Sarma 24 Jan 2021English

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Contextual note
This text is part of the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection and publication series 'Cairography', which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt) and supported by Sarma (Belgium). More precisely, it features in Cairography #2, also referred to as the 'Emergency Edition' (January 2021), edited by Adham Hafez, Ismail Fayed, and Myriam Van Imschoot and supported by Moussem Nomadic Arts Center in response to a year of losses, between a deadly pandemic and a series of political catastrophes. This text in particular attempts to position the then recent policing of female and queer bodies of TikTok performers in Egypt within a context of political sexual violence and global capitalism.

‘Sharaf elbent zai ‘oud el kabreet, maywalla’ash gheir marra wahda’. This is Egyptian colloquial for ‘A girl’s honor is like a matchstick, you can only light it once’, referring to her hymen. Decades of human rights activism, feminist protests, and policy changes have tried to disentangle hymens and anuses from the Egyptian constitution, but the state insists on having a sexual relation with its subjects. The body of the state is sexual, it sexualizes itself, it gives itself the right to insert fingers into the vagina of an arrested protester to perform the recently banned virginity tests, in order to continue wielding hymens to political uprightness. The state parts open the buttocks of young men wishing to become soldiers (or taken into obligatory military service after completing college education and being under the age of 28 as the law states), and looks at their anus, to examine possible evidence of having been penetrated in acts of sexual intercourse. And, while homosexuality is not overtly illegal in Egypt, and while both the penetrated and the penetrative partners in a homosexual act are equally engaged in the sexual act within commonsense, where the penetrative partner might be even more engaged in cases of rape and forced sexual intercourse, there is no test to the honor for the penetrative partner. Their matchstick lights more than once.

It is too complicated to point fingers, and call out names. And, perhaps it’s even the wrong exercise. Sexual harassment in Egypt, a phenomenon that is so common and exponentially increasing over the past ten years, is it an economic, political, social, religious, urban, demographic, or ontological problem? We know that it is all of the above, and we can argue that it is left rampant in order to act as a practice of indoctrination, an exercise in husbandry. But then some questions have simpler answers. Do women have souls, like one Saudi lecturer asked in a recent seminar? Hell, yes they do. Should government in the US or in Poland tell women if they have the right to an abortion or not? No, because it is not the government who is pregnant. Should women producing dance and performance content on Tiktok or other internet social media platforms, go to jail after being subjected to virginity tests? Certainly not! But this is what happened.

Several Egyptian young women were arrested between May and August 2020, some fined 20,000USD, some fined and then jailed, and eventually sentenced to two years in prison. One young girl was arrested together with her mother, and the crime used to brand them is defiling Egyptian family value. Just like homosexuality being not illegal and yet jails are filled with young queers, Egyptian family values seem to be an ontological passe-partout that circumvents legality by activating different entry planes to a living agential human body, mostly here female and/or queer. Once these entry planes are activated, this passe-partout uses the body to produce morality plays, the body is there as evidence and as a backdrop to the play. The orator is the main character in this play. The orator also becomes the judge, and the executioner sometimes. Since 2018, a new tightened communications law passed, allowing this passe-partout to place people in jail, if their online digital content violates society’s values. Society’s values in a country of over 100 million citizens, of different creeds and racial backgrounds, cannot be a monolithic category. Egyptians are Sunni, Shiite, White, Black, Nubian, Bedouin, Jewish, Coptic, Catholic, Adventist, Atheist, Communist, Socialist, Capitalist, Asian, African, Arab, Mediterranean, Nasserist and Trumpist.

This is where we need to think sexually of governments, especially when they behave sexually and continue to finger our vaginas and spread our buttocks examining our orifices. We are examined, probed, fingered, entered, disciplined, punished, raped and imprisoned for being raped, and then raped in prison. Why should a ruling regime be occupied with genitals, reproductive rights, the performance of gender, or with the moral content of a digital performance, if it did not see itself as an alpha-male in competition with other males (and non-males) in society, the way Palestinian Jordanian writer Abudllah Al Bayyari argues in his recent essay ‘Body of the State’(1). Specifically, why would it occupy itself with genitals and reproduction if it were not engaged in politically regulated mass husbandry? The state is sexual, and it is male and bisexual. It penetrates male and female bodies. Sexual torture performed by the authorities has been documented repeatedly. Detainees are raped by penis or police batons, and sometimes by a broomstick. Imad al-Kabir, the bus driver who was raped by a group of male police officers while in custody in Egypt, with one of the officers filming the incident and sharing it with others later is but one documented example.

Sounds shocking? Remember Abu Ghraib prison rapes, though? George W. Bush asserted that these reported rapes were isolated incidents and not indicative of US policy. But it happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in Guantanamo Bay. In fact, a trope of pornography was born then under the title ‘Americans fucking Afghani women’. This new pornographic trope in the US continued to evolve today, synchronous with the past four years of machismo fueled by Trump’s heterosexist regime. Muslim women are portrayed in these pornographies wearing the veil, they are captured by men dressed as deployed American soldiers, the soldiers sometimes force the women to perform demeaning domestic activities and house chores before they are forcefully penetrated. The videos are often made to look like evidence tapes. One of the productions describes itself on their website as “Tour of Booty videos shows exactly what a motivated soldier and his camera can do and that is to create some of the craziest real porn movies you will ever see. Come join us as we tour booties all across the middle east and find the hottest women in the fucking world willing to fuck on camera to make internet history.

In most of these videos the women’s faces are visible, the male pornographic actors have their faces digitally blurred, creating a fiction of found-footage of military abuse, where the officers' identities are obscured. The male body is not only virile, it is also protected and obfuscated by this regime of gaze. The female body is not only humiliated, it is exhibited and paraded. The introduction of house chores into these videos essentially places political violence, sexual torture, imperialism and domestic labor within the same performance. The makers of the videos could have just filmed intercourse, but why do they make the female performers clean floors as well?

Adam Samberg’s song ‘Finest Girl’ released in 2016 playfully parodies sexual violence and puts together the US troops ‘fucking Bin Laden’ in the same stanzas where a woman asks her lover to ‘terrorise that pussy’. Sex, torture and terrorism become a network system. And while this song was written for a comedy film, and is performed with great cynicism, it points at this trope. This trope of sexual violence that is symptomatic of state powers performing themselves sexually, and encouraging the nation to have a sexual relationship to the sovereign. It is also the symptom of the instrumentalization of female and queer bodies by soverign powers, whether by regulating their reproductive rights, penetrating them forcefully, or regulating when they would or would not be penetrated or fertilized, and here the human and the animal are merely bodies to be bred and regulated by the capitalist state and its representatives.

But let’s go back to this ontological passe-partout in the Arabic speaking region, and particularly in Egypt today. It is precise. It is selective. It is also class-sensitive. Celebrity actresses will not be arrested for defiling family values because of their performances, unless the actress is politically opposed to the regime in power. Then, intimate homemade pornographic videos of the actress would be released on the internet, or she would merely be suddenly thrown in jail as it was the case with singer, dancer and entertainer Sama El Masri, who the state had supported for her satirical and erotic critiques of the Muslim brotherhood and for her performances of subservience to the military several years ago. In 2020, Sama El Masri was sentenced to three years in prison, after being arrested over her TikTok videos and instagram posts, where the public prosecution accused her of inciting debauchery through these digital performances and visual representations. Cairo’s misdemeanours economic court stated that Sama violated family principles and values in Egypt (2). The cyber crime law that passed in 2018, that passe-partout, was invoked again, placing her in prison.

In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Entessar el-Saeed, a women rights lawyer and head of the Cairo Center for Development and Law explained that only women are being targeted by this law. She explained as well the inability of the state to understand the new changes produced by digital environments.

Indeed, the digital as a sphere of practicing performance and intimacy operates outside of regulatory bodies of regimes of powers, in most countries. You submit a theatre play to the censor's office, but not your Instagram live feed beforehand. You await permits to perform on a stage, be it part of a statist cultural complex or an independently run theatre, but you do not await such permits to perform on Zoom or TikTok. The digital also exists outside of a nation state ontology, and therefore becomes a problem that is both technical and ontological. And that is why certain countries would ban Twitter altogether (Iran, China, North Korea), or restrict access to certain services of Google for instance such as it is the case in Myanmar, Cuba and Syria, or block Voice Over Internet Protocols (VOIP) as it is the case in Qatar, or the UAE. The disinhibitionism that our bodies experience as we perform on the internet does not reside within the same register of sexual politics and bodily policing of other non-digital performances.

Entesar el-Saeed points at this abyss between the individual and the state authorities created by the digital realm, which one would think is a problem of the 1990’s. But her point on how biased and gendered the situation is, is very important. Male producers will not be jailed if they produce sweaty love scenes in films geared towards a desirous heterosexual male gaze, or else El-Sobky Film would have long been shut down. Male TikTok users who post sultry videos while showering or performing sexually suggestive ASMR were not arrested or questioned. We need to continue seeing our governments in sexual frames of reference, and within a matrix of class and economic interests. Because sometimes this passe-partout is left at the door. Some bodies are punished, and others are not. Some bodies are regulated and policed, and others are not. Some continue to be made to fuel pornographic fantasies and others continue to watch and film these fantasies undisturbed. And while scholars like Beth Baron theorized the emergence of an honor and bodily virtue assemblage entering into nationalist political discourse in the 1919 Egyptian revolution, we could either trace today’s discourse problems to that bodily genealogy, or do altogether without this genealogy and think of the sovereign outside of nationalism and outside of national boundaries. We need to perhaps address the sovereign’s performances of sexual violence and sexual bias by thinking of the global rise of rightwing politics today as a wave of patriarchal sexist violence. It is a violence that transcends local nationalist discourses, as it joins hands with other sovereigns invested in global capitalism, disaster economies, and mass surveillance of human bodies. A political violence of a hyper-patriarch of assembled titans ripping the earth apart while fracking, flooding the coasts while denying climate change, overproducing goods in capitalist prisons and offshore sweatshops, and asserting its top of the food chain position through occasional performances of sexual violence that endoctrinate the masses in this hyper-patriarchy. The great husbandman, he who controls sexual reproduction and agriculture, the ultimate colonizer.



(1) Al Bayyari, Abduallah, 'Body of the State’, first published in Arabic on Al Arabi Al Gadid, 4th August 2020, and republished in Sarma as part of Cairograpby #2, both in Arabic and in English translation by HaRaKa Platform. 



Mary Bye-bye writes on performance, feminism, dance and sexuality in the Arab World. The writer was named after the sexually ambiguous Egyptian actress Mary Bye-Bye, known for her anticolonial position in Egypt’s early 20th century cabaret and cinema years.