EMERGE blog 1: Gender sensitive collective action for all seasons

Welcome to the first in a series of blogs from partners in the EMERGE project on work with men and boys for gender equality. The blogs will be published regularly in the run up to the sixtieth session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March 2016.

This 25th of January marks the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution instigated against Mubarak’s thirty year regime. While there was a great deal of interest in expressions of people’s agency in Egypt in 2011 (the revolution’s academic tourists as Mona Abaza incisively termed it), today many assume there has been a massive demobilization that has either left people in a state of inertia or hibernation. But the discourse of “the situation has gone back to the pre-revolution era” doesn’t take account of the fact that when millions of women, men and children take to the streets proclaiming “the people want…”, it does something to the multitudes. Ruptures in status quos transform people from within. Some of the initiatives that were the offspring of that revolutionary moment or were energized by it have sustained their activism and brought on new innovations. Youth based initiatives involving men engaged in anti-sexual harassment work are a case in point.

While Egypt has a long history of organized feminist activism dating back at least two centuries, these youth initiatives are distinct on a number of fronts. First, their profile is distinct in that they are comprised of men and women represented fairly equally at both leadership and membership level. While Egypt is a patriarchal society, activism around gender issues tended to be ghettoized, with a predominant women’s constituency. Where men joined, they were few and the exception to the rule. Second, these youth initiatives did not raise a feminist banner. Perhaps because they were not explicitly feminist, they were able to attract ordinary men who joined because of a commitment to social justice and a sense of indignation at the way in which women were denied their bodily integrity on the streets of Egypt. Third, they innovated in their methods of engagement, constantly adopting new ways of reaching out to the public beyond the elitist “advocacy” pathway and without having to resort to estranging gender and development language. They adapted their ways according to the change in the pulse of the citizenry.

Youth initiatives - and the men who participated in them - were expected to disappear with the evaporation of the revolutionary euphoria. Anti-sexual harassment youth initiatives emerged at a time when political culture flourished and where optimistic energy drove people to dream of a new society, a new kind of politics. Sceptics also ruled these initiatives out because they questioned men’s motives for involvement, accusing them of being driven by a patriarchal desire to protect women “as weaker beings”, and in doing so feeding their masculinist egos. The youth initiatives also emerged at a point of extreme security laxity (2011-2012), but with the return of the police back on the streets and security governance, would men who participated in vigilante activities still feel they have a role to play?

The survival and reinvention of many of these initiatives is testament that men’s involvement in collective action on gender activism was more than a fad or an enactment of a revolutionary whim. It is true that some initiatives have become inactive, especially those whose raison d’etre was tied to protest space. However, others continued and though their activism was inspired by the revolutionary atmosphere, the fact that they chose to continue their struggle is indicative of a commitment to the cause of making public space safe for women. Over the past few years, many women activists have argued that men’s involvement in anti-sexual harassment activism is driven by a patriarchal protectionist ethos which can only serve to perpetuate the unequal power relations in a society that privileges men.

This needs to be unpacked on several grounds. First, not all men are a homogenous group just as not all women are. Some men do join because of a macho desire to rescue women and lecture them about proper attire, but most youth initiatives have rigorous screening processes to weed out those men. Reified identities are dangerous but so are normative value packages. There should not be a set of boxes corresponding to a set of positions on issues that men - or women - have to tick in order to meet the gender equality litmus test. How individuals respond to different issues is subject to change across time, space, and experience. Not all men will tick all the boxes of gender sensitivity, but neither will all women. But transformations do occur, and often through the process of immersion in activism and then reflecting on situations, incidents, conversations and experiences.

Moreover, the association between protection and patriarchy needs untangling. In her thoughtful article on masculinities in the context of activism on sexual harassment campaigns in Egypt, Helen Rizzo[i] points out that the notion of ‘patriarchal responsibility to protect’ was premised on particular notions of masculinity (guardianship over women) but also a conception of femininity tied to the women who were deemed as worthy of men’s protection. Rizzo points out it is possible to reconceptualise the masculine notion of protection so that it is not conditional upon women’s compliance with social norms of appropriate feminine behaviour.

This is perhaps one of the distinctive elements of many men’s engagements in these initiatives: rejecting all qualifiers to women’s right to safe public space, irrespective of what they are wearing, whom they are with, where they are, what time of day it is or whether they are known to them or complete strangers. It would be condescending to reduce men’s sense of humanity or solidarity to one of patriarchal guardianship or protection. This is especially so when for many of these men, they had risked their lives in revolutionary struggles in order to defend women’s right to express their voice without being harassed

There is no doubt that the spaces through which women and men are active in addressing sexual harassment today are severely circumscribed. The use of graffiti, street music and human chains (people standing next to each other forming a chain in a street holding banners with messages on them) are no longer viable. Protests require prior permission from the Ministry of Interior. However, the political environment is not averse to stopping sexual harassment (for example a sexual harassment law which though not perfect has its strengths) and initiatives have sought to capitalize on that.

This is where the ingenuity that is no less than the ingenuity of the graffiti images sets in: initiatives such as Harassmap and Bassma/Imprint have sought alternative public spaces for engaging the citizenry: in addition to seeking permits to work in the streets, they have extended their outreach to university campuses and schools, transport vehicles’ depots and the subway. They took a differentiated approach to the state: when working in Cairo became difficult, they sought to work outside the capital. In one case, the governor told them that they could do their work inside the microbuses/ minibuses as that was under his prerogative, but they should avoid the streets that came under the prerogative of the Ministry of Interior. This makes navigating the landscape a process full of landmines: watch your step: is your foot on the pavement or on the bus while talking to people about sexual harassment?

For political scientists who study democratic transitions, these organic initiatives are marginal and insignificant for transformative politics. But men’s commitment to addressing bodily integrity in public space is a democratic endeavour. These initiatives have transformed in important ways the political culture of gender activism in Egypt even if they are yet to emerge as a movement. Two revolutions happened in Egypt and conventional social science methods of understanding political culture failed to capture the pulse of the citizenry. Perhaps it is time to look at initiatives involving men and women that are able to capture and respond to the pulse of the citizenry in ingenuous ways and see what we can learnt from them?

To find out more about the work of HarassMap and Bassma/Imprint, read the EMERGE case study and Story of Change here

[i] Rizzo, H. (2014) The Role of Women's Rights Organizations in promoting masculine responsibility The Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign in Egypt in Rizzo, H. edt.  Cairo Papers for Social Science, Vol. 33/1 , pp103-129

January 2016

Mariz Tadros


Mariz Tadros is a IDS research fellow specialising in the politics and human development of the Middle East. Areas of specialisation include democratisation, Islamist politics, gender, sectarianism, human security and religion and development. Mariz is also Co-Leader of the Power and Popular Politics Cluster.