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Egypt, Icon-Building and Women’s Bodies during War

December 20, 2011
Egyptian army soldiers arrest a female protester during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo

The […] photo shows Egyptian army soldiers beating a young woman in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Saturday, the second straight day of clashes with protesters that began on Friday and continued overnight. There’s no reason to believe that there was anything special about this woman or even about the way that soldiers treated her. Members of the army, once beloved by Egypt’s activists for standing by their side during the revolution in February, have sent hundreds of men and women to the hospital over the last 48 hours and have killed at least 10, some with live ammunition fired into crowds. [Source]

We do not know the identity of the woman whose humiliation and trauma, we are witnessing .
Her story has become a stand in for all the ones that were not caught by a far-away, shaky camera. She herself, has had no say over shaping her infamy. Not in the video that has gone viral on the internet, nor the photographs documenting her dehumanization. Images which are quickly becoming iconic in its stark depiction of SCAF brutality and assault.

What we also do not know are the identities of the faceless soldiers who strip her, stomp her and beat her. Their crime is hidden behind state police uniforms, authority — individual culpability traded in — they are tools of war.

A sovereign nation is never a man, land is always a conquered woman. These post-colonial habits gain new meaning as we witness more non-symbolic bodies bear non-symbolic suffering.

Violence dehumanizes. Always. It is necessary to turn a person into a symbol, into an idea, in order to maim them. Their humanity has to be flung aside. And nowhere is humanity denied more routinely than during war and to women.

In another part of the world, elderly women activists have been protesting every week in Seoul, South Korea for the past twenty years. Last week, the weekly rally celebrated its 1000th anniversary.

During World War II, an estimated 200,000 women were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese army. They were called ‘comfort women’ and they were set up in stations (called comfort stations) in occupied territories. They were raped repeatedly by the Japanese army during the war.

The elderly activists, often referred to individually as halmoni or grandmother, began their protests in 1992. […] That year, 234 Korean women broke decades of humiliating silence, emerging to acknowledge that they once had been sexual victims of the foreign soldiers. Each week, a few of the most able ones staged noontime banner-waving sessions within view of Tokyo’s red-bricked embassy. Five participated in Wednesday’s rally.

For these women, the eldest a sprightly 91, the passing years have brought frustration. Often, Seoul residents hurrying about their days ignored the women’s Wednesday protests. But the women would not give up: They sweated through Seoul’s steamy summers and bundled up against snow squalls during the cruel winter months. [Source]

Not only has the Japanese government refused to pay restitution, they have also refused to apologize or even acknowledge that these atrocities even took place. When faced with a statue commemorating the 1000th protest rally, the Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura called the statue “extremely regrettable.” The Japanese embassy officials have complained to the South Korean foreign ministry about the statue.

Taxi driver Choi Hyung-soo said he did not expect the women’s protests to make much difference. “I respect what these women are doing,” he said. “But the Japanese are just turning their heads. They’re waiting for these women to die off.”

This year alone, about 16 of the former comfort women — now in their 80s and 90s —- have died, there are about 64 of them left today.

In solidarity with all women whose bodies have been stomped on by army boots, and whose identities have been hijacked by history.

Update: I repeat, In solidarity.

Mass March by Cairo Women in Protest Over Soldiers’ Abuse

CAIRO — Thousands of women massed in Tahrir Square here on Tuesday afternoon and marched to a journalists’ syndicate and back in a demonstration that grew by the minute into an extraordinary expression of anger at the treatment of women by the military police as they protested against continued military rule.

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