Gender Trouble in Egyptian satire

The latest episode of the program “the program” from noted Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef is creating quite a stir in Egypt this week. Airing on Thursday night, the episode was the first of season three, which begins after a nearly four-month long break  coinciding with the popular coup d’etat/revolution that replaced former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi this past summer.

Since Mursi’s fall, popular attention has gravitated to the head of the army, Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, as the man responsible for executing the people’s will. “Al-Sisi mania” has swept through Egypt and provided a cover for the grim reality of the killing of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters by the army this past summer.

Many of the civil society groups that have sprung up supporting the army’s violent dispersal of the protests–including the group “al-Sisi for President” and local chapters of the 6th of April movement–have now submitted complaints to the attorney general accusing Youssef of “insulting the army and its leaders.” Ironically, these are the same charges which Mursi used as a pretext to throw Youssef in jail temporarily last April, and which the current regime has officially decreed to be an illegitimate basis for censorship.

So how do we explain the backlash? Returning to the episode itself can help to highlight its subversive potential.

Satire in Drag

In the second part of the episode, Youssef begins to critique the current national love affair with the military and al-Sisi in particular through a sustained attack on Egyptian national masculinity. At 15:40 in he asks, ” Do you think it’s possible that men in Egypt have changed? Maybe their masculinity has been domesticated?” Positing that perhaps men have internalized the views of the women surrounding them, he asks, “Men, what do you think about this?”

Youssef then cuts to a hilarious montage of scenes from the Egyptian punditry, stitching together a variety of men who all stressed the same trait in their pontifications on al-Sisi: his “masculinity” (thakr).

Youssef stresses that it’s not just the men who idolize the masculine leader of the army. A montage of female pundits describe their feelings toward al-Sisi as ‘ashq, which signifies “longing” or sexual desire. Mocking one particular woman, Youssef briefly dons a wig and imitates her.

Youssef then cuts to a clip of a man calling al-Sisi “the desired one of the masses” (ma’shu’ al-gamaheer).He reflects on this: al-Sisi is clearly beloved by the masses, he says, but does he love them back?

Out of nowehere comes a high-pitched voice, a man speaking in falsetto, from outside the shot. We then cut to a split screen of Youssef and Khaled Mansour, a prominent comedian and regular player on “the program.” But Mansour is dressed in drag, playing a female character “al-gamaheer.” In other words, he is supposed to be portraying “the masses” or the Egyptian people, but he is doing it as a man in drag.

Comedian Khaled Mansour portraying the Egyptian people in drag

Comedian Khaled Mansour portraying the Egyptian people in drag

Youssef then excuses himself and a smooth-talking baritone radio announcer comes on to interview Mansour as “al-gamaheer.” She tells a story of her controlling husband who was “isolated” when she realized she had sexual feelings for her cousin. As she goes on describing her cousin–who is a “big officer in the army”–we begin to realize that the love triangle she outlines is a metaphor for the Egyptian people during the political events of this past summer.

Gender Trouble

In reality, throughout the hour-long episode, Youssef was careful not to insult al-Sisi directly. He focused most of his ire on those who support the military take over, as well as the vestiges of Muslim Brotherhood support in the media.

I would argue that the anxiety expressed by some groups over the satire is motivated, not by any alleged “insult” to Col. al-Sisi, but rather by the subversive potential of Khaled Mansour’s use of drag to “queer” the imagined national subject by playing “al-Gamaheer.” In the context of the rise of nationalism in the wake of this summer’s popular coup d’etat, the use of drag to destabilize gender identity can have important implications for the de-centering of national identity as well.

In her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Judith Butler offers a revision of traditional theories of gender. For decades, psychology and “sexology” had held a fast distinction between sex and gender, whereby the former was seen as “natural” and studied by biologists, while the latter was seen as “cultural” and studied by humanists and social scientists.

But Butler argues that sex is also culturally constructed. She writes, “Gender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pre-given sex (a juridical conception); gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established” (Butler 1990, p. 10). Butler has inspired historians to look at the ways that our cultural ideas about gender have influenced the structure of our society and our polity, structures which in turn re-inscribe themselves in the self-perception of our bodies.

Rather than existing as sovereign actors fashioning our gender on the blank slate of our sex, Butler calls for attention to the ways that gender itself is implicated in the process of forming our subjectivity and articulating our ideas about the world. For Butler, language–with its structured repetition–provides the model for the types of processes involved in the creation of subjects. But the structure of discourse for gender is bodily and nonverbal. Gender is understood as “performance,” a stylized repetition of the dominant social gender roles.

The notion of gender as performance also creates space for the inversion dominant categories if actors choose to shun social conventions and perform deviant gender roles. She writes in a follow-up book: “Drag is subversive to the extent that it reflects on the imitative structure by which hegemonic gender is itself produced and disputes heterosexuality’s claim on naturalness and originality” (Butler 1993, p. 125).

Since Butler’s path-breaking work on gender, scholars have extended her notion of “queer performance” to destabilize other categories of identity including race, ethnicity, and class. In Egypt, the relationship between gender and nationalism means that the queering of masculinity has potentially devastating effects on national identity.

Gender and the Politics of Satire in Egypt

Since the foundation of the Nasserist regime, the leader of Egypt–whether it be Nasser, Sadat, or Mubarak–was always the patriarchal head of the nation. For 60 years, the success of the leader was partially dependent on his ability to allow the other patriarchal heads of Egypt–the fathers or father figures at the head of the idealized nuclear family–to provide for their respective constituencies. And so it went, authoritarianism from top to bottom.

But when Hosni Mubarak was seen trying to extend his patriarchal authority through his own lineage, and Egyptians thought his son Gamal might succeed him as head of state, the took to the streets in the January 25, 2011 revolution. That revolutionary period continues to this day, as various patriarchal authorities wearing religious, bureaucratic, and military garb have sought to re-assert their authority.

But satirists like Youssef and his staff continue to push for a third way. In the final part of the program, Youssef came out unaccompanied by his usual music and gave an uncharacteristically serious speech. I am not with the (Islamists), who attacked us and called us heretics … and publicly called for our imprisonment,” Youssef said, “At the same time, I am not with hypocrisy, deification of individuals and creation of Pharoahs. We are afraid that fascism in the name of religion gets replaced with fascism in the name of nationalism.”

At a time when the future of the country is still in the balance. Voices like Youssef’s should be encouraged to prevent the ossification and radicalization of identities, which can only lead to more bloodshed and less of the “freedom” and “justice” that launched this revolution in the first place.

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