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.