Skip to content

Egypt’s Revolution and Muslim Women’s Iconography [a compilation]

January 30, 2012

We are, each of us, functions of how we imagine ourselves and of how others imagine us, and, looking back, there are these discrete tracks of memory: the times when our lives are most sharply defined in relation to others’ ideas of us, and the more private times when we are freer to imagine ourselves. […] it occurred to me that if others have so often made your life their business — made your life into a question, really, and made that question their business — then perhaps you will want to guard the memory of those times when you were freer to imagine yourself as the only times that are truly and inviolably your own.
— We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch

The passage above from Philip Gourevitch’s gorgeously written book about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, struck me as a particularly true framing of the story of the woman who was stripped and assaulted in Tahrir Square over a month ago. She has chosen to remain private about her identity even as images of her trauma has become a global icon — adding to a dramatically changing iconography of what it means to be a Muslim woman fighting and resisting.

2006 story on Dutch legislation banning full-length veils in public places

In 2006, Dutch legislators introduced new laws banning full-length veils in public spaces. The image to the right shows a Muslim woman protesting the ban.

Ayhan Tonca of CMO (the main Dutch Muslim organization) condemned the ban and further claimed that  “hardly any Dutch women wear burqas anyway”.  So most Muslim women in the Netherlands do not wear burqas and an actual Muslim woman’s opinion is part of the story. Despite this, the image chosen for the news piece shows a nameless, voiceless figure.

The message is clear. This story is not about clearly discriminatory legislation, but about Muslim women’s unique wish to be oppressed by the veil.

The veil is powerful — a piece of cloth that has been entrusted to define women’s movements across the Muslim world.

It becomes the only thing worth noting about a Muslim woman — fetish-ized in a countless number of ways.

And it’s not simply the veil that is fetishized — but the human body and the human experience that goes along with it.

New Yorker mimicking 'Tahrir Woman' whose assault included revealing her blue bra

The image to the right shows a New Yorker utilizing the trauma of a real woman as part of her own political statement-making activities [Source Link].

The matter of violence or brutality is secondary. Never-mind what the woman whose experience is being performed was fighting against. All that matters is that she was wearing blue underwear and a veil.

Even as Muslim feminists and activists challenge existing narratives (and have for a long time); the Muslim woman is singularly defined by how much or how little she reveals of her body.

It follows, then that a Muslim woman’s eyes — the one part of her body available for consumption is routinely sexualized.  The trope of the “mysterious and beautiful eyes” of a veiled Muslim woman is so common that it is an inescapable and widely- recognized part of Islamic female iconography.

Stop the Oppression of Women in the Islamic World (ISHR)

Which is perhaps why the artwork shown below is so powerfully subversive. In the mural, a Muslim woman’s eyes is the central piece of the art, however they are politicized and rejects notions of an exotified enigma. [In other words, it kicks ass.]

In the revolution, eye-patches have become a symbol of solidarity for the hundreds of protesters who have lost their eyes during the Jan. 25th march. It is believed that the army specifically target eyes and head when attacking civilian protesters.

Activist Ahmed Harara famously lost one eye during the protest that ousted Hosni Mubarak and then his second eye during the ongoing struggle against the military.

A woman walks past a mural depicting a woman with eye patches near Tahrir Square in Cairo

In this way, the revolution is radically disrupting long-held patriarchies in the politics of gender and sexuality. Last year, Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy posted photos of herself nude on Twitter — igniting a storm of dialogue, dissent and solidarity.

Art Inspired by Aliaa Magda Elmahdy

Like the  strategy to target protesters’ eyes, terrorizing women through sexual violence is a key part of how SCAF has tried to silence the women of Egypt.  In a world where women’s bodies are a battleground, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy’s nudity  is a breathtakingly courageous act of defiance —  inspiring many.

What is further remarkable about the art and images surrounding Aliaa is the stark absence of the veil (or “mystery eyes”) in defining a Muslim woman’s struggles. And when it does become the thesis of a project — it has meaning beyond its symbolic, fetishistic weight. A few weeks ago, Elmahdy send out a call for women to send in photographs of themselves with and without the veil. The photographs are fascinating.

In so many ways, the “Muslim woman” is no longer the interchangeable, voiceless, and faceless figure we are so used to.

She has a story.


A Graffiti Campaign to Denounce SCAF

A story that is inspiring a radical re-imagining of resistance to oppression and what that fight might look like.


Carlos Latuff Artwork

This radical re-imagining is further giving space  for countless other silent struggles to be echoed.

Also, meet Asmaa Mahfouz.

Some of the most powerful words I have ever heard spoken. I will let her have the last word. It is little surprise that she has been said to have sparked the revolution.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kyra permalink
    February 6, 2012 6:37 am

    It’s always that same type of image that is used to shape the mainstream-media discourse. Veil, and eyes, and . . . nothing else. And that single image type shapes so many people’s opinions on the issue, when different types of images would do so much to add perception.

    (Also, they’re always looking directly at the viewer/camera, giving the effect of an entreaty, or else “I exist simply to meet your gaze.” Almost like a reflection.)

    I so rarely see images of veiled Muslim women DOING things; it’s almost a surprise, still, when I do. I took an “art history of the Muslim world” class, and one of the things we watched was a short film by young Muslim women on the veil and what it meant both to them and to others’ perception of them, and they had a clip of a group of girls playing basketball in hijab, and it really stood out because I had managed to associate veils with “sitting still clothes.” It’s striking, to become aware of someone else’s ability to consider the same clothing normal basketball-playing clothes, or martial arts clothes—that it’s something you wear and not a hindrance.

    Another image I’ve seen somewhere is a woman who had made herself a giant spiked “mohawk” out of padded fabric, which she had attached to her veil. It was a really strong indicator that “there is a person here, with likes and interest and creativity.” It shouldn’t be difficult for a photographer to come up with something that conveys that better than the “pair of eyes meeting the viewer, all else shrouded and mysterious and silent” trope that seems to be almost everywhere. If only the media was more interested in expanding beyond it.

  2. April 28, 2012 1:23 pm

    Reblogged this on Femina Invicta and commented:
    Just came across this a few months later… Just as relevant as ever. If you do nothing else, see the video clip at the end.

  3. July 1, 2012 5:06 pm

    What a little fireball Asmaa Mahfouz ! so eloquent – so determined.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: