20 January 2014

Egypt: What Does Women Dancing in Public Tell Us About the Pulse of the Citizenry During Egypt's Constitutional Referendum?

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An unusual phenomenon was observed on the streets of Egypt on the first day of the constitutional referendum (14 January 2013): perfectly respectable looking Egyptian women were dancing in public in full daylight.

It was spontaneous, clearly not planned nor a staged spectacle, nor could these women be shunned as agents of a 'decadent' West. In fact they were all veiled women, many in abayyas [long black robes worn over clothes as a sign of modesty].

These women came from across all classes - from the visibly wealthy upper class to the petit bourgeoisie and working class (whom made up the majority). None of the men on the street that stopped to watch sought to harass, condemn or rebuke these women, in fact some joined in. It was contagious, by the second day of the referendum, the dancing amidst the ululation and jeering was observed outside many polling stations.

In a country where political violence has reached extraordinary high levels, where prices have risen and people are worn out and tired, as displayed in their gloomy faces in public, these images of ruptures of joy merit special attention because they reflect the pulse of the street that when decoded can be highly indicative of the underlying power configurations at work.

A momentary rupture in the social conventions of women's proper behaviour

So, how do we read these images of the dancing and ululating women?

First, let us be clear, this is neither a sexual revolution nor the deviation of a select group of women from conventional rules of sexual politics.

It is best explained through an analogy used by prominent writer Ibrahim Eissa: It is like when a pious proper mother who though she strictly observes the rules of social conduct would suddenly express her joy by dancing on her daughter's wedding day.

The constitutional referendum has led to a momentary rupture in the social conventions of women's proper behaviour in public (as did the revolution of 2011 when women danced in Tahrir Square and slept in camps). Feminists in Egypt have long struggled to get society to agree on the importance of women's bodily integrity and their right to protection from violence, especially in public space.

But women's celebration through the uninhibited use of their bodies is another league altogether. It is a scene that makes many Egyptian feminists uncomfortable because it is anathema to their stance of associating the current constitutional referendum with militarism.

However, if feminists are going to ever have a constituency endorsing women's rights, they cannot afford to ignore these women's agency - in particular when it is so overtly expressed through their voices and bodies.

Signs of a social contract with El Sissi

The rapture of joy expressed in these images can be interpreted as their response to the plea made to women by El Sissi to participate. It is in effect a public endorsement of a social contract between themselves and Minister of Defense El Sissi [not the state].

Note that not only were they dancing to the tune of teslam el ayadi [a song produced after the ousting of President Mubarak to praise the army for its intervention] but many clutched pictures of El Sissi, an indicator of his popularity in any presidential contest.

When asked, many said - like this woman from El Mansoura - that they went down to vote 'out of love for Egypt and out of love for El Sissi'. It has however set the bar very high in terms of people's aspirations.

If El Sissi does become president and fails to deliver on a national project that brings about prosperity and wellbeing, it is not unrealistic to expect another mass revolt. If he shows a responsiveness to the pulse of the street, it will be a huge blow (again) for political science experts who claim to have the keys to understanding political culture and street politics.

Dancing to spite the Brothers?

The image of the dancing women must also be read in relation to public sentiment towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Women represent a big bloc endorsing the constitution in both referendums (2012 under the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and now under the current interim one).

I would argue that the image of women ululating, dancing and jeering in the streets is testament to the intensity of hatred that the great bulk of the Egyptian people have come to harbour towards the Muslim Brotherhood (women would find it very difficult to vote against their husbands' will, for the most part).

One woman dancing in Tahrir Square for example spoke of her endorsement of the constitution primarily in terms of displaying a stance against the Brothers.

Is this dancing which was clearly to spite the Brothers, because of the unmet promises and disappointments that women experienced under Morsi's year in power? Or is it because of the Brothers' refusal to accept the Egyptian people's revolution of the 30 June and their insistence on their president above all else?

Or is it because of the violence that citizens have experienced at the hands of the pro-Morsi camp since July 2013? Perhaps it is a combination of all of these.

However, a word of caution, the images of dancing women were captured in Cairo and the Delta governorates where voter turnout was high.

They did not feature in Upper Egypt where social conservatism is, where voter turnout was considerably lower than the rest of the country, and where the constituency of the Muslim Brotherhood is greater.

El Nour's failure

It is critically important that the image of the dancing women not be read as a rejection of the outward expressions of religiosity.

However, we can read the images of these ruptures in social conservatism on the streets of some parts of Egypt as testament to the failure of el Nour party (the Islamist political party representing part of the ultra-radical Salafi movement) to mobilize their constituency to endorse the proposed constitution. El Nour party had announced it would call upon its people to participate in the constitutional referendum.

They had sought to gain leverage over the unfolding political process by demonstrating that they can fill the role previously played by the Muslim Brothers, namely, claiming the endorsement of the people on the street. However, the behaviour of these dancing women is anathema to their beliefs of how women should behave in public.

The images of women dancing in the constitutional referendum has shocked the Egyptian intelligentsia into realizing how disconnected they have become from the Egyptian public.

Former MP Amr Hamzawy's who is against Egypt's roadmap and has openly lobbied against the military responded to the images of women on the streets of Egypt by urging groups that are committed to 'defending democracy' to 'reconcile themselves with the people' and not to 'snub them' all the while striking to arrive at alternative political visions for the future development of the country.

'Please try to understand'

Western analysts and local experts would do well to head to the plea made prominent Egyptian writer Mohamed Fathi to try and understand what is happening on the Egyptian street.

He urged in an article titled 'please try to understand' that there is a need to reach out to people because 'it is the people's will that makes things happen and not your own'.

He beseeched 'do not defy people's will by imposing your agenda, your will and your priorities' if 'you have any hope of reaching out to them with your revolutionary vision'.

This represented a far cry from what Fathi had written a day earlier suggesting that people's 'yes' vote was predictable because they don't like voting no. It was one which implicitly negated their agency in the process and had transformed them into objects being pushed on a football playing field.

In short, people may differ on the future prospects of a democratic order in Egypt and the situation at this moment seems very opaque.

The results of the constitutional referendum showing a 98 per cent yes vote may seem highly suspicious, however, it is important to remember that this represents the voices of those who had gone to the voting polls.

The pro-Morsi faction, members belonging to youth revolutionary groups had chosen to boycott the elections as well as citizens not interested in taking part would be represented in the 60 per cent or so who had not voted.

The voter turnout at roughly 40 per cent is still higher than the turnout for the constitutional referendum of 2012 under the Muslim Brotherhood rule.

There is therefore an urgent need to capture, understand and relate to the pulse of the street. We must develop a new lens to help understand and account for what is happening - starting from the signals we are receiving from street politics, such as the women dancing publicly on some of the streets of Egypt - at each particular juncture in history. As with any pulse, it changes over time, hence the need for many readings.

For more analysis of the constitutional referendum in relation to representation, see Mariz Tadros's recent article in Open Democracy: 'Egypt's constitutional referendum: the untold story'.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS

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