Skip to content

Rethinking Sexual Politics in Egypt

January 7, 2013

Can we represent Egyptian women without falling into academic stereotypes? Paul Amer may be showing us the way. Photo: Sophie Peterson.

Can we represent Egyptian women without falling into academic stereotypes? Paul Amer may be showing us the way. Photo: Sophie Peterson.

In 2011 Paul Amar published an article entitled “Turning the Gendered Politics of the Security State Inside Out: Charging the Police With Sexual Harassment in Egypt” in the International Feminist Journal of Politics. In their final issue of 2012, the same journal has published a “conversation” between Paul and three other significant scholars of gender, sexuality and power in the form of essays by Cynthia Enloe, Terrell Carver, Omnia El-Shakry and Paul himself, commentating on that article.

You must be doing something right when your work inspires a festschrift before you are an old, wizened professor emeritus. I mean, I’ve been told of individual classes and workshops built around my anthropology of media work, but this is much cooler. And I’m much closer to being wizened than Paul is…)

And appropriate. Paul has long been one of the pre-eminent writers on the Egyptian security state, and his carefully nuanced descriptions of the various security forces that collectively comprise the “security state” taught me to always ask “Who deployed which security force (and why this one and not another one) against whom and with what effect?” each time new clashes occur in Egypt.

In the 2011 article, he described and thickly contextualized the efforts by women subjected to assault by police officers to sue them for sexual harassment. He does so in a carefully construed framework that is alive to the nuances of feminist activities in Egypt, and their complex intertwinings with many different Egyptian social institutions (including those of the state) so that the article undermines any effort to reduce it to a mere framing of women seizing their human rights against the illiberal Middle-Eastern state.

Paul is not the first scholar to attempt to undermine the classic framework by which Western scholars have viewed gender in the Middle East, of course. Efforts to reject a simplistic binary which posits “universal human rights” (or, more cynically, particular Western feminist agendas) versus particular practices in Muslim societies (or, more naively, a monolithic “Islamist” characterization of women). Lila Abu-Lughod, Sabah Mahmood and many others have also made strong efforts in this direction.

The typical way of undermining these simplistic binaries–and I do this in my own lectures–is to use local practices to reflect back on Western “liberal” practices and recognize that they are not universal but particular historically emergent ideologies (i.e. cultural not natural). Amar’s effort was instead to try to introduce a new analytical framework and conceptual vocabulary for talking about gender and sexuality that seeks to avoids binary oppositions.

Omnia El Shakry focuses on this notion of overcoming binaries in her essay “Rethinking Entrenched Binaries in Middle East Gender and Sexuality Studies.” El Shakry argues that the field of gender studies (in political science? or generally?) has been conceptualized according to three entrenched binary oppositions:

  1. local vs. internationalist politics
  2. private vs. public spheres
  3. liberal vs. illiberal subjects

Against this, she argues that Paul introduces three significant innovations:

  1. he upsets the assumption that forms of gender politics always flow from the international to the local (or from the North to the South);
  2. he offers a “socio-historical contextualization of the women’s movement in Egypt” that does not reduce it to a distinction between a public men’s realm and a private women’s domain; and
  3. he refuses to dump women’s (and men’s) efforts to transform gender politics in Egypt into either a liberal, progressive box or an illiberal, backward box.

A different set of features in Paul’s work is identified in an essay by the ubiquitous and acerbic Cynthia Enloe. Enloe, whose Bananas, Beaches and Bases (1989, University of California Press) has become a minor classic in gender and politics  studies, and after whom there is named a gender and politics award offers a short essay entitled  “Masculinities, Policing, Women and International Politics of Sexual Harassment,” writing that Paul’s work reminds her that

“every state regime, no matter where it sits on a authoritarian-democratic spectrum, cannot be reliably understood until it has been thoroughly subjected to a serious gender analysis. Berlusconi’s Italian, Pinochet’s Chilean, Qaddafi’s Libyan, Assad’s Syrian, Sarkozy’s French and the now-wobbly Japanese regimes – all of them need feminist-informed gender dissection

She offers a list of five keys to understanding Egypt she has learned from Paul’s recent work:

  1. police forces are multiple entities, often seemingly rivals, but in practice mutually supportive of a statist brand of patriarchal security
  2. those authoritarian male elites who fund, recruit, train, reward, deploy and rely on different police forces deliberately cultivate quite distinct forms of masculinities within each
  3. these masculinized elites seek to naturalize class-based masculinized thuggery and its alleged opposite – but, in fact, complementary – masculinized professionalized security policing
  4. men of one class and/or race/ethnicity make use of men of another raced/ethnicized class, while they simultaneously disparage them
  5. anyone (locally or abroad) who accepts unquestioningly those state-serving, patriarchy-supporting, masculine constructions will unwittingly undermine the chances for real democratization

Hmmm… those points seem to apply further afield than just Egypt!

In “The World Turned Inside Out” Terrell Carver emphasizes the extraordinary depth and complexity scholars who do ethnography bring to journals of politics like IFJP. Most specialists write of politics in ways removed from “the batons, tear gas, shouting and blood through which politics is pursued,” he writes.

As a result, scholars of politics are often more comfortable with a world of “high politics and securitized summits” in which they can assume that the categories that appear to work in describing “their” political fields can be used to comprehend all political fields. Which is why they are ill-equipped to handle “what ordinary people do in urban spaces, not least when they immolate themselves in public view and/or gather in gigantic crowds in televisual squares.”

I may use this essay to shake up some of my International Studies students next semester…

In his response, “The Revolution Continues,” Paul Amar writes that 18 months into the revolution, Egyptians continue the general project of “turning the security state inside-out” as Egyptians continue to “deepen” the revolution by “solidifying and spreading support among popular classes, rural areas and urban communities and mobilizing new modes of consciousness, collective action and public embodiment.”

He writes:

women and working-class male youth have faced systematically deployed incidents of militarized degradation and wave after wave of state-orchestrated sexual assault. Explosive outbursts of moralized securitization and queering hypervisibilization have tried to rout the spread of revolutionary youth, labor, alternative feminist and emancipatory religious movements. Yet these movements’ boldness has only increased in the months since the publication of the original article we are discussing here

He goes on to discuss specific roles women have played in the revolution since his article was published, and concludes:

The price that Egyptian women have paid has been very high for refusing police protection or male guardians and for abandoning the discourse of respectability and propriety. But as a result, they, more than any other group, deserve credit for shredding the legitimacy of the security state and exposing the degeneracy of the military apparatus. This alternative, Global South generated feminist political methodology and its embodied practices challenge discourses of respectability, disrupt East/West, religious/liberal binaries and deconstruct regimes of disempowering hypervisibility that center on generating insecurity around predatory masculinity and degraded femininity. By turning certain forms of UN-based and internationalist feminism inside-out without simply dismissing them, while upturning and passionately reinhabiting subjects of ‘vulgarity’ and infusing them with fiercely moral femininity, they have created new landscapes of emancipatory collective action that will propel this revolution forward for a decade.

I should point out that Paul has a book forthcoming on these issues entitled The Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism (2013, Duke University Press). It is not an ethnography of Egypt per se; rather, it is a comparative study of how “coercive security operations and cultural rescue campaigns confronting waves of resistance have appropriated progressive, antimarket discourses around morality, sexuality, and labor.” It examines how these struggles produce powerful new police practices, religious politics, sexuality identifications, and gender normativities in Cairo and Rio, and links them to the so-called Arab Spring and Pink Tide, respectively.

Full disclosure: I should add that Paul was one of the outside readers of the draft manuscript of Connected in Cairo.  He opened by emphasizing its readability, saying that he could not put the manuscript down once he started, then proceeded to give me six single-spaced pages of detailed criticism, chapter-by-chapter, that helped me refine and significantly improve the manuscript. While I did not take all of his advice, that advice I did take definitely made it a better book.


Amar, Paul 2011. Turning the Gendered Politics of the Security State Inside Out? Charging the Police with Sexual Harassment in Egypt . International Feminist Journal of Politics , 13 ( 3 ) : 299 – 328.

Amar, Paul 2013. “The Revolution Continues” International Feminist Journal of Politics 15(1): 94-99.

Amar, Paul. 2013. The Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism. Duke University Press.

Carver, Terrell. 2013. “The World Turned Inside Out” International Feminist Journal of Politics 15(1): 88-93.

El Shakry, Omnia. 2013. “Rethinking Entrenched Binaries in Middle East Gender and Sexuality Studies.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 15(1): 82-87

Enloe, Cynthia. 1989. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Enloe, Cynthia. 2013. “Masculinities, Policing, Women and International Politics of Sexual Harassment” International Feminist Journal of Politics 15(1): 77-81.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2013 8:57 pm

    Thanks! Hope paths cross sometime, maybe AUC where I have some contacts in polisci & IR and have stopped in a couple of times. Terrell

  2. April 16, 2013 6:07 pm

    Everything is very open with a clear description of the issues.
    It was really informative. Your site is useful.

    Thank you for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: