
The Disappearing L moves back and forth between telling stories of the past and highlighting the obstacles to remembering those stories. Morris’s last chapter is most despairing about what she calls “points of erasure.” The “points” concerning mainstream media and the writing of history are clear and well substantiated—but those aimed at the transgender community are unclear and unsubstantiated. There is no doubt that the younger generation of LGBTQ activists—including transgender people—could learn a great deal from studying the history of the lesbian feminist movement. But generational transitions can be dramatic and full of contradictions. While some of us at age twenty were eager to learn from our elders, others were too caught up in the here-and-now of our own lives and problems to care. Perhaps more to the point, the queer movement and the transgender revolution are happening and will continue to happen, whether or not lesbians are on board.
Of course, The Disappearing L does not represent the view of all lesbians, of whatever generation. For every lesbian who feels lost in the new, hazy-dazy world of queerness, another feels relief that she can bring the language of gender back into the community as a meaningful dimension of her life. That the gender turn, in all of its glorious expansiveness, is seen as an oppositional threat to lesbian culture and identity is both ironic and a shame—because lesbian feminism made it possible.
Jen Manion is author of Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (2015) and Taking Back the Academy: History of Activism, History as Activism (2004). She is associate professor of History at Amherst College and tweets at @activisthistory
China’s Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy
By Kay Ann Johnson
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 218 pp., $22.50, hardcover
Reviewed by Lihua Wang
The phenomenon of missing Chinese girls has alarmed scholars both inside and outside of China since the government’s one-child policy was first implemented in 1979. Over the past thirty years, about 120,000 children, mostly girls, have been adopted by international parents, especially by parents in the US. According to researchers from various fields, the negative impacts of the policy on Chinese society include gender inequality, a sex-ratio imbalance, diminished marriage prospects for men, and human rights violations.
Yet the same time, Chinese and international researchers have failed to criticize the Chinese government for promoting the traditional patriarchal devaluation of girls. Nor have the researchers paid much attention to the emotional and economic suffering the policy has caused parents, especially those who have been forced to give up their children for adoption. China’s Hidden Children directs our gaze to these two missing pieces within previous scholarly work, as it gives voice to rural, poor, marginalized, and often poorly educated parents.
China scholars often point to the Confucian idea of son preference and to a history of female infanticide to explain the missing girls. They claim that daughters are “unwanted,” and that the “backwardness” of rural parents is to blame for the missing girls.
Contesting this explanation, Kay Ann Johnson has spent more than a decade collecting data in an ethnographic project in Anhui Province, one of the poorer regions in central China, which has a relatively high abandonment rate. Based on the 350 parents in her study who “abandoned” their daughters, Johnson is convinced that there is no evidence to indicate that the abandonment was voluntary. Rather, she argues, parents were often caught between government threats and their desire to have a girl. Daughters are not “unwanted”; Chinese government coercion is the problem.
During the 1990s, after a decade of the one-child policy, the rural parents Johnson interviewed demonstrated a desire to have children of both genders. Especially in families who already had a son, daughters were valued for the closeness, love, and companionship they were thought to bring to the family. The wish to have a daughter was especially common among those who already have a son. Girls were associated with enhancing the quality of family life and happiness, while boys were associated with ensuring family economic well being and parents’ social security.
Pursuing this desire for girls, however, often involves risks. China’s Hidden Children uses a frame of “coerced choice” to explain parents’ decisions about risk taking and to illuminate the regulations that govern their personal lives. Their choices are “coerced” because “choice” takes place in a context of official birth permits, penalties for unauthorized births, and forced sterilization after the birth of a second child.
Five narratives in Chapter Two illustrate various ways that parents deal with coerced choice. The narratives detail their struggles to keep their baby girls and put us in touch with the emotional torment they suffer when the children are taken away. For example, Xiaolan gave birth to a second daughter in 1992, without a birth permit. Afraid that she would be forcibly sterilizated, she gave up her daughter. After her parents-in-law took the baby and left her in a city, Xiaolan’s life was never the same. The abandonment left a permanent hole in her heart and her family’s. Their feelings of loss and guilt lasted for years.
Before the implementation of a state adoption law in the 1990s, informal adoption was a common practice. Parents would arrange an adoption through their network of relatives and friends. The state adoption law, however made these adoptions illegal. The government cracked down on them. This change further limited villagers’ alternatives. In rural areas, abandonment increased. With no other option, Wang Nan, a mother, left her second daughter on a city street in 1992. She has never stopped thinking about the girl, and she still wonders about her welfare. Like most of the 350 informants in Johnson’s study, she does not know of her daughter’s whereabouts.
Because rural parents are stigmatized as “backward,” both media reports and scholarly studies fail to understand that the parents’ abandonment of their daughters is involuntary. Left to themselves, they would not abandon their children. Or, if they were allowed, they could utilize their own networks to find adoptive homes for their daughters. And in fact, many rural adoptive parents take great risks to keep their adopted daughters.
Although international adoptions have been well studied, Chinese domestic adoption has been largely invisible and neglected by researchers. Johnson argues that the invisibility of this experience derives from two interrelated sources: the adoption law restricting informal channels, and the difficulty of obtaining a legal birth registration (the hukou system). It is not ancient patriarchy but rather modern institutions that prevent domestic adoption, resulting in the practice of hiding girls who are born without birth permits.
Hukou is a system for recognizing the legal status of a child, similar to an American birth certificate. Registration in the hukou system confers citizenship and entitles the child to education, land use, and other benefits. Without a hukou, a child is labeled as illegal, undocumented—a “black person” in Chinese society. She has no rights. Thus, the registration system is a huge obstacle for parents who want more than one child.
Because parents who adopt informally have no access to the official registration system, hiding children remains the only choice for many. But hiding unauthorized children creates serious psychological and emotional problems for everyone in the family. “Black children” are often introverted; they lack self-confidence and feel inferior. One traumatized child said, “I should never have been born.” It is difficult for parents to see the pain, hardship, and suffering of their adoptive daughters.
Since 2000, an official desire to limit “black children” has resulted in new, severe measures. Birth planning officials monitor married women closely during their reproductive years in order to prevent unauthorized births. Married village women are required to take a pregnancy test four times a year. An unauthorized pregnancy can result in a mandated abortion or other punishment. For example, one couple, Jiang and Xu, were hoping to have a daughter nine years after the birth of their son. In 2003, Jiang became secretly pregnant and hid with her natal family. After she gave birth to a baby girl, she and Xu were thrilled. One month after the birth, Jiang returned to her village. Discovering the couple’s unauthorized baby girl, the local birth planning officials destroyed the family house and took the baby to a state-owned orphanage.
State-owned orphanages are the only legal spaces for keeping babies and arranging formal adoptions. It is legal, under the adoption law, for prospective adoptive parents to pay fees to adoption agencies. In addition, the state gives monetary awards to people who have “found” a baby on the street. These regulations, together with declining numbers of “abandoned” babies, have created a market for traffickers. In one hospital, staff members received between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan (about $1,500 to $3,000) for “transactions” of unauthorized babies. Trafficking is just one symptom of the national crisis caused by the one-child policy.
Clearly, none of the current birth planning and adoption laws and practices address children’s needs. The government’s goal of limiting population is being achieved only by causing suffering and misery among rural Chinese. Kay Ann Johnson has produced a worthy and important study.
Lihua Wang, PhD, is a visiting assistant professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her teaching and research areas include gender, work, family, globalization, poverty reduction, and family planning policy in China.
The Complete Works of Pat Parker Edited by Julie R. Enszer
Dover, FL: Sinister Wisdom, Inc., 2016, 487 pp., $22.95, paperback
Reviewed by Kate Rushin
The cover of The Complete Works of Pat Parker is a black-and-white photograph by JEB (Joan E. Biren). We see Parker in performance: onstage, at the mic, working. She sports her carefully-put-together style: dark polyester shirt, vest, slacks, white tie, short-coiffed Afro, rings and watch. Pat Parker, herself. Bold in 1978, bold in 2017. You can judge this book by its cover.
This compilation includes Parker’s writing from her time as a college student in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1960s, to her premature death, in Oakland, California, at age 45, in 1989, of breast cancer. During her lifetime, Parker published three chapbooks; two volumes of poetry; and several short-short stories, speeches, and prose pieces. Julie Enszer, in her Note from the Editor, explains that “this edition is the most complete assembly of Pat Parker’s work to date.” Enszer has included unpublished work from Parker’s papers: several short stories, two one-act plays, and previously unpublished poetry written from the 1960s through the 1980s. Family snapshots and formal photographs add an extra dimension to the portrait of Parker. It’s not all serious business; we see her laughing and smiling with family and friends, and playing with her dog. The collection communicates the range of Parker’s concerns, as well as her sense of humor, playfulness, and productivity.
The significance of the collection extends far beyond that of a conventional, chronological compilation. It provides a first-hand account of an African American woman writer/activist, born in the mid-twentieth century, in segregated Texas. Parker lived a remarkable life and influenced the remarkable times and the remarkable communities in which she lived. She contributed her time, energy, and talents to a number of women’s presses and publishers, founded or co-founded several organizations, and dedicated herself to women’s healthcare. She also played and coached softball. Parker wrote, recorded, and performed poetry within sometimes overlapping communities—Black, working class, feminist, lesbian—and spoke out courageously in many movements for social and cultural change.
Parker wrote of violence in the Black community and in her own family and marriage in poems like “Goat/Child” and “WomanSlaughter,” in which she honors and bears witness to the life of her sister, Shirley Jones, who was shot and killed by her ex-husband—who then served less than one year in prison for manslaughter. Parker was not “theorizing the black body” from some remote perspective. When she travelled to the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, held in Belgium in 1976, she spoke out against all who would brutalize and kill women. This was during a time when Black women were admonished not to criticize Black men—not to do anything that might make them any more vulnerable to the “System”—the police, the courts, and prison. Black women were expected to be silent about abuse for “the good of the community.” But the community cannot thrive when any part of it is under assault. Parker wrote,
...I’m no genius,
but i do know
you hit me with
Within a predominately white, women’s/gay/lesbian liberation context, Parker honored her Black woman foremothers in “Movement in Black.” She challenged gender binaries, stereotyping, and hatred of queer people; challenged lesbian S&M in the context of Black feminism and the Holocaust; and faced the effects of drinking within the women’s bar scene. In “don’t let the fascist speak,” she grappled with free speech issues. Indeed, there were few subjects that Parker did not take on in her writing, sometimes with biting irony and humor, however controversial and challenging.
And she took her poetry everywhere. She recalls standing on a piece of plywood placed on the pool table in a bar to read her work. She writes of the initial challenge of being accepted, at women’s music festivals, as a poet, and subsequently going on the influential Olivia Records-sponsored tour, the “Varied Voices of Black Women,” which included the musicians Mary Watkins, Linda Tillery, Vicki Randall, Gwen Avery, and others, in the late 1970s.
Parker writes—on relationships, gay parenting, roles, sex, friendship, politics, family, history, politics, and world affairs—in direct, accessible language. Taken as a whole, her works reveal not only one writer’s curiosity and wide embrace but also the contours of a social and cultural history-as-lived. She chronicles the debates within an emergent and eventually flourishing West Coast lesbian community and within the second-wave feminist movement as it extended beyond the campus. Her poetry gave energy and impetus to the ideas of women’s liberation, as expressed through the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements, the women’s health movement, the women in print movement, the Third World Women’s movement, and the Black feminist movement. These movements, in turn, cleared the way for the establishment of African American Studies, Chicano Studies, Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies, and Gender and Transgender Studies, on US campuses.
Parker should be read in the context of two paradigm-shifting books: This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983). Students, scholars artists, and activists should understand that today’s intersectional thinking arose from the lives of women of color and working-class women, as they analyzed their own experiences and did the courageous and sometimes lonely work of challenging themselves and others, and speaking up for themselves, their families, and their communities. The poet Judy Grahn, Parker’s friend and her collaborator in the Women’s Press Collective and on the Olivia Records poetry album, “Where Would I Be Without You,” writes in her introduction to this collection,
I need to say here that four, at least, of us feminist poets—Parker, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and me—who were broadly and intensively formative of ideas in the 1970s and beyond, wrote of the intersections of our lives in ways that would later inform what continues to evolve in the academy and within social movements as “intersectionality.”
The point of it all is literal survival: of the body, mind, and spirit, as well as of values and traditions. From the perspective of our “post-Ellen” age of same-gender marriages and engagement announcements in the New York Times; at a time when the TV shows Girls, Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Black-ish win awards (giving the false impression that all is well) it would be too easy to take Pat Parker and her accomplishments for granted. She faced direct challenges to her very self wherever she went, and wherever she spoke, at a time when simply being a divorced woman made one a target of ostracism.
In the final volume of poetry published before Parker’s death, Jonestown & Other Madness (1985), she again confronts all manner of violence, as she does from her earliest writings. She continues to raise questions of survival for Black lesbians and gay men. She addresses the 1978 mass murder of more than 900, mostly African American, men, women, and children, by the self-described religious leader Jim Jones, after he moved his People’s Temple cult to a remote region of Guyana, in South America. “Black folks do not/ Black folks do not/Black folks do not commit suicide,” Parker writes. She also documents the wave of largely unsolved murders of African American children and young adults who were labeled as “street children” in Atlanta, in the 1980s.
Poignantly, she begins and ends Jonestown & Other Madness with love poems. In the first, “love isn’t,” Parker expresses a longing to be with her partner on a summer beach; she imagines going on vacation. Yet, her awareness of the needs of people in her city and her pledge to address those needs require a different kind of life and relationship. She realizes,
I care for you
I care for our world
If I stop
caring about one
it would be only
a matter of time
before I stop
The final poem in the collection is “legacy,” for Anastasia Jean, Parker’s daughter, whom she raised with her partner Marty Dunham. Anastasia was a child when Parker died of complications from breast cancer. In the “Prologue” section of the poem, Parker mocks those who imagine that lesbian parents don’t or can’t care for their children. Then, addressing the idea of “Anything handed down. . .” at the end of this section, she declares
that would be mine
I bring you my world
and bid it be yours.
She tells the story of her birth family for the benefit of her daughter. In Section I, “Addie and George,” and Section II, “Ernest and Marie,” Parker offers the narratives of her grandparents and parents. In Section III, in lines calling to mind the soaring diction of her sister-poet and correspondent Audre Lorde, Parker asserts,
It is from this past I come
surrounded by sisters in blood
it is this past
that I bequeath
a history of work and struggle.
What courage and fierce love emanate from the writings of Pat Parker! This anthology is a testament to her determination to write and to work for a better world—a testament to the love that Parker, her family, friends, and community created. It is also a testament to the devotion of many collaborators, editors, publishers, librarians, and scholars, notably, Cheryl Clarke, Judy Grahn, and Nancy Bereano, who contributed to the publication of this collection. And it is a testament to the determination and nearly thirty-year commitment of Marty Dunham to safeguard Parker’s published and unpublished writing. Their daughter, Anastasia Dunham-Parker-Brady, has insured that Pat Parker’s papers are now archived in the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women at Harvard University. Editor Julie Enszer has taken up the work to pass it on, that others might be inspired to carry it forward. At this historical moment, when the analytical lens that was crafted out of the lives and work of women and men who lacked the many advantages afforded by wealth and is tossed aside as so much academic jargon; when so-called identity politics is, in some quarters, dismissed out of hand as intellectually and morally bankrupt, and the source of our national discord; and when the Black Lives Matter movement is miscast as an organization promoting violence and “reverse racism,” the work of Pat Parker cuts to the realities faced by people who are determined to create the terms of their own lives, despite the many obstacles and challenges.
Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening By Ellen Anne McLarney
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015, 312 pp., $27.95, paperback
Resistance, Revolt, and Gender Justice in Egypt By Mariz Tadros
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2016, 338 pp., $44.95, paperback
Reviewed by Marilyn Booth
The thawra (revolution) that ended Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year presidency and signalled Egyptians’ overwhelming desire for political change dramatized the gender politics of a country where feminist and other gender-activist campaigns have animated public life for more than 100 years. The 2011 eighteen-day Tahrir Square occupation in Cairo was heralded by participants and onlookers as a gender-equal zone of safety and solidarity, a blueprint for a hoped-for future. But it wasn’t long before the violation of women’s bodies emerged as a counter-revolutionary tactic. Female protesters were branded as promiscuous and unpatriotic for occupying public space, and as bearing the responsibility for the extreme sexual harassment that met their public assertion of citizenship rights. Although the institutions behind the two post-revolutionary governments—the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood—might disagree in their political visions for the future, they hardly differed when it came to derogating and trying to erase women’s insistent participation in public political opposition work.
It is hardly surprising, then, that two recent books on gender politics in Egypt open with images from the 2011 revolution—although each author choses a different image. Ellen Anne McLarney’s Soft Force begins with Asma’ Mahfouz’s January 25, 2011, video blog calling on Egyptians to take to the streets, in which she represents herself as a vulnerable but determined resister to the authoritarian state. For McLarney, Mahfouz is a conscious embodiment of “soft force,” al-quwwa al-na‘ima in Arabic, a term coined by the public intellectual Heba Raouf Ezzat. Raouf Ezzat calls for a nonviolent, gradualist, family-based “women’s jihad” (internal spiritual struggle) as a pathway to a new society based on the Islamic principles of justice, respect, and righteous comportment. She is one of many culture producers who seek to foster new ways of seeing and living righteously, through new modes and sites of representation, which include repackaging older ideas and writings.
Soft Force traces the emergence of an “Islamic public sphere” in Egypt since the 1970s; the key roles that intellectual-activist women have played in its construction; and the central place that competing visions of Egypt’s past, present, and future gender order occupy in its discourses. Focusing on a series of individuals, McLarney traces the history of this new Islamic discourse within the post-Nasserist, neoliberal state and International Monetary Fund-directed economy. She shows each writer in conversation with both contemporaries and a shared textual past, from the Qur’an to the ethical engagements of medieval scholars to the nineteenth-century Arabic reformist thought shaped by colonial encounter and the twentieth-century emergence of new kinds of mass-market literature.
Observers have focused mostly on Islamic movement activism, she notes; much less attention has been paid to the writings that undergird, justify, and grow out of such activism. The writers she discusses are not the self-referential members of a small and isolated coterie; rather, they are determined popularizers. One need only attend the enormous annual Cairo Book Fair, where self-defined Islamic publishing houses do a booming business, to realize that Egypt’s Islamic public sphere is thickly populated. Self-help books for achieving the pious self sit side by-side with polemics on “emancipating the Muslim woman,” works of modernist Islamic thought reframed for new audiences, and nicely bound medieval works of Qur’an exegesis.
McLarney focuses on key thinkers in a chronological and thematic progression, pairing each intellectual with a cluster of issues about living as a contemporary Muslim, including the continuing relevance of the early community and Qur’an … the nature of Islamic law and personal status laws … motherhood and childbearing … veiling and cultivating the self … women’s labor in the face of developmentalist narratives [and] neoliberal expansion… the family as the political unit of the umma [community].
Disentangling a “theology of emancipation from the grip of secular authoritarianism,” she writes, leads to new self-identities and ultimately, a new kind of family as the political unit of the future Islamic society and the space in which the virtuous self is cultivated. The book asks “how a gendered vision of a free and equal family imbued with reciprocal rights and duties became a cornerstone, or a pillar, of Islamic politics.”
The professor, journalist, and writer Bint al-Shati’ (‘A’isha ‘Abd al-Rahman, 1913 – 1998) opens the story. She was a trailblazer: a woman who made it to the top academically, and brought her literary training at Cairo University to bear on religious topics. As literacy expanded in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, she was part of a group of intellectuals who sought to bring Islamic scholarship and history to a broad audience. The works of popular “Islamic literature” produced by this generation focused on reimagining the individuals of the earliest Islamic community as modern role models. Bint al-Shati’ brought together secular literary forms and older genres from the Islamic tradition, notably in her famous (and still widely read) biographies of the women of the Prophet’s family. She maintained a distinctive focus on women’s rights and experience through her “Islamic humanist” philosophy, which emphasized self-expression and public debate as keys to pious selfhood and communal belonging.
Her works posed alternative narratives to those generated by the secular state, both before and after the 1952 Free Officers’ Revolution that overthrew British rule and eventually put Gamel Abdul Nasser into power. Setting up the family as a private space of devotion and self-making apart and away from the state, her biographies effectively highlight the family as a “locus of political contestation,” even as they read like works of romantic domestic fiction. Bint al-Shati’s portraits of the First Family of Islam construct powerful images of egalitarian, companionate marriages, in which women exercise authority as the guardians and pedagogues of the faith. But the notion of differential roles fixed by one’s birth sex, and the continuance of masculine authority in the family, retain their hold. According to Bint al-Shati’, the Islamic duty to acquire and propagate knowledge undergirds women’s right to an equal share of participation in the public sphere of discourse and literary creation, but not political leadership. In the family, women are “equal” yet subject to male “guardianship,” as in a hegemonic reading of the Qur’an.
This notion of “gendered binaries” characterizes all the thinkers McLarney analyses. Muhammad ‘Imara and Muhammad Jalal Kishk were “bright stars of the Marxist Left who defected from the party to become bright stars of the Islamic revival,” she writes. In the 1960s, they sought to reinvigorate the controversial books by the lawyer Qasim Amin (1863 – 1908). In the Emancipation of Women (1899) and other works, Amin called for changes in women’s legal, educational, and social status—although certainly not with the aim of extending personal autonomy or dismantling patriarchal structures of home and state governance. His works garnered intensive coverage at the time, positive and negative—he was not simply “vilified,” as McLarney has it. ‘Imara and Kishk turned Amin’s advocacy into a call for “women’s liberation in Islam” that maintained structures of masculine authority. They glossed liberation as “the freedom to choose a husband, to own property, to receive financial maintenance (and hence, to devote oneself to motherhood), and to dissolve a marriage.”
I would add that in seeking to reuse turn-of-the-century debates, ‘Imara and Kishk reread only the men: their canon of late nineteenth and early twentieth century intellectuals is a wholly male one. And unfortunately, McLarney mentions only minimally the continuous and copious production of works on (and by) women. From the 1890s and into the twentieth century, some women called for more thoroughgoing change.
Kishk portrayed the founding of Islam as the dawn of the free and equal Muslim family. Asserting that divorce rights are part of that freedom (since marriage is a consensual bond between two equal partners and its continuance should not be forced), he emphatically opposed proposals to curtail unilateral divorce. He was silent, however, about the fact that this right was restricted to men. His idealized and partial construction of women’s rights remained, as in classical liberalism, subject to male privilege and governance; he rejected as western and imperialistic legal changes that would restrict men’s privileges. Thus, he pushed against the Nasser regime’s proposed changes to personal status laws, which would expand women’s legal rights, and opposed its family-planning policy. He preferred to emphasize women’s rights to own and manage property as the basis of their freedom.
McLarney argues that women thinkers reconceptualized such formulations, viewing “the political nature of the private sphere as a site for the mobilization of a women’s movement and a women’s consciousness.” Ni’mat Sidqi’, who published a hugely popular book on “self-adornment” in 1967 and developed a career as a “revivalist preacher” for women, explicates the Qur’an as “ground[ing] religiosity in the human body and the sensory realm.” She links the body and the social through women’s experiences with motherhood, creating a gender-essentialized space in which family work becomes “a form of jihad.” Sidqi’s work also provides an early example of autobiographical-confessional “return to veiling” literature that, beginning in the 1980s (with some earlier examples), galvanized audiences with stories of entertainers who dropped their public lives to re-invent themselves as devout and devoted private women—drawing, as McLarney notes, the very media attention that such a move proclaims itself to eschew.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, a proliferation of development literature and neoliberal expertise sought to remake the Egyptian economy, often by targeting women as the objects of discipline and reform. Writing in the 1980s and ̓90s, the journalist Iman Muhammad Mustafa focused on women’s waged labor as exploitative and ruinous to the family, since it replaced the household as the space of true liberation. For her, a woman’s right to work hinges on the needs of her family. Her “vision of liberal citizenship, with its rights, duties, freedoms, and models of ‘consultative’ (democratic) leadership … reproduces a patriarchal conjugal bourgeois family structure,” explains McLarney.
She finds the culmination of this view in the works of Heba Raouf Ezzat (b. 1965). “Ranked the thirty-ninth most influential Arab on Twitter,” writes McLarney, Raouf Ezzat is a savvy media worker as well as a prominent academic. She “conceptualizes the family as not only the site of political change but also the source of the Islamic movement’s political power.” However, explains McLarney, even as Raouf Ezzat presumes to transcend liberalism’s gendered division of labor, “she reproduces some of its most basic assumptions.” She “draws on feminist theory but she rejects feminism as a political agenda,” notes McLarney. Like Mustafa and the other writers McLarney studies, Raouf Ezzat valorizes women’s unwaged work and believes women’s freedom is predicated on a gender-essentialist division of labor, in which “men are leaders and women are led; men are authorities and women are obedient.”
The writers here may to some extent “reconceptualize,” but they certainly do not undo patriarchy. Their discourses are partly products of their resistance to state secularism, which they see as antithetical to their vision of a world governed by Islamic practice, as embodied in the devout individual and the self-governing family. They don’t consider what happens within the family: they assume an ideal space of harmony, mutual respect, middle-class access to goods and services, and “equality.” The possibility of abuse of power is nowhere to be found. But is “freedom” for women possible under patriarchal structures of family and state governance? Of course, these works are predicated on the vision of a perfect world, in which submission to the divine bestows the true freedom to be an ethical subject. But this is not everybody’s freedom and not everyone’s ethics. It is not a “freedom” that allows for much choice if you are born female.
McLarney is careful not to attribute any sort of uncomplicated borrowing to the thinkers she covers. But it is not clear to what extent she believes that Bint al-Shati’ and others adopted (or were influenced by) liberal discourse as it flourished in twentieth-century Egypt, or whether she thinks their ideas have deeper and more complex antecedents—especially given her persuasive analysis of how indebted these thinkers are to a long and rich legacy of Islamic scholarship.
Or, does McLarney see “liberal thought” as somehow detached from its European home, a feature of modernity wherever it occurs? To observe that perhaps these Islamically framed worldviews parallel (more than they echo) the tenets of European liberalism might lead to an inquiry into the historical patriarchal veins that sustain both of them. (In my essay “Islamic politics, street literature, and John Stuart Mill: Composing gendered ideals in 1990s Egypt” [in Feminist Studies 39: 3 (2013)] I analyze a translation into Arabic of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women. I see the use of liberal concepts by Islamic thinkers as part of a structural modernity in which certain tenets have indeed become semidetached from their historical moments of origin.)
I appreciate McLarney’s sympathetic and generous treatment of these works and her clarity on the paradoxes they exhibit, between evocations of “equality” and upholding men’s authoritative position in the family as well as unilateral, uneven rights to divorce; between women’s assertion of their centrality in the making of the new society and their eschewing of political leadership roles. But this book seems to harbor its own paradox, between pointing out the ways these works display a gender double-bind that either comes out of a dependence on liberal thought or is parallel to it, and finding merit in these thinkers’ social vision for a hopeful political future. In the end, if these thinkers really are caught in the contradictions of (or those akin to) liberalism, it is questionable whether this can lead to a truly emancipatory politics, for anyone.
Others in Egypt have had different views and strategies. In Resistance, Revolt, and Gender Justice in Egypt, Mariz Tadros covers some of the same chronological ground as McLarney. She traces the hazardous paths of activists for and against expanded rights for women in Egypt in the late Mubarak period and the turbulent aftermath of his fall from power in early 2011. Like McLarney, she begins in December 2011. She relates the (in)famous attack by soldiers on a woman in Tahrir Square during a demonstration. They were caught on video stripping off the woman’s clothing and assaulting her. The scene went viral. It sparked, some days later, “the largest women-led uprising that the country had witnessed since 1919 when women staged demonstrations against British colonial rule,” writes Tadros.
But the December demonstration was not precisely like either the mass public outpouring of the January 25, 2011, nor like the 1919 demonstrations. This time, she writes, “Women had gathered not only as citizens but also as women who were claiming a new moral order and setting their own red lines between what would and would not be tolerated” [emphasis in original]. They appropriated longstanding, socially dominant notions of “honor” to underline the dignity of assaulted women (whom others tried to portray as dishonorable), while challenging the army on the grounds of widely shared understandings of gendered behavior: “Is this manliness?” The women’s public protest was one moment in a long history of Egyptian women’s gender-based campaigns for justice, and it shows how such campaigns, to speak successfully to the surrounding society, exploited the very understandings and values that were used to control and silence women.
Neither in the prolonged negotiations for a partial independence from British rule in the aftermath of 1919, nor in the postrevolutionary turbulence of the twenty-first century, did women’s demands for rights as national subjects and citizens fare well. Tadros tracks the crevice-filled terrain of women’s demands for equal rights from her dual perspective as both an activist insider and a scholar. She frames the Egyptian story within the academic literature on collective action, women’s and feminist activism, NGO-ization, and state-led change—making useful distinctions among networking, campaign-oriented, and coalition-building work. She notes the ways that political crises and periods of transition, as well as specific leadership configurations, can either facilitate or hinder movements for change. Various kinds of feminist activism must also be distinguished from gender-justice activism that may not be feminist yet contributes to feminist goals in a locally defined context. Why, she asks, do some campaigns on behalf of women generate wide public response, and spark regime nervousness, while others fail or backfire? Narrating the Egyptian experience enables her to make useful theoretical interventions in the literature on feminist and collective action.
Her book moves chronologically, beginning with an assessment of activism during the Mubarak period, during which, she writes, there were “feminist voices without a movement and several women’s movements without feminists.” Mubarak instituted “national women’s machineries over which the first lady presided,” which would have deleterious consequences for feminist action post-Mubarak, since his wife, Suzanne Mubarak, was associated in the public mind with (western) feminism. Mubarak’s version of state feminism worked in various ways (sometimes with the aid of foreign donors) to sideline and discredit independent feminist groupings. Yet, they did not disappear.
Tadros offers detailed and fascinating case studies of some major campaigns launched during the later Mubarak era, when activists worked under the dual challenge of an authoritarian regime and widespread popular hostility to women’s rights. They contended with both a tightly controlled and securitized space for action, and foreign funding that threatened local control and cohesiveness. Nevertheless, much was gained. The Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Taskforce, launched in 1994, was an effective coalition that worked on both the local and international levels, with different audiences in each. In the end, though, the task force’s decision not to institutionalize its work further meant it was not able to shape the government-led initiative against FGM, which built upon the change in social attitudes that the taskforce, with its grassroots-up approach, had done much to create.
A chapter on what Tadros labels “collective action lite” examines the attempted formation of a foreign-donor funded and organized network of existing NGOs. Ultimately it collapsed because of its lack of organic cohesion. Tadros takes the story through 2014, the year after massive public action and then army intervention brought down Muhammad Morsi’s presidency. He was replaced first by an interim government and then by Egypt’s present leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Under al-Sisi, the military establishment’s attempt to delegitimize the youth revolutionaries, among other factors, encouraged a backlash against women’s rights. Activists’ attempts to secure gender equality through the processes of formulating a new constitution were defeated by the backlash as well as the reluctance of competing post-Mubarak constituencies to make women’s gender-political concerns a priority.
Throughout her book, Tadros charts the interplay among the forces of the military regime, Islamist-defined political constituencies, other oppositional forces, and feminists—in a context in which, since at least the 1980s, public discourse had shifted toward an Islamic framework. Women’s rights advocates increasingly felt compelled (or personally convinced) to frame their agendas in Islamic terms. This was due in part to the successful public presence of women like Bint al-Shati’ and Ni‘mat Sidqi. Individual women supporting the goal of an Islamic state run according to their version of the Shari‘a, and groups of Brotherhood-associated women (such as the Muslim Sisters), are active players in this story of shifting lines and changing political scenarios. These women, notes Tadros, “played an instrumental role in transforming the social base of support of their respective movements into political constituencies.” They and their male allies consistently opposed any expansion of women’s public roles or political, legal, and civic rights. Instead, Morsi’s government upheld protective legislation designed to deter women from entering the work force (and, more positively, to support poor female-headed households).
The December 2011 demonstration with which the book opens is emblematic for another reason: the absence of women associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or religiously conservative, Salafi groups. Although the covering of women was central to the Brotherhood’s gender politics, members saw no reason to protest against the public stripping of female demonstrators. After all, they announced, women
should not be out protesting in the first place…. Manal Abou Hassan, one of the sisters of the Muslim Brotherhood and a leading political figure who served as head of the women’s committee of the Freedom and Justice Party, expressed her own distaste for the women who went out to protest.
She asked why such women did not have menfolk to “defend” them.
Although groups across the political spectrum (including some of the revolutionaries of 2011) resisted expanding women’s political voices, there were possibilities for alliances, too. Only in the case of the Islamists, writes Tadros, has ideology been a consistent
predictor … with respect to the agenda they pursued on gender equality matters…. Across the spectrum of organized Islamist actors and in spite of their political and ideological differences, blocs would form … to oppose measures that could potentially challenge the patriarchal gender hierarchy.
From the Mubarak period through the collapse of Morsi’s regime, Islamist women’s mobilizing—partly with the visible and vocal leadership of women like Abou Hassan—was aimed at reducing women’s public political roles and agency.
As powerfully demonstrated in Egypt’s recent history, women’s collective organizing and their work as public intellectuals do not necessarily challenge patriarchal systems or enhance women’s choices and opportunities. Yet, movements to counter sexual harassment in public spaces have arisen since 2011, fueled by young people’s volunteer work on the street. In al-Sisi’s Egypt, the need for gender-justice activism is as urgent as ever; his regime is not much of a change from Morsi’s when it comes to the machinery of patriarchy. Even though his self-appointed role as “father of the nation” is aimed against rather than with the Islamists, it is nevertheless patriarchal: now it is he and the army who are to “protect” women, envisioned in regime discourse as domestically focused dependents on fathers, husbands, sons, and the state. For al-Sisi’s military regime, the family is not the site of an alternative politics of equality; rather, it is what undergirds authoritarian power. Only as subjects of regime surveillance and punishment do women possess clear “equality” with men in Egypt today.
Marilyn Booth is the Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at Magdelen College and the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. As an intellectual historian and scholar of Arabic literature, one of her focuses is the early history of Arab feminisms.