Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Better Angels leave their kitchens in Cairo

Serendipity: I was just reading this morning Steven Pinker's discussion in The Better Angels of Our Nature of the astonishing drop in the rate of rape in the U.S.over the past generation -- an 80% decline from 1973 to 2008. That decline is far longer in duration and far steeper than the drop in murder rates and other violent crime rates from the mid-nineties to the present.  Pinker credits the feminist movement for recasting rape as a crime against an individual woman's agency and bodily integrity, spotlighting Susan Brownmiller's 1975 bestseller Against Our Will, which "showed how the nonexistence of a female vantage point in society's major institutions had created an atmosphere that made light of rape" (loc. 8820). He documents the swiftness with which the treatment of rape in both law and popular culture were transformed, and casts the change as one more chapter in the delayed triumph of enlightenment ideals:
The history of rape, then, is one in which the interests of women had been zeroed out in the implicit negotiations that shaped customs, moral codes, and laws. And our current sensibilities, in which we recognize rape as a heinous crime against the woman, represent a reweighting of those interests, mandated by a humanist mindset that grounds morality in the suffering and flourishing of sentient individuals rather than in power, tradition, or religious practice. The mindset, moreover, has been sharpened into the principle of autonomy: that people have an absolute right to their bodies, which may not be treated as a common resource to be negotiated among other interest parties. Our current moral understanding does not seek to balance the interests of a woman not to be raped, the interests of the men who may wish to rape her, and the interests of the husband and fathers who want to monopolize her sexuality. In an upending of the traditional valuation, the woman's ownership of her body counts for everything, and the interests of all other claimants count for nothing...The principle of autonomy, recall, was also a linchpin in the abolition of slavery, despotism, debt bondage, and cruel punishments during the Enlightenment (location 8793).
This particular assertion of autonomy is playing out on the streets of Egypt today:

 CAIRO [New York Times] — Thousands of women massed in Tahrir Square here on Tuesday afternoon and marched to a journalists’ syndicate and back in a demonstration that grew by the minute into an extraordinary expression of anger at the treatment of women by the military police as they protested against continued military rule. 

Many held posters of the most sensational image of violence over the last weekend: a group of soldiers pulling the abaya off a prone woman to reveal her blue bra as one raises a boot to kick her. The picture, circulated around the world, has become a rallying point for activists opposed to military rule, though cameras also captured soldiers pulling the clothes off other women.

“Drag me, strip me, my brothers’ blood will cover me!” they chanted. “Where is the field marshal?” they demanded, referring to Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council holding onto power here. “The girls of Egypt are here.”...

The scale was stunning, and utterly unexpected in this strictly patriarchal society. 
Stunning indeed, and rapidly having an effect, perhaps in part as international voices take up the echo:
In what has been some of the strongest criticism of Egypt's military rulers by US officials, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state spoke out against the treatment of Egyptian women in recent months.

"Women are being beaten and humiliated in the same streets where they risked their lives for the revolution only a few short months ago," America's top diplomat said in a speech at Washington's Georgetown University on Monday....

Clinton said women had been mostly shut out of decision-making by Egypt's ruling military and by big political parties.

"Women protesters have been rounded up and subjected to horrific abuse. Journalists have been sexually assaulted. And now, women are being attacked, stripped, and beaten in the streets," she added.

"This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonours the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people" (Al Jazeera).
Whereas yesterday, General Adil Emara of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) angrily denied the significance of the stripping and beating caught on camera, calling it an isolated incident, today, the Times notes,
The women’s chants were evidently heard at military headquarters as well. On Tuesday evening, the ruling military council offered an abrupt apology.

“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces expresses its utmost sorrow for the great women of Egypt, for the violations that took place during the recent events,” the council said in a statement. “It stresses its great appreciation for the women of Egypt and for their right to protest and to actively, positively participate in political life on the path of democratic transition.”
Today, too, according to the BBC, "The council also said it would open an investigation into accusations that soldiers carried out virginity tests on women protesters in March."

It would seem that women's fervent assertion of their right to bodily autonomy may serve as a force multiplier in the protesters' demands for democracy. Note that the SCAF statement connects the two. With the world watching, only Enlightenment values, as Pinker identifies them, are acknowledged as legitimate, whatever code the military -- and perhaps the victorious Islamist parties -- follows in actual practice. 

The spectacle of women leading this latest iteration of the demand for democracy -- and being shielded by men who for this moment yield the leadership to them -- is remarkable:
By four in the afternoon, thousands had gathered in Tahrir Square. Instead of the usual core of activists, it was a broad spectrum including housewives demonstrating for the first time, young mothers carrying babies, a majority in traditional Muslim headscarves and a few in face-covering veils. And as they marched towards the headquarters of the journalists union, two long lines of hundreds of men joined hands on either side of the column of women to protect them from any possible harassment.

The crowd seemed to grew at each step as the women in the march called up to the apartment buildings lining the streets to urge others to join — “come down, come down,” they shouted in an echo of the protests that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak 10 months ago.

“If you don’t leave your house today to confront the militias of Tantawi, you will leave your house tomorrow so they can rape your daughter,” one sign declared.

“I am here because of our girls who were stripped in the street,” said Sohir Mahmoud, 50, a housewife who said she was demonstrating for the first time. “Men are not going to cover your flesh so we will,” she told a younger woman. “We have to come down and call for our rights nobody is going to call for our rights for us”  (NYT - link above).
 Perhaps 'the revolution will be feminized.'  Here's hoping.

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