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This book helps us understand women’s participation in the Egyptian uprising

Welcome to the first week of the 2018 African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular. We begin the series with “Women and the Egyptian Revolution: Engagement and Activism during the 2011 Arab Uprisings,” by Rutgers University-Newark assistant professor of political science Nermin Allam.

Allam’s book examines the 2011 Egyptian uprising. She draws from 118 interviews, most conducted with female protesters and activists. In addition to the interview data, Allam analyzes reporting (both news and commentary) on women’s activism during the 2011 uprising published in two of Egypt’s leading daily newspapers (Al-Ahram and Al-Wafd) and in the New York Times.

I found it most helpful in Allam’s book that she situated women’s activism in contemporary Egypt in a broader historical context. For example, from reading her book, I learned that the Egyptian revolution against British colonialism in 1919 was led by female participants. How is it that a century later women still lack political rights in Egypt? Allam carries us to the present day by showing that after the 1919 revolution, women activists were excluded from the political landscape. Furthermore, the Egyptian state introduced gender policies and legislation without granting meaningful political rights to women.

The primary strength of Allam’s book is the priority given to the voices of women activists. Similar to Chi Adanna Mgbako’s approach in her book on sex worker activism in Africa (featured in our 2016 series), Allam centers her study on women protesters and activists by focusing on their perspectives and giving them space to articulate their thoughts.

It is because of Allam’s thoughtful approach that we learn of the importance some women activists in Egypt place on a decidedly “non-feminist” activism. In several of Allam’s interviews for the book, female protesters would root their inspiration in nationalism or social betterment, not feminism. One study participant went so far as to declare that she is not feminist and that she found the term alienating and limiting to her activism. Of the 118 study participants Allam interviewed, 84 reported that feminist ideologies carried a negative connotation among Egyptians and that feminist activists were stereotyped.

While a notable contribution to the scholarship on politics in the Middle East and North Africa, some readers might question whether Allam’s “Women and the Egyptian Revolution” belongs in a book series devoted to African politics. In addition to the obvious geographical fact that Egypt is on the African continent, we would be wise to follow the approach championed by Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly in their book “Africa Uprising” (featured in our 2015 series) to consider the continuities of protest participation across the continent. Reading Allam’s book made me think about related findings south of the Sahara, for example, in Alice Kang’s book “Bargaining for Women’s Rights” (featured in our 2016 series).

“Women and the Egyptian Revolution” may be a challenging read for non-specialists — there’s certainly more social movements and political science jargon than our average TMC piece. Still, Allam’s book makes an important contribution not just to our understanding of politics in Africa (and the Middle East) but to our understanding of social movements around the world. Allam’s work is particularly illuminating for our broader understanding of why women participate in protests and on the frames that misread and constrain women’s participation.

Tune in next week, when we will review Maggie Dwyer’s “Soldiers in Revolt: Army Mutinies in Africa.” If you want to read along with us this summer, check out our African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular schedule for 2018.