Sexuality, Religion and Nationalism: A Contrapuntal Reading of the History of Female Activism and Political Change in Egypt

By Zakarriya, Jihan | Journal of International Women's Studies, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Sexuality, Religion and Nationalism: A Contrapuntal Reading of the History of Female Activism and Political Change in Egypt


Zakarriya, Jihan, Journal of International Women's Studies


Introduction: Gendering of the Concept of Nationalism

As a matter of fact, the word activism is a key word in the formation of the feminist consciousness in Egypt. This is mainly due to the fact that the Egyptian feminist movement is 'compatible with nationalist activities so that Egyptian feminism and Egyptian nationalism reinforce each other' (Mernissi 3). In the 1919 Revolution against the British occupation, Nadine Abdalla explains, the feminist participation was both 'vocal and powerful,' as women rallied under the 'Egypt for the Egyptians' slogan' (5). Led by Hoda Shaarawi, Egyptian women organized the largest women's anti-British demonstration at the time. In defiance of British orders to disperse, women remained still for three hours in the hot sun. However, after independence, women's rights and demands were overlooked and marginalized in relation to the pressing causes of the nation.

In the following analysis, I give a contrapuntal reading of the historical relationship between Egyptian feminism and Egyptian nationalism. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said defines contrapuntalism as a 'comparative' reading 'fully sensitive to the reality of historical experience' (Said 19-20). Stemming from his belief that 'politics is everywhere; there can be no escape into the realms of pure art and thought' (1994 16), Said relates the political interests and cultural beliefs of any nation with its colonial experience and international relations. Utilizing Said's contrapuntal theory, this paper traces the interplay between politics, religion and sexuality in modern Egypt, with a specific emphasis on the post-Mubarak era. I argue that successive patriarchal political systems in Egypt sustain and practice gender-based violence and sexual prejudices against women as a means of fostering their political gains and the socio-economic hierarchy.

Before examining the sexual politics of feminism in Egypt, this paper displays Edward Said's views of the process of politicisation, gendering, and sexualization of the concepts of culture and nationalism. In his analysis of the close relationship between Western colonialism and Eastern nationalism, Said identifies in both discourses, the 'assimilation of culture to the authority and exterior framework of the State' and consequently cultural identity and norms come to defend 'such things as assurance, confidence, the majority sense, the entire matrix of meanings we associate with 'home,' belonging and community' (Said, 1993 xxiii). As the 'highest' expression of belonging, 'nationalism' has not only to accommodates the fact that culture has always 'involved hierarchies; it has separated the elite from the popular, the best from the less than best, the female from the male and so forth,' but also to promote that 'the dialectic of self-fortification and self-confirmation by which culture achieves its hegemony over society and the State is based on a constantly practiced differentiation of itself from what it believes to be not itself' (Said, 1983 12).The Other and the native are always seen as opposites. Accordingly, nationalism stands for an 'aggressive' value of 'separating, essentializing, dominating, and reactive tendencies', and entails 'a simmering hostility' and 'the absolute opposition' to the 'other' (Said, 1983 33).

Moreover, sex and gender play pivotal role in the struggle between the colonial and the nationalist discourses. In Orientalism (1979), Said investigates the role of gender and sex in allocating the Other a permanent inferior position. Since the mission of the developed West was to 'civilize' and help the 'primitive' Orient, the two sides experience 'a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony' (8). One way of inferiorizing and subjugating the Orient or the Other is the recurrent and dominant Western process of sexualizing and feminising it. Said believes that sex, particularly 'feminine penetrability,' has been used as a means of stereotyping the colonized's manners as 'so low, barbaric, and antithetical as to merit reconquest,' and the attitudes of Oriental men towards women as always 'under-humanized, backward, barbaric' (Said, 1979 172). …

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