Challenging Egyptian Masculinities through Feminist Graffiti

CW: Gendered violence, sexual violence and state masculinity.

Blue Bra graffiti, Cairo (2011)

I n the wake of the 2011 revolution, Egypt’s turbulent political landscape has led to mainstream international media delivering a narrative of a state ravaged by corruption, police brutality and sexual violence. At the centre of this Westernised story is the archetype of the ‘Savage Arab’, a character that harbours carnal desires empty of rational thought and civility and is linked with terrorists, suicide bombers and oppression of women. However, Egypt’s masculinity is not monolithic nor static; and although it is embedded deeply in the country’s political system, it manifests in different forms which evolve in response to shifting social and political discourses. Journalist Mona Eltahawy introduces us to the ‘trifecta’ of masculinity in Egypt, where masculinity is produced by the state, the street and the home.

In the first half of this essay, I will discuss how both private and public domains inform State-masculinity in post-2011 Egypt, leading to the creation of a State power that weaponises sexual violence against women and controls their movements within society. State masculinity can be described as the pursuit of men’s interests through a government that is structurally designed to an expression of male dominance over its citizens. It is essentially government power that is problematically gendered. State-violence is the exercise of these powers which harm its citizens. In the second half, this essay will then move into how women graffiti artists have pushed back on State-masculinity and subsequent political and gendered oppression through a consistent campaign to make their art and political messages accessible to the public in the streets of Cairo while simultaneously challenging State attempts to silence political expression.

Masculine Violence in the Public and Private Domains

Asma Mahfouz, a 26-year-old activist, has been credited for igniting the 2011 protests with the following speech:

If you think yourself a man, come with me on 25 January. Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honour and manhood and come with me on 25 January. Whoever says it is not worth it because there will only be a handful of people, I want to tell him, ‘You are the reason behind this, and you are a traitor, just like the president or any security cop who beats us in the streets.
— Asma Mahfouz, 18 January 2011

The protests led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for 30 years. His presidency marred human rights violations, vast social inequality, elimination of freedoms and overall widespread social discontent.

Mahfouz’ battle cry taps into the heart of what defines a man in urban Cairo by playing into the social archetype of the male protector of the feminine, while simultaneously taking a jab at the fragile foundations that masculinity balances on ­­ — the conditional recognition of manhood by others.

Egyptian masculine identity is not something a man can achieve on his own. Instead, it is deeply reliant on the interactions with others in the private and public domains between both men and women ­ — it is a perception that must be earned and is consistently being scrutinised and redefined. However, while the public and private domains remain distinctly separated, the use of violence balanced with honour remains consistent in defining the question of ‘What makes a man?’.

Violence is both part of a system of domination and at the same time is a measure of its imperfection. In Egypt, men are expected to use violence to uphold their social standing as men. However, the level of violence used is largely reliant on the nature of the situation at hand. Violence is customarily deployed when some form of societal violation has occurred. Therefore, it is imperative that a man accurately weigh whether violence ought to be used, and the level of violence used to punish the breach for maintaining their level of honour and respectability as men. In essence, when it comes to maintaining social laws for both men, women and children ­­ — the man perform roles as both judge and enforcer.

Farha Ghannam, a researcher who lived in one of Cairo’s socio-economic challenged suburbs for thirteen years, documents examples where the men of her neighbourhood have had to exercise their power, especially in situations where a man is expected to dominate his female family members (where the woman has not met his standard of submission). Further, not servicing a male partner’s emotional and sexual needs continues to be a socially acceptable reason for physically abusing a wife. However, violence is not just deployed in relationships by male-heads-of-house. Ghannam documents one instance where an older brother severely beat his younger sister for staying out late. His family validates his actions as that of a caring brother, a real man, and was even praised by the younger sister as being a brother who is deeply protective of her and was an act of love.

Meanwhile, in the public domain, Ghannam provides an example of a man in his mid-40s who would use violence if another man deliberately stares at a woman who is walking with him on the street. He asks, “Why would he gaze at her? Does not she have a man walking with her?”

Both examples provide a window into how masculinity and gender roles are viewed in private and public domains. In the first example, the younger sister is not only deprived of her own independence but is thankful for the violence she receives as a reminder to adhere to the expectations of her family; she sees this as an act of love and internalises the shame that comes with receiving the beating but also the reason for it. In the second example, our woman on the street is protected by her male friend, shifting the blame from her onto the men who engage in the street harassment. However, if she were to travel alone, without a male escort, it is no question that the blame for the men’s behaviour towards her would be placed on her ­­ — simply for existing in a public space where men also travel.

Both of these examples tell a story of how gender dynamics in Egypt operate to enforce the social norm that men are credited with the positive and decisive actions and how women endure the burden of carrying the blame for men’s actions towards them, a logic that is difficult to follow but forms the structural foundation for patriarchal power and hegemonic masculinity to flourish seemingly unchecked in almost all situations.

This inequality in gender dynamics is especially relevant when discussing notions of State-masculinity and weaponised state violence against women, as it is what allows State-violence to be practised at all. However, the above examples provide for situations where male violence is viewed positively. As mentioned earlier, Egyptian men walk a fine line as judiciary and enforcers of social norms, and at times they can make errors of judgement — leading them to engage in violence that is wholly socially unacceptable, resulting in condemnation and the label of Baltagi.

Baltagi as tools for State Violence against Women

Gada is a term used to refer to a decent man who knows how to use violence appropriately. Gada is a man who is seen as intelligent, tough, reliable and reputable. He is a protector and is a man who does not accept any forms of injustice or oppression against those who are deemed to be weak, such as women. For now we’ll put aside the irony of using violence against women as a form of decency and protection. In direct contrast with the Gada is the Baltagi, which translates to ‘the thug’.

Where Gada use violence to benefit others, the Baltagi use violence to pursue their own interests by enforcing their own will on others. The term Baltagi dates back to the Ottomans and was originally a name reserved for a group of armed men who were charged with protecting the sultan. However, the Egyptian government reclaimed this word and in time used it to refer to men who were deemed to be uncontrollable. Later this term was associated with the concept of ‘social terrorism’ in an attempt to subject young men to social ostracisation as its citizens were brought under a new regime of surveillance and discipline.

In 1998, an anti-baltagi law was passed to regulate behaviours the State deemed anti-social and threatening. Working in tandem with the emergency law that was in operation under the Mubarak government, the law was used not to protect and deter violence against the citizens, but to grant extensive powers to government security forces to stop and detain any individual suspected of being threatening to the security of the State and its regime. Essentially, it was used as a method to control various public spaces in an attempt to police its citizens from any potential forms of political organisation. Here, we see one element that led to the widespread feeling of social disenfranchisement that led to the 2011 uprising.

At the same time, while the State exercised their powers, the police trained young men to operate as paid civilian baltagi force to counter protests and intimidate voters and political opposition groups to artificially create a sense of social and political chaos to justify not only the need for the law, but the heavy-handed tactics used by the State’s security and police forces against its citizens. In doing so, the State attempts to flip the narrative of its powers from that of control and oppression to that of a Gada, the protector. Although the Mubarak government initially commandeered this tool, it continued to be used in presiding governments and is still used today by the El-Sisi regime to delegitimatise protest campaigns. This legal framework, the government’s methods for control and surveillance and State-hired baltagiyaa form the three pillars of State-masculinity in Egypt.

But like the examples provided above of individual masculinity, State-masculinity nonetheless is still dependent on its relationship with women. This is because masculinity cannot exist without the feminine, and its this prevailing theme of gender dynamics and inequality that is vital to understanding how State-masculinity is weaponised against women, especially when it comes to discussing the violent sexual attacks on women protestors and further, the highly publicised incident of the girl in the blue bra.

The Girl in the Blue bra and A Graffiti Revolution

Bahia Shehab, ‘No to Stripping the People’ (2011)

In December 2011, a sit-in was organised at Tahir Square to protest against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which held government during the period between the Mubarak and Morsi regimes. While protesters fled from an attack by state forces, a young veiled woman was attacked by armed officers who dragged her across the ground by her abaya, exposed her blue bra and trousers to the public and repeatedly stomped on her chest and head. She survived, but her identity has remained concealed by her family. The incident was caught on camera and it went viral.

The responses to this incident created a clear distinction of social moral values between private citizens and the state institution. While the public rallied to support her and protested for a demand to end State-violence against women, the pro-state media launched a slut-shaming campaign against her. During an interview, the Major General Adel Emara reinforced the narrative that female protestors are “not like your daughter or mine” and implied that the women protesters are ‘loose women’, condemning them to women who are undeserving of the protection and respect that would otherwise be held for women who conform to the expectations of the State-masculinity. Another news channel featured an anchorman questioning her decision to wear nothing under her abaya, which instils the archaic trope that women deserve sexual assault based on what they wear, and therefore authorises any man to act as he sees fit towards her. In a narrative that faintly echoes the story of our older brother and younger sister earlier, the girl in the blue bra is held responsible for the violence against her by her perpetrators. This paternalistic narrative that holds women in need of protection and control manifests itself time and time again in situations where Egyptian women dare to push against social gendered boundaries.

Days after the incident, President Adly Mansour, who was acting president at the time, introduced a law criminalising sexual harassment. It is the first of its kind in Egypt.

However, in a move reminiscent of the anti-baltagia law, the State capitalises on the new law by enforcing male guardianship on women’s bodies and by doing so reduced female citizens to their bodies and political sites of contestation, which subsequently reinforced masculine identity, and by extension State-masculinity, by embodying the interests of men through control over the feminine. President El-Sisi solidified this sentiment further by claiming that the women protesters did not fit the narrative of the “good women” and therefore were not worthy of protection — subsequently allowing for State actors of violence against women to be justified in their actions. Remember, the use of male violence in Egypt is primarily exercised when a social norm has been breached. By El-Sisi labelling women protesters as immoral and separating them from those who are compliant with the State, he has condemned them to the risk of experiencing sexual violence and labelled their bodies as sites for masculine domination.

However, despite mob sexual assaults on women — often cited to be instigated by State-paid baltagi and plain clothed police officers — continued to be common incidents at protests in Tahir square, women fought back against this state-enforced terroristic hypermasculinity by continuing to persevere through political organisation which transcended class barriers. Meanwhile, a silent battle began on the walls of Cairo through a rising political art movement by women street artists.

As part of El-Sisi’s regime, harsh laws were introduced to limit the freedom of protest and ban ‘abusive’ graffiti. The term abusive in this situation encompasses any form of art that is offensive to the regime. Further, the government strictly controlled the media and, as detailed above, projected only a pro-government narrative. To challenge this narrative, Cairo’s street art provides a voice for its citizens to tell the story of Egypt’s recent political history. It took on a form of resistance by providing an outlet for the pro-revolution members to communicate with Egypt’s people in a form that was provocative enough to garner the public’s reaction, and challenged existing power relations. In response to the girl in the blue bra incident, revolutionaries transformed her story of violence of injustice into a rallying cry using #BlueBra and a simple stencil of a bra scattered throughout the streets of Cairo to develop a sense of solidarity with women and the causes they fought for. Overnight, the blue bra was ignited as a symbol of resistance.

The prevalence of Blue Bra graffiti not only challenged the State’s authority, but it took a match to socials norms of propriety and modesty and broke the taboo surrounding discussions of sexual assault as it became embedded into the collective psyche of Egypt, making the problem of violence against women impossible to ignore. Street artist Bahia Shehab produced one of the most well-known versions of the symbol. Her art features the blue bra that sits below Arabic text, which reads “No to Stripping the People” and a bootprint, “Long Live a Peaceful Revolution.” A nod to the actions of a government that has historically tried to control its people through a ‘peaceful’ narrative of control and oppression while simultaneously stripping them of their rights. The ability for the blue bra to be painted anywhere and by anyone allowed it to be unlimited in location and was a consistent reminder that women not only belonged in the revolution, but they also belonged on the streets.

The revolution opened the streets for women to express themselves through graffiti on discourses of women’s rights and to shine a spotlight on the rampant sexual violence and control perpetrated by the military which enforced the values of the masculinist State. It was an opportunity for activists to connect and organise their movement by reclaiming their streets as a space that the citizens controlled, not by the State. Noon El Neswa was one of the first to organise a visual arts initiative to take back the streets and used her art to advocate for the issues experienced by Egyptian women through a strong street campaign. Her most well-known piece is ‘Do not label me’ which is featured in many areas throughout Cairo and challenges the labels used by the State to discredit women based on their compliance with social expectations of modesty.

Noon El Neswa, ‘Do Not Label Me’ (2012)

An issue faced by artist-advocates is the erasure of their work by the State and the strict law that provides a four-year sentence to graffiti artists. This not only provides a challenge with ensuring that work is recorded and disseminated to the public but also requires a level of anonymity for street artists.

Blogger SuzeeintheCity has overcome both of these barriers by providing a website that documents political street art under the pseudonym of her website. The website receives photos of street art submitted from the public, allowing the collective citizens of Egypt to contribute to building an archive of political art that is freely accessible to all citizens. In this sense, it operates as a platform for vocal political criticisms to remain permanent and shareable, directly challenging the State’s attempt to remove and silence political dissent.

Egypt’s State masculinity is layered with complexity and has a history that is derived from social forms of masculinity embedded in both private and public notions of violence. It is ultimately a country with roots embedded deep in patriarchal powers and the dominance of its female citizens. Women’s participation in both the revolution and post-revolution street advocacy has been vital to developing political campaigns which challenge the State’s narrative of women’s issues. And although the post-2011 revolution has long since passed, the continuous battle fought on the walls of Cairo continues to challenge socio-cultural taboos and ensure that women’s rights remain in the collective consciousness of Egypt.

Amar, Paul, ‘Turning the Gendered Politics of the Security State Inside Out? Charging the Police with Sexual Harassment in Egypt’ (2011) 13(3) International Feminist Journal of Politics 299–328

Eltahay, Mona, ‘My body belongs to me’ TedXEuston (YouTube Video, 28 January 2016) < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZmb30fsF54&ab_channel=TEDxTalks>.

Eltahawy, Mona, ‘Art is a Weapon’ Kandak (Blog, 24 June 2018) < https://kandaka.blog/2018/06/24/why-female-activists-in-egypt-turn-to-art-for-challenging-sexual-harassment/>

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Ghannam, Farah, Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2013)

Goodman, Amy, ‘Asmaa Mahfouz & the YouTube Video that Helped Spark the Egyptian Uprising’, Democracy Now! (Online, 8 February 2011) < https://www.democracynow.org/2011/2/8/asmaa_mahfouz_the_youtube_video_that>

Lyndsay, ‘Wipe it off and I will paint it again’, Art History with Professor Lyndsay (Blog Post, 20 March 2015). < https://professorlyndsay.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/wipe-it-off-and-i-will-paint-again/>.

Mecky, Mariam, ‘State Policing: Moral Panics and Masculinity in post-2011 Egypt’ (2018) 4(1) Kohl: A Journal for Body and Gender Research 95–104

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‘Suzeeinthecity’ (Web Page) < https://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/>

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Laura E Fox

LLB (Hons) and BA (Gender Studies and Philosophy) student. A collection of academic essays.