Contributors. Lamia Benyoussef, Susanne Dahlgren, Karina Eileraas, Susana Galan, Banu Gökariksel, Frances S. Hasso, Sonali Pahwa, Zakia Salime
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About the Author
Zakia Salime is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University and the author of Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco.
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Freedom without Permission
Bodies and Space in the Arab Revolutions
By Frances S. Hasso, Zakia Salime
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
POLITICS IN THE DIGITAL BOUDOIR Sentimentality and the Transformation of Civil Debate in Egyptian Women's Blogs
The blog had a scarlet border and was dotted with hand-drawn flowers and adorned with a self-portrait. A spray of curly hair announced a surprisingly conventional performance of femininity for a political dissident. Mona's blog, Maat's Bits & Pieces (named after an Egyptian goddess), began in 2006 as an autobiographical blog, with regular posts about her life as a university student, her feelings, and even her love life. The posts grew increasingly politicized after the murder of Khaled Said in June 2010, and particularly after Egypt's 2011 uprising. Mona became a committed activist who founded the movement against military trials for civilians in post-revolution Egypt and established a separate blog for that project in March 2011. Her autobiographical blog was widely read and cited, with political posts maintaining an emotionally charged voice that resonated with accounts of torture and wrongful detention in her other blog. The intimate publics that these blogs invoked seemed iconic of a moment of revolutionary politics in which affective recognition of political sentiments modeled political recognition.
Autobiographical blogs like Maat maintained their popularity as sites of debate about political transformation after the uprising. Most of these blogs were written, intriguingly, by middle-class women in their twenties. Their intimate publics were sites of debate about the revolution, as well as staging grounds for entirely new political repertoires. This chapter investigates the relationship between digital and political repertoires in Egypt, with a focus on women's blogs as theaters for the transformation of auto biographical performance into a repertoire of debate about national politics. These blogs are less well known outside Egypt than contemporaneous movements for women's rights. The growing presence of women at protests in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, and some horrific instances of sexual harassment, fueled an exponential rise in antiharassment activist groups that by 2012 included HarassMap (established in 2010), Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, Basma, and Shuft al-Taharrush. Nor did personal blogs claim the highest profile in digital activism. Rather reportage centered on the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, later revealed to be established by the male activist Wael Ghonim, who was credited with launching a "Facebook revolution." Less visibly and without heroic accolades, the women bloggers of whom I write created spaces for reflecting on revolutionary times, using them to incubate new forms of writing about political sentiments. I argue that these were also sites of performing gendered roles and relations for an audience of anonymous readers. The centrality of gender performance in blogs with activist content indicates a productive relationship between gendered affects and political subjectivities in Egyptian digital publics.
Examining the digital practices of women bloggers as affective repertoires, I trace the emergence of a politics that is not merely sentimental but redistributes roles within the sphere of national political activism. By using digital space to reconfigure proximity and distance to their intimates, these bloggers turned a conventional genre of women's "personal" blogs into a space for enacting potentially political affects, like anger and sadness. Their "intervention in the visible and the sayable" was not just discursive but also performative. Blogs were sites for rehearsing new roles and relationships for civic-minded women. The feelings that these women performed in their blog writing shaped their personas no less than the content of their writing. Bringing formerly private affects into the digital publics of personal blogs reframed the figure of the sentimental woman as a political actor rather than a passive national icon.
I situate the lives and writings of three socially and politically critical Egyptian women bloggers within a digital landscape and cityscape, examining the kinds of place the blogs generated. These were practiced places that combined registers of talk among intimates and debate about national politics. The authors set the stage for empathetic forms of relation with readers in dramatic scenes where heightened emotions crystallized political conflicts. The blogs served as theaters for affective politics that accommodated roles outside the rationalist discourse usually found in newspaper and television debates on Egyptian politics. Even after the 2011 revolution the cast of characters in those hegemonic publics remained defined by a masculinist nationalism. As countersites in which real cultural landscapes were "simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted," the women's blogs accommodated experimental practices from across the "real" sites that bloggers inhabited. Their digital repertoires rehearsed the embodiment of a political actor who stood outside the habitus of normative politics — for example, by writing revolutionary dramas as personal stories. The dialectic between gender and genre in women's blogs shaped a digital heterotopia in which empathetic recognition was the norm. The bloggers' gendered and political disidentifications with mainstream political debate played out on the same stage.
The three bloggers at the center of this chapter exemplify the intersections of gendered and political disidentification in revolutionary Egypt: Mona the antimilitary activist, Fatma the feminist researcher, and Eman the literary blogger and sometime feminist organizer, all defined their blogs as "personal" but used them to engage in debates on revolutionary and gender politics. What does it mean, then, to call a blog "personal"? Through content analysis and analysis of interviews conducted with the bloggers in 2011, I examine their productions of personalized political space in everyday dramatic digital performances. Through a more limited analysis of audience using interviews and blog-post comments, I interpret the uptake of blog discourse and the mapping of blog communities as part of the social geography that emerged in revolutionary Egypt.
The Personal, Political, and Gendered in Blog Genres
Gender was a significant marker of genre in the Egyptian blogosphere and literary establishment. While male columnists and commentators dominated mainstream media, bloggers with names like Wahda Misriyya (An Egyptian Woman) and Bint Misriyya (An Egyptian Girl) wrote lyrical prose that was distinct from the learned style of media commentators considered to be authorities. The women's writing was also recognizably different from prose by male bloggers like Alaa Abdel Fattah, Wael Abbas, and Karim Amer, who gained fame in Egypt for publishing exposés of police abuse that got them jailed by the Mubarak regime. By contrast to the sensationalist style used by men bloggers, a smaller number of women political bloggers such as Zeinobia and Baheyya (who did not disclose their real names) used more distant prose to report horrific events such as the murder of Khaled Said in June 2010. While male bloggers' bold writing showed that they did not fear state violence and imprisonment, the genre of the personal blog staged the rhythms of quieter sanctuaries and protected lives.
In 2008 Cairo's Shorouk publishing house collated selected posts of three personal bloggers, all women, into books that became best sellers. Rehab Bassam, Ghada Mahmoud, and Ghada Abdel Aal became instant literary celebrities and won critical praise for posts that were now read as "short stories." Abdel Aal's blog I Want to Get Married was even turned into a prime-time Ramadan television serial in 2010. Although the personal blog genre accounted for a substantial portion of Egypt's digital real estate (47.5 percent of the Egyptian blogosphere in 2007), the attention given to female bloggers sealed its gendered identity as a women's genre. The bloggers I write about rose to prominence shortly after these pioneers and adopted aspects of their lyrical, intimate style of writing.
The revolutionary upheaval of 2011 reshaped the boundaries between personal and political blog genres in many ways. Bloggers of all stripes made forays into explicitly political discourse. For instance, Bint Misriyya in March 2011 posted lengthy, argumentative pieces, such as "The Army Must Go," in contrast to her usual mix of succinct sociopolitical commentary and film reviews. The collective emotional tenor of Egypt's politicized blogosphere shifted, as Susana Galán notes, from frustration and resignation to a higher pitch of hope and fear. The sentimental drama of revolution that played out on television screens was refracted through the blogosphere in a minor key, in accordance with the minoritarian history of the blog genre.
Prerevolution Egypt had seen an efflorescence of blogs on Islam, literature, feminism, and minority identities. Even high-profile activist blogs, like that of the 6 April Movement, spoke from marginal subject positions. An emphasis on first-person experience marked blog posts about the Egyptian revolution as a staging of personal feelings more than nationalist sentiment. Lasto Adri's post "My Country, My Dream" described her trembling disbelief at living what seemed like a dream on 6 February 2011. The bloggers' idiosyncratic voices maintained a discursive space outside a larger media public. Their impersonal online selves were means of disidentification, inaugurating different social relations in counterpublic space. Their expressions of emotion reoriented the discourse on nationalist sentiment in television broadcasts. Most significantly, the blogs I examine incorporated vocabulary from media debates on national politics into the intimate register of the personal post.
Digital publics pose new questions for theorists of publics and counterpublics, particularly when they invert flows of discourse from private to public spheres. For instance, Nancy Fraser argues that civil societies for elite white women in the nineteenth-century United States "creatively used the heretofore quintessentially 'private' idioms of domesticity and motherhood precisely as springboards for public activity." I find the opposite in Egyptian blogs, which recontextualized mainstream media debates into worlds of intimate reflection. Like many digital publics, these blogs modeled modes of communication on friendship more than stranger sociality. Bloggers exchanged authoritative distance from their interlocutors for empathetic proximity. Approaching their digital practices as a repertoire of transposable dispositions (as in performance) allowed women bloggers to articulate a spatially fluid conception of politics that challenged a public/private division. The bloggers' practices generated repertoires of dissent that were unabashedly gendered, potentially disruptive, and imaginatively transformative of the spaces and languages of normative politics.
Intimate Publics of Independent Women
The intimacy of blog communities was a foundational aspect of the blog's reputation as a safe space for women's public voices. The pioneering blogger Eman told me that in the early days (ca. 2005–6), when the Egyptian blogosphere itself numbered only thirty or forty blogs, bloggers read each other's posts and encouraged each other. A mix of men and women populated the blogosphere, and some female bloggers complained that men's posts were granted an automatic authority and were more widely cited than their own. However, a piece of folk wisdom I heard repeated in Cairo's writerly circles, perpetuated perhaps by Shorouk's publications, was that blogs were a women's genre. The relative informality of short-form blog writing, coupled with its use for writing emotion, gave it a gendered association for many journalists and novelists.
But this gendered association did not seem to bother women bloggers, who came to own it on their terms. In 2005 a group of them formed an aggregator site called Kalam Banat (Girls' Talk), which linked about thirty blogs by young women, and facilitated conversation via the comments field of their own blogs. A friendly, supportive community welcomed newcomers and those who returned to this intimate public. When Rehab Bassam, whose blog had been published by Shorouk, returned to post after a year's absence, members of Girls' Talk welcomed her back with conspiratorial pleasure. "I've missed you, rascal!" wrote Dina El Hawary. Dina wrote a post of her own the same day, and several old blog friends posted comments such as "Keep going ya didoo please don't disappear:)." A paratext of friendly conversation surrounded the monologues of blog posts, creating a matrix of support for their voices.
A personal space within a supportive community, the blog offered a site of independence for Cairene women without their own spaces. These professional women in their twenties lived with their parents, in accordance with social restrictions against setting up an adult household before they married. Their social and professional lives outside the home occupied scattered sites that came together in their social media homes. On a Facebook page or a blog they could consolidate different spaces of their lives, familial and professional, and reconcile the relationships of girlhood and adulthood. Some women told me they used social media for "going out," for example, to meet with friends from university days who tended to stay home after they married. "I see what my friends are up to on Facebook, say 'Hello, it's been a while,' or use the chat feature," said Lobna, a twenty-three-year-old news photographer. For Cairene women who had less access to urban recreational space than did their male peers, the blog or social media page served, as it did for activists, as "an alternative urban hub." They frequently spoke of it as a home space as well. "When I hear my brother return home, I'll write to him on Facebook from my room! Isn't that silly?" smiled Lobna. Her digital home was a space that grounded her identities as adventurous photographer and dutiful daughter. It afforded her a relative privacy within the family home in which she could reconstruct a world that combined her different social roles.
The privacy of a digital home enabled other women to recalibrate intimacies. Eman, who described her family as conservative, said she avoided Facebook because it reflected a social world from which she dissociated herself after a political awakening in her college years. "When I speak to old friends on Facebook now, we end up arguing because we're different," she explained. "Here you'll find the kind of reactionary people who said, 'We are sorry, Mr. President' after the revolution." Eman's digital world was formed by anonymous intimacies. She used to call in to a favorite talk show on Radio Cairo and made friends with the hosts, and nowadays she has developed similar virtual friendships on Twitter, where she finds people to be "more revolutionary" than in her social world.
The pleasure of intimate conversation with relative strangers was also among the reasons Eman started her blog in 2005. The blogosphere, then known only to well-educated young Egyptians (particularly those working in engineering and information technology), opened the way to an alternative circle of intimates. "I liked leaving my narrow world, at home with the other kids, and going to my blog," Eman said. The persona she developed in her blog conversations was an intimate one, and she resisted taking on the role of a public figure. When her blog became well known, however, she found the "noise" of constant comments aggravating. "It's a home. I don't want it to be a wide world. I'd rather it was just so," she said, drawing her hands close together. A home-like blog allowed Eman to experiment with emotional performance, as we shall see, and she cherished it as a space of alterity. In contrast to a closed counterpublic, unavailable to public discourse, the personal blog enabled a circuit of intimacy. Since blog interlocutors were linked in a circuit of friendship, the bloggers' emotional performances were spared evaluation by a spectatorial public, as in Lauren Berlant's model of affective recognition. The networked digital home instead allowed Eman to put an everyday self and its repertoire on display. In this "outing" she shaped a role that was independent and yet tethered to a web of supportive intimates.
The poetics of space in these Egyptian women's blogs (and other digital homes) were intimate but not private sites of re-forming a social self. They staged new publics in a mode of rehearsal, such as blog conversations that modeled television debates. The intersubjective space created by blog comments and conversations resembled the German women's salons of an earlier era, "within which new forms of sociability and intimacy could develop among members of an emergent civil society." Indeed practices of intimacy and civility were intertwined in blog conversations as they accommodated a wider range of interactions than the women's salon. Egyptian bloggers typically alternated between personal musings and political commentary. Whimsical conversations between blog friends about their feelings similarly shared space with more measured, civil debates aboutmatters like women's rights, both within comments sections and across blogs. In these negotiations of intimacy and civility within the same space, the blogger developed a unique digital persona.
Excerpted from Freedom without Permission by Frances S. Hasso, Zakia Salime. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Introduction / Frances S. Hasso and Zakia Salime 1
1. Politics in the Digital Boudoir: Sentimentality and the Transformation of Civil Debate in Egyptian Women's Blogs / Sonali Pahwa 25
2. Gender and the Fractured Mythscapes of National Identity in Revolutionary Tunisia / Lamia Benyoussef 51
3. Making Intimate "Civilpolitics" in Southern Yemen / Susanne Dahlgren 80
4. The Sect-Sex-Police Nexus and Politics in Bahrain's Pearl Revolution / Frances S. Hasso 105
5. "The Women Are Coming": Gender, Space, and the Politics of Inauguration / Zakia Salime 138
6. Cautious Enactments: Interstitial Spaces of Gender Politics in Saudia Arabia / Susana Galán 166
7. Revolution Undressed: The Politics of Rage and Aesthetics in Aliaa Elmahdy's Body Activism / Karina Eileraas 196
8. Intimate Politics of Protest: Gendering Embodiments and Redefining Spaces in Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park and the Arab Revolutions / Banu Gökariksel 221