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Diaspora, Gender & Mediated Revolution

May 7, 2018

www.burgundy.comIn several relatively recent papers (2017, 2015a, 2015b) I’ve made the point that for tens of millions of Egyptians, the uprisings of 2011 weren’t something they physically experienced directly and participated in by joining into protests; they were a mediated revolution, something they encountered through the media of television, newspapers, social media, and stories told by friends and relatives, interpersonally and by phone.

Similarly Jessica Winegar (2012) has described women participating in the revolution in mediated fashion from their homes.

What happens when such gendered and mediated experiences takes place at a greater distance?

That’s the subject of a fascinating article in the journal Identities by Yomna Elsayed and Andrea Wenzel entitled The Egyptian Sisters Club: negotiating community and identity in a time of conflict, published in the journal Identities.

The takeaway, in a nutshell: If you are women, wearing the hijab, in an increasingly Islamophobic environment like the US, the need to build strong support networks and safe spaces for your children may lead you to de-emphasize the importance of Egyptianness in forming your community, when Egypt is in turmoil, and that turmoil leads to rifts within the diasporic group.

Based on a nine-month qualitative study of Egyptian women’s “subjective experiences juggling homeland politics and the realities of life in Southern California at a time when Islamophobic sentiments were at least perceived to be circulating,” it asks questions about how diasporic Egyptian audiences, in this case, mostly wives and mothers, manage the challenges of political uncertainty back in the homeland from which a central part of their identity derives, and with which they have webs of ties.

At the core, this is a very interesting discussion, rooted in participant observation, of how diasporic groups create and maintain group identity through commensalism, social media, interpersonal rituals, exchanges of favors, and talk. Group cohesion is affected by the fact that all the members of the group were women, and almost all hijabis and young mothers, which made them likely to share social support needs. Yet the authors recognize that the the “groupness” of diasporic communities cannot be taken for granted but must be performed by members through everyday practices.

The group’s identity formation practices are also affected by the context of being in the United States at a time when hate crimes against Muslims (and people perceived to be Muslims) were high, and there was a strong feeling that Islamophobia was everywhere.

One of the most interesting elements was the belief by some members that, living in the US, where they did not have to fear direct retaliation from the regime, they had the power to organize protests, create blogs and vlogs, and actually participate in helping positive change happen–but they don’t. For the sake of maintaining this safe environment for their Egyptian Muslim children, for the sake of the support network it provided, they suppressed their perceived agency to participate from afar and influence outcomes back home.

Indeed, at the time the research began, the women of the ESC had just made a significant decision to ban politics from their interpersonal and group web site as a way to overcome rifts and tensions that threatened group cohesion.

The Egyptian Sisters Club ESC  began as a daily gathering of 10-12 mostly graduate students or spouses of graduate students, who first came together through personal connections and residential proximity, to eat together, talk and to give their kids an opportunity to play with other Egyptian children. This core group created a Facebook page to plan gatherings, which opened it up to other Egyptian women until membership mushroomed to more than 80 participants, many of whom came less frequently, or only attended the monthly family gatherings.

The political uncertainty in Egypt led these women, most of whom had always assumed they would return home, to question where they wanted to live and navigate their careers, as they recognized that whatever “home” they returned to would not be the home they left.

But the continuing shifts from the tentative hopefulness of the initial Arab Uprisings to the election of Morsi to the coup, created polarities, rifts and tensions in the close-knit community.

A defining moment came with the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi on 3 July, 2013. This move polarized the country into two camps, and ESC members were not immune. Among ESC participants, some had supported the protests that preceded the military coup and, at least at first, cast tentative support to the incoming Sisi regime. Others, both Morsi supporters and critics, opposed the coup. The violent crackdowns that followed the coup escalated tensions and polarized the ESC community. Women began to avoid meeting in order to evade arguments either on or offline. Heated exchanges on social media led some ESC members to hide their friends’ posts from their Facebook newsfeed. ESC members resorted to not speaking about politics to preserve their immediate short-term relationships, despite the fact that the far-away structural political decisions directly related to their precarious residency situation, touching both their and their children’s lives and futures.

Then, during Ramadan 2013, the group made a promise, ostensibly on behalf of their children (“why should they have to suffer because of our political differences?”) to come together again as a community–with no politics discussed at gatherings or on the Facebook page.

This forms a central component of the paper’s conclusion:

Participating in the support group of ESC gave the women a space to reflect upon and negotiate their layered identities as Egyptian women living in Southern California. The women’s position between a home country that is redefining itself and a host country in which they are viewed through an ‘imperialist’ lens, opens the door to the creation of hybrid identities (Bhabha 1989). Likewise, political controversies pushed and pulled the women’s sense of Egyptian identity in different directions. However, according to Brah (2005), while group members may have social, political and economic differences, ‘these groups also share some aspects of their history… cultural patterns which are common to them all’ (18). These cultural patterns led many members to prioritize ESC as a support group and surrogate family. Even when Egyptian identity was contested, their devout religious identity provided a safety net to fall back to. As a surrogate family and support group, ESC provided a flexible space for women to adapt their identities in response to political events and local dynamics.

This flexibility is evidenced in recent events, the authors add, specifically in the wake of Islamophobic statements made by presidential candidates such as Donald
Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. ESC members’ national identities as Egyptians became significantly less important than their publicly visible hijabi identities. Accordingly, ESC members began to share tips

on how to stay safe, and how to maintain self-restraint in order to avoid harmful exchanges with bigots while shopping or riding public transportation. These discussions later led to calls for action and collaboration with the wider Muslim community that sought to alter the narrative surrounding Muslims, in grassroots efforts such as ‘Meet a Muslim’ events in their neighborhoods and shopping malls…

Many years ago I had a beloved graduate student, a hijabi, who left the American University in Cairo to join her new husband in Texas, only months after the 9/11 attacks. I watched from afar, via social media, as she became a leader in establishing and growing a local Muslim community center. I kept thinking of her as I read this fascinating paper.

Here’s the abstract:

On the screens of televisions and computers in their California homes, the women of the Egyptian Sisters Club (ESC) have witnessed the unfolding of political crisis and the unravelling of certainty about the meaning of ‘home’. Drawing from concepts of diaspora and social support, the study explores how the ESC, an informal group of young Egyptian mothers living in Southern California, maintains cohesion in a time of conflict in their home country, and hostility towards visibly Muslim women in their host country. This qualitative study draws from participant observation, interviews and focus groups over a period of 9 months in 2014. Findings, largely expressed in members’ own words, suggest that despite heterogeneous perspectives and subjective motives, participants largely negotiate a prioritization of cultural values over political differences. This case offers insights into how local context and life stages influence how diaspora members adapt to contentious home and host country politics.

References:

Elsayed, Yomna and Andrea Wenzel (2018) The Egyptian Sisters Club: negotiating community and identity in a time of conflict. Identities 25(1): 85-103.

Peterson, Mark Allen. 2017.  “Mediated Experience in the Egyptian Revolution” In Digital Middle East: State and Society in the Information Age. Mohamed Zayani, ed. Pp.  Oxford University Press.

 

Peterson, Mark Allen. 2015a. Re-Envisioning Tahrir: The Changing Meanings of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Revolution. In Revolutionary Egypt Connecting Domestic and International StrugglesReem Abou-El-Fadl, ed. Pp. 64-82. Routledge.

Peterson, Mark Allen. 2015b. In Search of Antistructure: The Meaning of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Social Drama. In Breaking Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality. Agnes Horvath, Bjørn Thomassen, and Harald Wydra, eds. Pp. 164-182. Berghahn Books.

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

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