Those Who Disobey Will Pay: Authority and the Body
I explore these questions below, to find out how authority regulates the bodies of individuals, men and women, with a special focus on women.
In 2016, A Paper Bird — a blog on sexual rights around the world — published a post which included the reposted video of a transsexual woman being violated and humiliated in a police station in Alexandria1. The woman in the video is completely hysterical, surrounded by police officers taunting her and questioning how a “man” can turn into a “woman.” We hear the voice of one of the officers in the distance talking to her (he addresses her as a man, of course): “Go to a mental asylum instead of raving around the streets like this, you son of a …”
This video makes it clear how authority deals with the issue of sexual rights, and how it is categorized as a mental illness. The majority of Egyptian society is no different from other Arab societies in this respect. In one episode of "Fi Fulk Al Mamnu'", a programme broadcast on the France 24, people in Arab countries are surveyed on the street about their opinions on transsexuality and homosexuality. Most of the opinions are against homosexuality. One of the people interviewed says “they are
These opinions and experiences reveal a mindset that rejects any sexuality not based on the conventional binary system considered “normal” by society, which is built around two poles: one that is active and dominant (men), and one that is passive (women). To be a man means being active and in control in the sexual process, that is, to perform penetration, which is the secret of masculine dominance. On the other hand, the “effeminate” man, as he is viewed (whether he is homosexual or transsexual), is at the bottom of the social ladder, socially outcast because he has allowed himself to sink to a lower rank. He must be punished by the authorities for this sin, which transgresses religious, ethical, and political boundaries. But why does authority see this act as a transgression and a sin? How does it control the desires of individuals, men and women? How do sexual choices and orientations become the focus of control and surveillance ? How does authority exercise control over the sexual act? And what is the position of women within this system?
I explore these questions below, to find out how authority regulates the bodies of individuals, men and women, with a special focus on women.
In The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, Foucault views sex as connected to power, through various mechanisms of regulation that authority exercises in order to control the body, on the one hand, and reproduce it on the other: “One had to speak of [sex] as of a thing to be not simply condemned or tolerated but managed, inserted into systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of all.3"
Power, whether religious or political, does not consider the body as simply a force for production or material labor, but also as a political body that must be regulated economically, socially, and therefore morally. Institutions play their part in imprisoning it and surveilling the body within a disciplinary network, where discipline means control over actions and practices, and surveillance applies to both the individual body and the social body. Furthermore, the family is considered an important social site where soft control is exerted through power dynamics between family members.
We thus find that the family is the first mechanism of regulating the body and its relationship with external forces — represented by society and the state with all its institutions — and with internal forces, its individual men and women. Through the family system, sex is legalized, so it is no longer seen as an expression of desire and a grounds for a free relationship, but is rather reduced to legal documents and producing offspring. Marriage is not for pleasure but for procreation, and the family is also the only legitimate arena within which women can enjoy a sexual life; they become, in the words of Abdelwahab Bouhdiba in The Sexual and the Sacred: “biological capital that cannot be left without production.4”
The social engineering of societies (to borrow a phrase from Fatima Mernissi) is determined by the ability of the various powers within these societies — religious, political, legislative, economic, social — to control the desires, thoughts, and behaviors related to sex and the bodies of theirmembers. This is done by setting controls for sex and placing it within a “legal and legitimising” framework that is regulated to become a tool for “construction and production.” It is based on a normative binary (masculinity/femininity) and anything outside this duality is marginalized and cursed, occupying a lower position. The elusive body, which exists in between these two binaries is a body beyond control, creating chaos and destabilizing the general order, which means that it must be regulated and treated in order to return it to the social body, to that precise social engineering that power has created and laid down the rules and laws for.
In a testimony published by Raeef al-Shalaby on the al-Gomhuriyya website, entitled “I, the Deviant ,” he narrates the suffering and isolation he experienced amongst family and friends and atschool, for being different and not carrying the socially recognized attributes of “masculinity.” He describes how he was beaten and ostracized, and his feverish quest to achieve a successful masculinity, repressing all his own ideas, desires, and behaviors to attain the sexual morality that society, religion, and psychology would approve of. “I am now recovering some of the elements of this past awareness. I am slowly inspecting the structure of this existential panic that accompanied me for years. I was like one who was expelled from paradise before even stepping in, before even being alive; like one who was forced into a straightjacket of madness while screaming, voicelessly, insisting on his sanity. The issue was not only that I did not want to be gay. It was more than that. I didn’t even know how a human being can be “good” and gay at the same time. I did not make a distinction between a human being’s sincerity, integrity, nobility, and generosity, on the one hand, and his sexuality on the other. I thought, like the rest of my society, that sexuality is the epicenter of morality, that sexuality is morality.
Such is the ability of power, or rather powers in the plural, to assign a position to those who do not conform to the normative gender binary, who do not obey the rules set down to determine the dynamics of the relationship between the two sexes. You either submit, in order not to disturb the law that distinguishes between male and female and stipulates their marriage, in the words of Foucault; or you are “against nature”, in which case you must bear the various forms of punishment that will be exacted on you and which might lead to your murder — because tolerance of different sexualities would destabilize the grip of the system, creating pockets for resistance and then emancipation from all forms of oppression and control. That is exactly what power cannot allow.
Women in Sexuality Discourse
In Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, Fatima Mernissi presents her view that Arab Muslim societies have two contradictory perceptions of the role women play in sexual life — one explicit, the other implicit. The explicit perception is that the sexual life of men is active by nature, whereas women’s sexual life is passive. The implicit perception is that women have an active role in sexual life, and thus this destructive energy must be contained and regulated so that they do not distract men from their social and religious duties. Further, in this implicit perception the survival of society is dependent upon creating institutions that perpetuate masculine hegemony5. I do not see a contradiction between these two perspectives if we view them in light of the social position of women: when women get married and have children, the first perception is applied, that of women having a passive role in sexual life. A woman becomes the mother, at whose feet lies heaven: she’s the “homeland” that contributes to the demarcation of boundaries between racial, religious, and national groups. The sexuality of the “virtuous” wife is thus confined to satisfying her husband’s libido and giving birth to a number of children. Very few wives and mothers hold on to their right to sexual pleasure. The woman (as seen by Arab society) is a creature created by men, for men, to borrow the words of Abdulsamad Dialmi6.
As for unmarried or divorced women (those who did not sacrifice enough to keep the family intact) — they are considered dangerous. The former did not enter the institution of marriage, which is supposed to fulfil her sexual desire, and the biggest threat of the second is her possession of previous sexual experience, in addition to the absence of her motivation to keep her chastity (the hymen). This places these two categories of women (with their varying degrees of threat) in a position of seduction and danger to men and society.
In all cases, whether a woman is married, divorced, or single, there is always an attempt to control her sexuality and freedom. The most public and widespread method of this control in our society is covering parts of a woman’s body, by imposing the hijab, or veiling, by force or by incentive. In some Egyptian schools hijab is imposed on schoolgirls by force; while in others, girls who take on the veil are celebrated7. The same practices took place in many Egyptian universities, specifically before the 25 January 2011 revolution, where there were groups of young women calling for the hijab and distributing leaflets on the virtues of veiling for Muslim girls and for wider society8. Another method of control is through female genital mutilation. This practice is still widespread in Egypt, and there is a relatively low rate of decline despite the efforts made: in 2017 the percentage of women who had undergone FGM in Egypt was 91%, dropping from 97% in 20009. This is a pre-emptive step to preserve the ‘honor’ of girls, and protect them from their desires which might lead them to “vice”— so a piece of the girl’s body is cut off to preserve it!
Another method to exact control over a woman’s behavior is through empowering the father, brother, or husband to police her, which may lead to her murder if she is suspected of wrongdoing. The paradox is that this crime is called a crime of “honor.” The murder of women is equated to defending the honor of men, because women’s bodies are not their own, but are rather posessions of the males of the family, and thus must be controlled and preserved. I have met many young women who refuse to have relationships outside the frame of marriage, not out of fear of divine retribution in a religious sense, but out of fear of the retaliation of their relatives, or out of feelings of guilt towards them. At the same time, many young men boast about their multiple sexual conquests.
The state consolidates this control of female sexuality through its various institutions. The media, for example, presents the “ideal” model of women — the sacrificing mother and the obedient girl — in films and television series10. On the other hand, rebellious women are always punished at the end of the films or series (yet there are some exceptions to this). I remember a song by the Egyptian band Cairokee called “Matlub Za’im”, which came out in late 2011 after the revolution. The song’s ending declares that Egypt needs a president who’s a “dakar” or “real male”. The word “male” here is the symbol of power, wisdom, and the ability to rule a country such as Egypt. We also find that religious institutions — while raising the banner of public decency and Islamic morality — can forgive a man who has an “illegitimate” sexual encounter and blame the wife (if he is married) for not fulfilling his sexual desires, and simply advise him to repent or take another wife. Sexuality in the Arab world — the topic of my research — perceives women as occupying a lower rank than men, and their role in sexual life must be restricted, which is part and parcel of the bigger machinery of discipline that dominates and controls the sexuality of all individuals in society, male and female.
In my opinion, we are witnessing a liberal discourse on issues of sexuality that has recently emerged and is in a process of evolution.
Potentials of Resistance
According to Foucault, power is exercised “in its over-all decisions and its capillary interventions alike, whatever the devices or institutions on which it relies, it acts in a uniform and comprehensive manner; it operates according to the simple and endlessly reproduced mechanisms of law, taboo, and censorship: from state to family, from prince to father, from the tribunal to the small change of everyday punishments, from the agencies of social domination to the structures that constitute the subject himself.11” This begs the question: can we bet on the emergence of a resistance capable of liberating sexuality from its fears and extreme wariness of tracking and surveillance? Is it possible to break out of the dichotomy of the permitted and forbidden, especially in our Arab societies?
I think the answer will not be easy, but wherever there is power there is resistance. As power spreads, so do the loci of resistance. In relationships of power, these loci play the role of the adversary, and they do not have just one center, but multiple, dispersed centers. In the words of Foucault: “the points, knots, or focuses of resistance are spread over time and space at varying densities…more often one is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance, producing cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting regroupings, furrowing across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds. Just as the network of power relations ends by forming a dense web that passes through apparatuses and institutions, without being exactly localized in them, so too the swarm of points of resistance traverses social stratifications and individual unities.12”
If we try to apply Foucault’s hypothesis about resistance to the Egyptian context we will find, despite the dispiriting reality of sexual rights, that there are also points of resistance. These points — sometimes cautious, at other times bold — began to take shape especially after the 2011 revolution. Many young, middle-class men and women began to be sexually active — outside the institution of marriage and its objectives — for pleasure, fulfilment of desire, or the embodiment of love, and many of them refuse to have children. There are also many young transsexual women who share their experiences openly on social media and on different publishing platforms. They also document the violations they experience every day, without shame or caution; in fact they often use frank, direct language to describe these experiences. In 2017 the hashtag “#first-time-harassment” spread on social media, where women spoke about their experiences of being harassed for the first time. The hashtag exposed how false and hollow the values claimed by this society are, because a big percentage of the harassers were family members and relatives.
In my opinion, we are witnessing a liberal discourse on issues of sexuality that has recently emerged and is in a process of evolution. This is due to the courage of many young women and men who speak openly and boldly about these issues, whether through writing, publishing, or holding debates. This may pave the way for change, or the destabilization of the status quo.
- 1. https://paper-bird.net/2016/06/22/cairo-comprador-gay-movements/
- 2. هذه الشهادات كتبت على حساب الفيسبوك الشخصي لهاتي العابرات.
- 3. ميشيل فوكو، تاريخ الجنسانية، الجزء الأول، ترجمة محمد هشام، أفريقيا الشرق 2004، ص
- 4. انظر/ي؛ النسوية والجنسانية، كتاب المرأة والذاكرة تحرير وتقديم هالة كمال وآية سامي، ترجمات نسوية، عدد 7، القاهرة، يوليو 2016
- 5. فاطمة المرنيسي: الجنس كهندسة اجتماعية، ترجمة فاطمة الزهراء أوزرويل، المركز الثقافي العربي، ص17
- 6. انظر/ي، عبد الصمد الديالمي: سوسيولوجيا الجنسانية العربية، دار الطليعة، بيروت، 2009
- 7. https://www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/1026222
- 8. تعرضت لهذا السلوك بشكل شخصي أنا وزميلات غير محجبات في جامعتي وفي جامعات أخرى خلال نهاية التسعينات.
- 9. http://cutt.us/SGErK
- 10. http://cutt.us/HY5us
- 11. فوكو: مرجع سابق ص70
- 12. فوكو: مرجع سابق ص80