The last few months rendered me mute for a while. Trying to take in all that has been happening in Egypt – the attacks, the killings, the arrests, the abuse of justice on every level possible – and do what little I could to work against it somehow crippled my mind and tied my tongue. Thoughts and ideas only hit against walls, and bounced back to lie flat at the bottom of my brain. It all felt unsettlingly familiar.
But here I am again, writing about the fight against sexual harassment in Egypt. There was a moment, around this time last year, when I thought we could be on the cusp of something great: I was hoping, dreaming, of a war. For months, independent volunteer groups had been battling mob assaults against women at protests in Tahrir – there had been blood, trauma, camaraderie, media and propaganda campaigns, drills, recruitment. What I wanted and thought possible was to take that ethos and expand it into something larger, that could ripple through society in various figurations, from the artistic to the militant, but always acting upon the same core idea: zero tolerance.
Zero, because years of being a woman have taught me that even though this might not be the primary way in which I define and see myself in any given situation, it is how most people around me will see me. And that the surrounding presumptions mean that I have to watch how I sit, dress, smell, talk, laugh, make eye contact, eat, pay, walk, smile and frown in an energy-zapping way that most men cannot imagine. That there is a spectrum between Manly/Bossy and Provocative/Loose on which women are constantly sliding. That it is easier to play by their rules than to try and shatter this way of seeing things, in which women are constantly spinning on an axis of male perceptions, needs, desires. That ignoring this ubiquitous lens will in no way protect you from it. That it is this way of seeing things which allows violence, and means that men in positions of authority such as Cairo University President Gaber Nassar will blame the target of a sexual assault for her clothing, whatever it may be.
I’m often told that things really are not so bad, that women should just get on with it. That at least now women can drive and work and travel and ask for divorce. A friend of mine broke her teeth when she was younger and she passed out on the street, literally fainted from a white rage after spending too long dodging and fighting a man driving a car who was masturbating and harassing her as she waited for a bus. I have been filled with shame after running into friends near my house downtown, where I was walking with my head to the floor like some downtrodden wretch, trying to tune out rather than shout or argue with a group of lewd men. A close childhood friend confided incest. Another friend confided FGM. So many confided rape. Things are not so bad.
My hopes for a feminist uprising to lurch Egypt forward in a messy, imperfect, but ultimately positive way now seem part of a different time, before the great recalibration of possibilities, plans, and tactics that last summer brought about. But more than any other fight or cause this is still the one that sits, unbudging, in my heart and mind. This is in part because it is deeply personal – but beyond this, it is tied up with every other battle for social justice that we will have to face. Military dominance, political corruption, and the ills of the justice system and capitalism are all inherently patriarchal, depend on patriarchy in order to survive.
Things are bad. Admitting that and allowing ourselves to see it clearly is the first step to finding change.