This is about our humanity

by Punam Khosla, York University

Reflecting on the ‘year of protest’ I am struck by the emphasis of many left commentators. A broad progressive consensus is that capitalist crisis and the economic and political polarizations produced by predatory corporate finance are the roots of the new radicalism. On one level this is undebatable. But is it enough to help us grasp what ignited the impressive outrage, courage and sense of possibility that moved masses of people into the streets? No. I argue that although social polarization is widely talked about, it is rendered an effect of the economic. Produced by daily systemic and structural violence, the dehumanization and ejection of racialized, female and queer bodies from public life is also a central and explosive force spurring this latest surge of political activism.

I agree with Immanuel Wallerstein (2011) that “forgotten people” were key forces in the year’s breakthrough battles. But rather than echoing the French Revolution of 1848 or European youth protests of 1968, I would argue that protest 2011 more closely mirrors the Haitian revolution against slavery in the late 1700s and the decolonization and social liberation struggles of the global south throughout the 20th century. These moments and movements were as much about rejecting white supremacist domination, violence against women, slavery, captivity and social death as they were about territorial, economic and political rights.

Resonances of Haiti and the Third World project are evident in the spirit of the Tunisians, Egyptians and Yemenis whose collective courage captured the world’s imagination and opened the floodgates of defiant 2011. For them an end to authoritarian state rule, police violence and everyday degradation were as central as bread and jobs. Attacks by police, military or undercover thugs hired by their governments actually powered the protests, with women courageously taking the front lines and leading the pushback. I watched in amazement as protesters repeatedly corrected reporters who cited poverty stats as the root cause of the actions. ‘We are fighting for dignity’ was a steady but apparently spontaneous refrain. ‘This is about our humanity’.

Anger at authoritarian violence was at the heart of the August riots in England. Starting as a peaceful march against the police shooting of a young Black man the insurrection was set off by police brutalizing a young Black woman who confronted them saying ‘we want answers, come and speak to us’. Liberal and Left framing of the riots as either selfish, depoliticized criminality or as the upshot of economic deprivation ignores the deeply racist and sexist violations these young people live everyday.

The enormous scaling up of mass participation in Occupy Wall Street actions was kindled by police brutality and one of the largest US political arrests of more than 700 people on the Brooklyn Bridge, and by other police attacks against racially diverse protests such as in Oakland. This also speaks to racist state violence as a sparsely acknowledged, under-theorized fuel in the blaze of the Occupy movement.

All of these protesters whose bodies are marked with everyday social expulsion and who make life out of a half-life, are pushing back against a necropolitical logic that manufactures racialized, gendered and queer bodies through hegemonic brutalities, reinforced by the blunt clubs of securitized states. The people have hit the limits of their willingness to absorb this longstanding and normalized brutality and degradation.

But they are not pitiful victims.

I find it remarkable that the year closed with tenacious Egyptian women flooding Cairo’s streets in their biggest march in 1000 years. Denouncing the public stripping and vicious stomping of the ‘blue bra woman’ by the military, they were livid at the regular arrests, beating and violation of women protesters. Just a few days later they won a court battle against the ‘virginity tests’ police use to routinely and increasingly punish and degrade women activists.

The women of Egypt and Tunisia also have suffered and fought the shallow rhetoric of women’s empowerment peddled by their dictatorial regimes. Much like their western supporters, Mubarak and Ben Ali used ‘women’s safety’ as an elaborate excuse for beefing up state militarization, widespread criminalization, and violent repression. In spite of government-led campaigns against sexual harassment supported by the global non-profit imperial complex, feminists working for indivisible, broad and fundamental social justice are targets of state harassment, detention and repression.

These women of the globalized Antipodes are, in my view, forging a solid architecture for a better way of understanding and doing politics and protest. Egyptian, Yemeni and Tunisian women spearheaded the labour strikes, youth, neighbourhood and radical women’s anti-violence initiatives and bodily integrity campaigns that built the ground and created the backbone of the Arab Spring.

Protesting in Tahrir Square, 2011 (photo available online at Commons License
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They have opened 2012 exemplifying the tenacious lifeblood so necessary for crucial, independent social movements. Their vigilance in the post-puppet era is critical to the future of their hard-fought, but still incomplete victories. And like their sisters of colour in the western world they are rejecting and exposing the sadistic lies of state and US, UN, and NGO women’s rescue initiatives.

This is not a new development. Arab women are not ‘awakening’. Their long radical past reaches back to the 1800s and carries through the generations. In 1961, Egyptian feminists hosted the Afro-Asian Women’s conference in Cairo where a Third World feminist analysis of women’s liberation was deeply intersectional and inextricably tied to decolonization and social justice.

Women of colour, of the Third World project and those who fought slavery and conquest are the unacknowledged axes of historical and present radical social change. They make the fight against social death, structural violence and predatory social accumulation as central as their fight against economic injustice. We must look to them as the models for our mapping of movements who fight not only for economic and spatial justice, but also for collective corporeal integrity and humanity.

Some sources and links

Armstrong E and Prashad V (2005) Solidarity: War rites and women’s rights. The New Centennial Review 5(1):213-253

Abu-Lughod L and El-Mahdi R (2011) “Activism and the academy: Celebrating 40 years of feminist scholarship and action.” Papers presented at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, 23-24 September. (last accessed 9 January 2012)

Amar P (2011) Turning the gendered politics of the security state inside out? International Feminist Journal of Politics 13(3):299-328

Barillas M (2011) Egyptian women tortured and subjected to ‘virginity tests’ by military. The Cutting Edge 24 June

Boundani A (2011) Tawakul Karman – Nobel Prize winner from Yemen. PRI’s The World 9 December (last accessed 9 January 2012)

Davis M (2011) Spring confronts winter. New Left Review 72

Hafiz J (2011) Outraged Egyptian women say ‘we have no fear’. The Real News Network 21 December (last accessed 9 January 2012)

Morgan R (2011) Women of the Arab Spring. Ms. Magazine Spring

Rothschild C (2005) Written Out: How Sexuality is Used to Attack Women’s Organizing. New York: International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) & Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL)

Wallerstein I (2011) The contradictions of the Arab Spring. Al Jazeera 14 November (last accessed 9 January 2012)