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Bodies on the Move in Pre-Revolution Egypt

February 4, 2012

girl cell phone egypt urban mobility

How do "urban mobilities" differ by gender and class? And what are the social outcomes of relatively free and relatively constrained movement?

This is a brief review of “Mobility, liminality, and embodiment in urban Egypt” by Farha Ghannam (Swarthmore) published in the most recent edition of American Ethnologist (Vol. 38, No. 4).

In this article, Ghannam analyzes urban mobilities, that is, the agency through which people can move about the city, describing the factors that enable and constrain capacity to go places and do things.  For ethnographic data, she describes the lives of a brother and sister, who she calls Zaki and Zakiya, from the low-income neighborhood of al-Zawyia al-Hamra in Cairo.

Using Victor Turner’s work on liminality and Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and bodily hexis, she looks at daily mobilities as “embodied liminal encounters that are open to multiple possibilities.” Not surprisingly, she finds that Zaki suffers from far fewer constraints on movement than his sister.

What IS surprising, however, is this:

Paradoxically, it was his rather free mobility as a youth that restricted his accumulation of cultural capital, limited his career choices, and now constrains his mobility as an adult. His sister, who was carefully monitored and restricted in her movement as a young girl, finished high school and completed two years of additional training in English and basic computing. This training allowed her to land her current job, grow her cultural capital, and now affords her expanded mobility and access to urban spaces outside her neighborhood.

Thus while the liminality of mobility may involve the reproduction of social hierarchies — particularly in this case those of gender and class — it may also create opportunities for questioning and reconfiguring those inequalities.

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