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November 15, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

The Lady Blogosphere and Tahrir Square: Why all the Backlash?

I blogged last week about two contrasting takes, one more celebratory, one more realistic, on the “lady blogosphere,” the big wide tent of blogs and sites dedicated to reporting on, commenting about and debating women’s issues. I forgot to mention the “on the other hand,” an issue that has been bubbling beneath the surface for a while and recently has come out in a series of stomach-churning, enraging, upsetting, smoke-out-of-ears-causing posts and articles. It’s the misogyny directed at the lady blogosphere, with the transparent goal of silencing and intimidating it.

Here’s a taste of what’s been written recently on “Blogging While Female.”

In April of this year, I wrote on TheAtlantic.com about the backlash against Egyptian women after the protests in Tahrir Square.

The current crop of 31 ministers contains just one woman, down from three under Mubarak. And as the political space narrows, the physical space for women to assert themselves is also shrinking. A gathering of a thousand or so demonstrators on March 8th to celebrate International Women’s Day turned ugly by the afternoon, with arguments about gender roles degenerating into violence and gunshots.

What’s the connection? These women had claimed a place in the public sphere, as equal partners in the protests that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak. And yet the backlash was so immediate, and so sharp, that it raised troubling questions about any gains that Egyptian women had made during the course of the revolution.

When I studied abroad in Rabat, Morocco as a junior, we had endless orientation meetings that took up hours of each morning for our first two weeks in-country, during which every female student stood up and recounted all the sexual harassment they’d encountered on the street on their way to school, on their way home from school, and pretty much any other time they were out in the public sphere. Our advisor told us that Moroccan men where threatened by the growing presence of [working] women in the public sphere, and that harassment was a way of reclaiming that space as their own.

As the bloggers and commentators above point out, the internet is the ultimate public sphere, but with a critical difference: anonymity. The sheer hate directed anonymously at opinionated, articulate women serves the same purpose as the street harassment in Morocco: to silence, intimidate, and push women out.

I am ashamed to say that during the year I lived in Cairo, I let the sexual harassment get to me. I spent more time indoors than, say, when I lived in Beirut or even Damascus. It was so intense, and relentless, and unpleasant, that I preferred to stay home and read or study rather than wander about the city. What’s the takeaway? That harassment works. That sometimes women, or whoever the minority is under threat (see: the countless number of LGBT teenagers who withdraw from school or, worse, commit suicide), will retreat if it gets unbearable.

But what’s the policy solution? To moderate comments and only let the nice ones through? Set up high schools specifically for trans and LGBT students? Set aside train cars for women only? The “sequester the victim” approach only goes so far. Not only does it not address the harassing behavior, but it paints the victim as weak, defenseless, and in need of special protection – as a class. I don’t think this one has been solved, but I’d love to see any examples of constructive policies that address harassment in its myriad forms.

In the meantime there are campaigns like Hollaback!, to address street harassment, and online campaigns like #mencallmethings, started by Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown. And there’s the inspiring examples of all the women who continue to blog, take to the streets, and come up with innovative solutions to call out the slobs who would keep them from their rightful place in the public sphere.

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