“Social” and “Political” Fissures: Anti-Sexual Harassment Activism in Egypt

By Angie Abdelmonem
Submitted to Session P4341 (Political and Legal Contestations over Gender-Based Violence in Post-Revolutionary Egypt, 2016 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper explores tensions between socially and politically motivated public sexual violence in Egypt and, consequently, the social or political interventions designed to combat such violence. It centers on the work of community-based anti-sexual harassment organizations prior to and following the January 2011 Egyptian Revolution and argues their work is inherently political. This argument engages a critique of anti-sexual harassment activism that has emerged since the start of the revolution. At the heart of this critique is the work of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), an advocacy NGO who began the first anti-sexual harassment campaign in 2005, and HarassMap, a volunteer-based social initiative that was founded in 2010. The targets of both organizations have been discussed as “cultural” in nature (Rizzo 2012; Abdelmonem and Galan 2016). Salient elements of this critique are that the work of these organizations have failed to target the state and hold it accountable for instrumentalizing sexual violence and gendering respectability to push women out of public protest. This critique has argued groups like ECWR and HarassMap have been complicit in expanding the scope of the security state, either through direct calls for increased policing or making available biogeographic data that may be coopted by the state (Amar 2011; Grove 2015). Additionally, it has argued that ECWR and HarassMap have helped to racialize young Arab men, thus making them targets for an expanded security state.

This paper contends that such critiques of anti-sexual harassment work rest on a particular conception of gender violence activism that views sites of “cultural” engagement as outside of the realm of the political. Here, the political is largely viewed as a reference only to political culture, where engagement with the state structure is critical. Drawing on anthropological notions of cultural politics, this paper contends the political may be viewed in two ways: 1) as a reference to political culture, and 2) as the contestations and negotiations that take place within “cultural” spaces. Such “cultural” contestations may help to shape the nature of political culture and state practice. Drawing on HarassMap’s work in combating bystander apathy, which involves challenging norms of gender and social responsibility within the community, and seeking to build a critical mass against sexual harassment, this paper highlights how HarassMap bridges these two notions of the political. Here, “cultural” work that does not target the state is an inherently political attempt to combat gender-based violence.