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Five Anthropological Approaches to the Arab Revolts That Excite Students

November 24, 2012

The web site Jadaliyya has a pedagogy section that also offers many suggestions for texts, films and approaches to the topic.

How can we engage students in the Arab revolts from an anthropological perspective?

Speaking at a roundtable on “Teaching the Arab Revolts” Nov. 17, sponsored by the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association, Dr. Ian Straughn of Brown University suggested the following five categories: Gender, Bodies, Violence, Social Inequality and Material and Visual Culture.

I take each of these separately below. The comments in each category are mine.

1. Gender

One of the first things students wonder about is the participation of women in the revolution. Most US students have been trained by the discourses circulating in US  media to see veiling=oppression, so they are often fascinated and perplexed to see women in the niqab, in the higab, and unveiled, all out there protesting together. But gender is not only about women, it is always also about men. Masculinities are very much on display as men exhibit shahm, and courage, and wit in the face of danger, and other valued masculine traits.

In the interests of shameless self-promotion, I should point out that these concepts are discussed in a very accessible way in Chapters Four and Five of Connected in Cairo. Jessica Winegar’s article in American Ethnologist is another good starting point, contrasting “women’s experiences at home during the Egyptian revolution with the image of the iconic male revolutionary in Tahrir Square” and calling “attention to the way that revolution is experienced and undertaken in domestic spaces, through different forms of affect, in ways deeply inflected by gender and class.” I also recommend Sherine Hafez’s piece in the same issue, where she discusses masculinity and femininity in relation to one another and the revolution.

2. The Body

Gender brings us inevitably to think of bodies. From forced virginity tests to the posting of nude photos by a “revolutionary,” women’s bodies have been central to the imagining, and imaging, of the revolution. Then there are issues of disciplining bodies, of making Tahrir Square work as a site of mass protests by disciplining, coordinating and celebrating the movement and aggregation of bodies.   And, of course, bodies are sites of violence, both as agents and subjects. From bodies coiled to throw rocks at tanks to the faces of martyrs to the image of bandaged eyes, bodies have carried out violence, been subject to violence, and symbolized violence.Vulnerability and vitality (as Sherine Hamdy points out in a recent article) are central concepts in understanding how people feel about, and use, their bodies in the revolution.

3. Violence

Many students have been habituated to think about Middle Eastern violence strictly in terms of “terrorism.” The revolution opens up entirely new ways to talk about violence both that of the state and that of the revolutionaries. A good starting place might be reflections on how Egyptian men and women “interpreted the attacks of baltagiyya (thugs) on the protestors in Tahrir Square and how these interpretations ultimately framed my interlocutors’ feelings and views of the revolution, Mubarak’s regime, and its supporters” by Farha Ghannam.

4. Social Inequality

Much of the media to which students have been exposed has heavily emphasized issues social media and the rhetoric of democracy. But for many Egyptians, the revolution was about rising economic and social inequality, and resistance to the global network of neoliberalism that encouraged Mubarak’s crony capitalism. The Egyptian cosmopolitan class I write about played a central, and prominent role in the revolution, but they also experienced the revolution differently because of their relatively privileged positions.

5. Material and Visual Culture

Finally there is a rich body of visual and material culture of the revolution, much of which is readily available to students through social media. From music to protest signs to videos–both those locally produced and those by fellow travelers–this is an exciting set of materials for students to work with. Reem Saad’s brief but interesting piece on “the triumph of poetry” offers an inspirational starting place, or perhaps Lina Khatib’s new book..

Above all, though, Dr. Straughn emphasized anthropology’s role as a “humanizing project.” For me, especially in my role as an anthropologist in an interdisciplinary International Studies program, this means turning students away from their incessant focus on “what does this revolution mean for the U.S.?” and asking them to think about Egyptians as people like and unlike themselves engaged in an extraordinary, complex and contingent project, people we can learn from and not only about.


Ghannam, Farha. 2012. Meanings and feelings: Local interpretations of the use of violence in the Egyptian revolution American Ethnologist 39(1): 32–36.

Hafez, Sherine. 2012. No longer a bargain: Women, masculinity, and the Egyptian uprising American Ethnologist 39(1): 37–42.

Hamdy, Sherine F. 2012. Strength and vulnerability after Egypt’s Arab Spring uprisings American Ethnologist 39(1): 43–48.

Khatib, Lina. 2012. Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle. I.B. Tauris.

Saad, Reem. 2012. The Egyptian revolution: A triumph of poetry American Ethnologist 39(1): 63–66.

Winegar, Jessica. 2012. The privilege of revolution: Gender, class, space, and affect in Egypt American Ethnologist 39(1): 67–70.

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