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December 18, 2011

Photo of Woman Stripped by Egyptian Military: Not Shamed, Not a Victim

Women’s bodies historically have been implicated in war in ways that men’s have not. They are goods to protect or spoils for the victor. War, like so many other things in life, objectifies women. Consequently, as appalling as this photo of the Egyptian pro-democracy protester is, it is also familiar. Too familiar. We are accustomed to seeing the limp, half-naked bodies of women and girls in images of war . . . and crime . . . and also to market films and body sprays and shoes. As a result of this cultural conditioning, we have an interpretive frame for this photo—one that positions this protester as a victim and therefore an object of either pity or shame.

The video of the beating accompanying the CNN story quoted Egyptian taxi driver Ahmed Fahmy, who said, “I will go down and fight the army and retrieve the honor of this woman and those martyrs killed for the sake of Egypt’s future.” Indeed, even noble sentiments like that figure this protester as an object of shame—someone whose “honor” must be “retrieved” from the battlefield by a man (a civilian taxi driver, no less). The article in the Atlantic stresses humiliation, the photo caption identifying the figure in the image simply as “a defenseless woman.”  The lead paragraph of the Guardian’s coverage of the incident reads, “The woman photographed being beaten in Cairo is an activist who does not want her name revealed because of her shame at the way she was treated, according to those who were with her at the time.” No doubt the protester recognizes that the cloak of shame is harder to wrench away than was her head scarf and shirt.

Interestingly, the Guardian editors chose another photo to accompany that particular story—one that preserved both the protester’s anonymity and her privacy:

That begs the question: how should photographs like these be used? By publishing the photo, news organizations, of course, shed a necessary spotlight on a repressive military force and remind the world that the blooms of the Arab Spring are fading as the tumultuous storms of winter roll in. Speaking through a journalist, the protester herself noted, “It doesn’t matter if I talk [to the media] or not, their stripping me is enough to reveal them [the army] and tell enough to those who still believe them.”  That suggests that although she would prefer for her identity to remain a secret, the protester recognizes the pragmatic utility of a shocking image.

The photo also serves as an important reminder of the hypocrisy of regimes that pay lip service to modesty and respect for women’s bodies, but systematically shame and abuse women, especially those who seek political agency. Leaders whose operatives punish a woman protestor by stripping her cannot convincingly invoke religious justifications for keeping women separated from men (and, consequently, undereducated, underemployed, and disenfranchised).

The image would be even more useful, however, if the narrative surrounding it was wrested from its misogynistic moorings. Rarely are women, themselves, viewed as agents in conflict—as individuals whose bodies can effect military, political, and historical change. This image does not portray a victim. It portrays a hero—a warrior waging a battle for democracy. Whether or not her name is revealed, she should proudly join the ranks of other women whose bodies have been battered to secure their political rights: the militant suffragists whose hunger strikes triggered brutal force feedings in prison; the female shirtwaist factory workers whose strike in 1909 was met with brutal police beatings; the civil rights activists whose will could not be broken by fire hoses, billy clubs, or dogs. The Egyptian protester is a woman to be admired, not pitied, and certainly not shamed.  Don’t go to battle for her. Go to battle with her.

by Karrin Anderson

Update:  To address some confusion readers and tweeters are having about the post regarding the different photos: The two are different women, but both are protesters. The Guardian’s “female protester” pic protects that protester’s privacy and anonymity. The point was that they chose an alternate image to represent the notion of a female protester being attacked.

(photo 1: Reuters. photo 2: Str/AP)

  • jonst

    Is that a woman doing the stomping? Notice the odd footwear. And positioning of what looks like a small hand. Not that it makes a difference, but  I curious.

  • tinwoman

    Curb stomping her stomach—-brutal……..

  • Jaime Oria

    re – the gender of the ’stomper’ and their footwear: it’s possible the Egyptian security forces use the (S. Korean?) riot control model of designated “runners” who are more lightly equipped – the ’stomper’ doesn’t seem to be wearing body armor like the other troops are as well as the noted different footwear – to charge up to the protesters’ line and isolate and ‘cut out’ individuals for detention (and in this particular photographed case, a beating).  Those individuals targeted are usually perceived by the security forces as the ringleaders or co-ordinators – maybe they saw her using a cell-phone.

  • George

    The female protesters shown in the two pictures are not the same. The woman in the top was wearing a black full-length abaya and white sneakers, the woman in the bottom has a black blouse with a purple shirt underneath, green checkered kiffeyeh and black shoes.

    And no, the soldier doing the stomping is not a woman. Those are army-issued shoes.

    • KVA

      yes–two different women, but both are protesters. The Guardian’s “female protester” pic protects that protester’s privacy and anonymity. The point was that they chose an alternate image to represent the notion of a female protester being attacked.

  • Elaine

    Couldn’t agree more with your analysis.  

  • Randy L.Dixon Rivera

    All Men must see Women as their important equals & allies in these troubled times. We need each other’s voices in the struggle for true Freedom & Justice.

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  • Free

    a woman wearing real hidjab is not nude underneath like this lady, this looks like a set up between the country actual rulers and the lady in order anger the people leading to an increase of the instability of the country. when this happens, the actual rulers can declare a state of emergency and stop the election process. the actual winners of the elections, the islamist are a big concern to israel, the us and europe. if this is true, than, strangly enough, the actual rulers of egypt, the army, seem to follow the same path of their fellow army rulers of another country:algeria, which in the 90s, stopped the election process when the islamic front was about to win the elections.

    • Dom

      What nonsense! This really looks staged to you? Have you seen that video, because if so those two should be working in Hollywood as invincible stunt men.
      No matter how clothed you are being beaten up, thrashed and dragged around the street like a rag doll by thugs is likely to unsettle that clothing somewhat.

    • Krkrromba

      what a smart ass analysis!! its a real hijab and this really happened and she is wearing a shirt under the hijab that’s been pulled up by the brutality of the soldiers, so unless you have seen that upclose and personal, don’t be such a prick.

    • tinwoman

      Right “free”, ’cause “good” women aren’t naked underneath their clothes just like you are, right?

      How many layers would it take to make you happy?

      You are not “free” you are a slave to fundamentalist religious nonsense and it’s preventing you from thinking straight.

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  • lisa

    Wait, she’s not a victim? Are you joking? Sexual assault and police brutality– there are two things she’s a victim of right there, and I could go on, but my point would be the same. You don’t empower women by denying that victimization exists. You empower women by shaming the calling out oppression and victimization, by shaming the victimizers and oppressors. That is not what you’re doing here.

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  • Marie

    Sharp eyes, Jonst! Now that you mention it, the second, “stomping” figure does not look like a police officer, despite the fatigue-patterened leggings.  The cut of the blouse is definitely feminine. It looks like a second woman who has been trying to help her friend, but has been shoved away and off balance.  The leg in the air is for catching her balance, not stomping. 

    This is the second picture or third image this season that shows an apparent aggressive protestor who is actually falling or trying to defend themselves or another person. I am impressed by the body language of the figure on the ground. It’s strong and defiant, determined, despite her treatment. The hands are clenched, the abdominals are active. I imagine her yelling, “You will not cow me!” Or to put it another way, she is not cowering. I also connect with the hero language in the description.  

  • Aaron Natter

    who you arrrrrrr ? one nation under a thuging pullet skyyy. young nation no revolution and no gards one nation young black and dangerous by fire, one nation just trying to get this!!!

  • Aaron Natter

    who you arrrrrrr ? one nation under a thuging pullet skyyy. young nation no revolution and no gards one nation young black and dangerous by fire, one nation just trying to get this!!!

  • nina

    In the video it’s clear that we are seeing a sexual assault.  The stomper kicks her breasts,  not her abdomen.  This is what the start of a gang rape looks like.

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