What Egypt Can Teach Us About (U.S.) Feminism

As I reflect on the protests overtaking parts of Africa and the Middle East, I wonder, what would a feminist approach to these protests look like? Should we apply second-wave quota systems, counting the number of women who filled Tahrir Square and delimiting the roles they were allotted? Can feminism even be about this anymore since what once seemed a simple distinction – “men” v. “women” – is now a far richer terrain of fluid and novel identities?

In 2009, Iranian youth took to the streets en masse. They, like the residents of Cote d’Ivoire, were protesting the results of a rigged presidential election. Though Iranian students have been protesting in large number for years, these were the first protests to capture international attention. Why? Because they were largely organized through Twitter, Facebook, and the plethora of Iranian blogs currently online. News organizations were in fact more interested in the power of these social media tools than they were in dissecting these protests in great analytical detail by asking the deeper questions about what the Iranian people wanted and why they had not yet achieved it.

While the media may have been attracted to the “Twitter Revolution” for the wrong reasons, the connectivity that these social media tools allow can stand as a metaphor for a larger, more pressing connection: the connection of nation-states, economies, bodies. The connections of labor, of commerce, of agriculture. What happens in Egypt is not at all separate from what happens in the United States. In fact, some Egyptians believe that the nation’s protests are not only calling for an end to economic disparities, but that like the 1979 Revolution of Iran, they are also calling for an end to imperialistic rule by a puppet of the United States.

This, I believe, is where feminism must start. Not to just point the finger or watch from a cold distance, not just look out for the female heads in a crowd, but to ask why people are clamoring for change. What led to impoverished conditions? How have the powerful exploited the less powerful and how have those dynamics created the kind of quality of life that is no longer tolerable? How is the United States to blame? How can we, as individuals in the United States, as political bodies, as feminists with a history of fighting for change, become instruments in the fight against injustice? Not just gender injustice, but injustice across all intersections: class, nation-state, sexual orientation, literacy, access to digital technology, education, religion, and so on.

Feminism is in essence a tool through which we can deconstruct systems of power. Somewhere along the way, feminism became pigeon-holed as a man versus woman issue, perhaps a clever means of stultifying what has the potential to be a revolutionary paradigm. Rather than allow it its full scope of vision, its full incisive scope, feminism came to be about battles in individual domiciles, in individual office buildings. Certainly, these battles exist, but they are not distinct from, and are often symptoms of, other battles. Battles regarding access to resources. To land. To health care. To all that a human life needs in order to feel fulfilled, but often lacks due to inequitable distributions. It is our job to draw attention to these inequities, to unearth them, analyze them, and work to right them.

On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher began a spirited debate with Tavis Smiley about Muslim men’s treatment of women. Maher insisted that Muslim men are pathologically patriarchal, that they are just simply “worse” than American men. Smiley was not convinced and tried to sway Maher away from “demonizing” Muslim men by arguing that men in the U.S. can be just as wretched as men anywhere else.

Somewhere in the middle of this stalemate, in a rare television moment, a (male) voice bellowed from the audience with enough force to interrupt the men duking it out on stage: “BILL! HAVE YOU SEEN WHAT HELLFIRE MISSILES DO TO MUSLIM WOMEN?” The rest of this speech is unintelligible because the voice belonged to someone in the audience, off-camera. Also, panelist Kevin Smith butted in with a mediocre joke that was not nearly as interesting as the audience member’s speech.

That speech, that’s the voice of feminism. While Smiley and Maher quibble over which country has more domineering men, this young man in the audience calls on the panelists to consider the interconnections between nations, how women’s lives are shaped not only by the husbands with whom they live, but by the men in the Pentagon who meet with chief executives and who make decisions about which communities should be the targets of drone attacks and with what frequency. This voice reminds us that women are victims of a larger global order that, at least from the vantage point of a concerned citizen, seeks only survival of the order rather than of the precious bodies within it. This voice reminds us that we cannot think about women’s lives in any one country as separate and apart from women’s lives in any other country. Nor can we think about women’s lives without thinking about the international politics and economics that control all of our lives, every day.

Sure, we know this all already. But how easily we forget. Just as the off-screen voice in Maher’s studio was – kicking and screaming – carried out and away from the very microphones that could carry his voice, so too do we as feminists get carried out of purview. Sometimes, we even leave on our own. But as Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) points out, we as women must stay at the table, must keep our hands raised and our voices lifted as we speak truth to the system that hates to see its own nature reflected back. A nature that divides us along constructed lines so we forget how united we are in the struggles for increased justice, increased consciousness, increased compassion.

Who better to assert the fundamental, universal feminist power to re-unite than prominent Egyptian feminist and public intellectual, Dr. Nawal el-Sadaawi:

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