The role of masculinity in the Egyptian uprising

During Egypt’s Great Communications Blackout of 2011 – I am hesitant to assume that this government orchestrated counter-attack is over as I have yet to send or receive text messages, save pro-regime propaganda – my dear friend Max Strasser was able to fill readers in on the large role that women have played in Egypt’s uprising, and indeed, many media outlets have followed suit.
Having intermittently attended the demonstrations since the Day of Rage on January 25th, and knowing and following women activists on the ground who devoted themselves to occupying Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, I can vouch for women’s formidable presence in these historic protests. At this point, no well informed person can bemoan the absence of Egyptian women in ousting Mubarak, so I would like to shift the conversation to the role of the other gender in the uprising.

As we’ve noted before, Egypt’ endemic levels of sexual harassment are a poorly kept secret. In the days before the January 25th demonstration, warnings were sent out on a popular listserv that caters to ex-pats in Cairo: Women are liable to be harassed in greater numbers in such a chaotic setting so they ought to remain in their homes. I have been to enough soccer rallies and had my behind grabbed enough times to know that this warning was not just hysterical posturing. Any woman having lived in Egypt would have fully expected to be eyed, groped and squeezed if she ventured out of the safety of her home and onto the city streets.

Strangely enough though, the number of sexual harassment incidents within the spaces where men and women were marching and chanting has been a steady zero. Exit Tahrir square and within a few blocks you will be greeted by familiar cat-calls, but in Tahrir proper, politeness (and truthfully, not just politeness, but a genuine friendliness) remains the modus operandi. In fact, many opposition figures have taken on the safe, civil atmosphere as a boasting point, as well they should.

Some sociologists posit that Egypt’s rash of sexual harassment stems from a high population of young, frustrated, unemployed and therefore ineligible bachelors. Now that a popular uprising is afoot, acts of frustration have been transferred to their rightful objects: a repressive regime and a stagnant economy.

In a police state, the greatest act of bravery is risking bodily harm and detention by taking to the streets en masse. That young men, shabaab, have persistently maintained their energy in spite of looming threats, is testament to a rejection of an aging and obsolete hierarchy. On January 26th, I marched with protesters on their way to the high court (until we got rerouted by tear gas). I have never seen downtown Cairo’s streets so empty.

As we walked, demonstrators beckoned those watching from their balconies to join the movement, shouting, “Come down, be a man!” Admittedly, there is something about these words that is potentially problematic, but I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that this call for action, led, for the most part, by young women, heralds a desire for new forms of masculinity in the wake of the dying regime’s thuggish paternalism.

(Photo: Joseph Hill)
Annie Rebekah Gardner lives and studies in Cairo, Egypt

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