NEW! Gendered Spaces of Protest
Women, Space, and ProtestAgainst the Orientalizing image of Middle Eastern women as absent from political protests, women have participated widely in protests across the region since the 1930s, and they have been involved in earlier acts of rebellion and resistance as well. The diverse communities residing in the Transjordanian area revolted regularly against Ottoman taxation and the behavior of forces stationed along the corridor that connected Damascus and Mecca. Women were not active in the armed revolts themselves, remaining largely in the private spaces of their homes during those periods, but providing the kind of behind-the-scenes labor that scholars of social movements began to recognize and theorize beginning in the 2000s.
The kinds of protests we recognize today became routine in Jordan in the mid-20th century, as women left the private spaces of the home to join or organize protests beginning with the demonstrations in support of the Palestinian revolt in the 1930s. By the 1950s, women joined protests around nationalist causes and against Jordan’s potential joining of the Baghdad Pact in 1955. Jordan’s political opening of 1989 saw women participating in thousands of protests, most visibly around “women’s” issues:
• campaigns against honor killings and the laws that lessen punishment for such murders• demands that women be able to pass their citizenship to their children• campaigns to increase the number of women’s quota seats in parliament• demands what first wives be informed when the husband takes a second wife, and so on.
But women are regular participants in all sectors and all types of protests: labor, political reforms, anti-war, and so on. In fact there are so many protests in Jordan that they provide a rich case for examining questions of gender and space in protests.
Gendered aspects of protests in material spacesWomen engage in the same repertoire of actions during protest as men: marches, chants, sit-ins, overnight vigils, and stationary demonstrations, to name just the most common forms of protest. Some of the variations in the spatial dynamics of protests are determined by space, as individual locations for protest have their own spatial repertoires. But there are gendered variations in spatial dynamics as well. For example, some protests in the main downtown area of the capital, Amman, see women congregate is cordoned off spaces and march in a separate contingent, often in the middle of the march, protected by parade guards so they move through public space in a protected, semi-private space that men cannot access. This women-in-protected-spaces dynamic is absent in other mixed-gender protests, such as when women move to the front of a protest march to confront the gendarmerie—tactic occasionally adopted in other regions because of the bad optics of police beating women protesters, especially when they are dressed in headscarves and conservative Islamic clothing. In yet another comparative instance, day-wage labor activists from rural areas mounted mixed-gender protests in the capital, with women at the forefront of advocating for overnight protests. In the instance, local activist groups appeared with tents to provide the women with overnight shelter, creating gendered semi-private spaces inaccessible to men, for women otherwise occupying public space. These and other instances invite theorization for scholarly purposes as well as interrogation concerning the potential for people to assert claims and enact changes to their lived conditions of exclusion and inequality. Gendered aspects of repression and policing of protests in material spacesThe policing of protests is always masculinist. Riot police are particularly hyper-masculinist, with their aggressive tactics, militarized riot gear, and looming armored vehicles. Loyalist plain-clothed thugs, also insert and escalate violence in protests when they enter into the spaces that structure and contain protests. But how are the spatial dynamics of repression and policing of protests can be differently gendered? Can we understand styles of repression in terms of how the police or the regime gender the protests? If protests are gendered masculinist, as threats, they are violently cleared; if they are feminized, however, they are contained, made less disruptive, or entirely ignored.
Repression in which protesters or populations are feminized uses spatial tactics such as containment and curfew. Protests on campuses, for example, are usually allowed to proceed as long as the protesters do not seek to leave the campus itself. Protests that are masculinized as threatening invite the violent clearing protesters from protest spaces. The variation in these tactics is not explained by the gender of the protesters, but in large part by whether the protests adhere to spatial repertoires specific to certain locations in the built environment that the regime tolerates. Here the aforementioned tents are illustrative. With emergence of tented encampments across parts of the Middle East during the Arab uprisings, tents began signified not shelter and privacy—although they certainly provided that—but an aggressive act of occupation and takeover. During one protest in 2011, a mixed-gender crowd in Amman erected a tents to provide privacy and shelter during what was intended to be a sustained encampment, Tahrir-style. While the regime had been relatively tolerant of protests the previous months, it was not going to allow an ongoing encampment, even as the protesters insisted that they wanted only reforms and not the fall of the regime. The encampment was violently dispersed on only the second day by a combination of riot police and loyalist thugs. The regime’s hostile police response to tents and encampments since 2011 seems disproportionate to their threat, reminiscent of David Graeber’s discussion of violent police attacks on giant puppets during U.S. global justice protests. There, police seem almost obsessed with destroying or capturing the large puppets before they could appear on the streets during protests. It was as if the puppets themselves were masculinist aggressors that posed a threat to “public order.”
Another third encampment, however, provides an interesting comparison for thinking about gender and space. In July 2012, several dozen persons of unknown parents, dubbed orphans with no legal status because they could not prove citizenship, gathered near the Prime Ministry and planned sleep at the roundabout in protest until their concerns were addressed. Their signs and banners asked for a dignified life, government assistance, and full citizenship rights. The protest initially brought little response from the government or public, a non-threatening protest that could simply be ignored. But after four days the encampment began to draw attention and become part of the public debate. The “orphan” protesters were feminized as in need of the protection of a masculinist and patriarchal state, and the government was failing to fulfill its role as patriarch providing for its children (as it failed the women day-wage laborers who would have been exposed all night had others not arrived to provide shelter). This kind of gendering might explain why the encampment was permitted to remain on the square for two weeks, drawing promises from the government to address the need of the weak.