Acts

Published on April 15th, 2013 | by Deena Dajani

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Acts of Inscription: White A4 paper contested

 

Act 1

In the fall semester of 2011 a number of Jordanian students taking Professor Rula Qawwas’s class in Feminist Theory at the University of Jordan put together a video that expressed where and how sexual harassment stigmatises and marginalises, excludes and dominates. In the silent video female students posed in various locations across campus where they had been subjected to harassment and held up white A4 papers on which they printed the obscene remarks directed at them at various points of their life as students at the university: ‘Aren’t they made for sucking’, read one paper, and another: ‘a ride for 50?’.

Act 2

On the 16th of May 2012 around 80 activists – of various ages, genders and dress codes – stood silently side by side on the pavement of Gem’et el-Diwal Street in the Mohandessin district of Cairo, Egypt during rush hour as cars drove by holding white A4 papers on which they expressed, in the vernacular, the ways in which sexual harassment stigmatises and marginalises, excludes and dominates. ‘Stop harassing me, the street is mine as well as yours’ read one, ‘I shouldn’t have to escort my sister everywhere’ [for her own protection] read another.

Act 3

On the 8th of June 2012 Qawwas’s students posted their video to YouTube [1]. The video and the character of the students were ferociously attacked [2]; the students struggling to make their campus safer were accused of obscenity themselves, fabrication and spreading of rumours, and ruining the university’s reputation.

Act 4

On the 26th of June, 2012, over 200 activists – of various ages, genders and dress codes – stood silently side by side on the pavement of Queen Alia Street in Amman, Jordan during rush hour as cars drove by holding white A4 papers on which they expressed, in the vernacular, the ways in which the gendering of political and social life stigmatises and marginalises, excludes and dominates. ‘I can/will speak my thoughts’ read one, and another, ‘My honour is between my ears’ [not legs] [3].

Act 5

On the 2nd of September 2012 Qawwas found out via the local press that she had been dismissed from her post as Dean of the School of Languages with no explanation provided [4]. On the 28th of October 2012 the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America raised a letter of solidarity with Qawwas to the President of the University of Jordan in which they expressed concern over Qawwas’s unseemly dismissal [5]. The letter received the attention of a small number of regional and international media agencies.

Act 6

On the 29th of October 2012 Dr. Amjad Qourshah, lecturer in the Foundations of Religion at the Faculty of Sharia’a at the University of Jordan, organised a ‘silent protest’ (as he referred to it) titled, ‘Chastity is Jordan’s Motto’. The protest was, he insisted, to contest the ‘liberal, secular and foreign agendas’ using Qawwas’s dismissal to perpetuate sin amongst Muslim youths [6]. ‘There is a criminal campaign’ he told the students he had gathered for the protest, ‘that has reached the entire Arabic nation. What do they know about you now? … That the University of Jordan is a factory for manufacturing monsters, that you are human wolves and that women are unsafe here. This is how Jordan is known now. The French have even heard of this, and the British and Americans too’. ‘Qawwas should be sued for her actions’, Quorshah insisted [7]. Certainly, the only ‘silent’ element in the protest were the women standing behind Qourshah… holding white A4 papers bearing the protest’s slogan (‘Chastity is Jordan’s motto’), and a number of others: ‘We call on the university to punish those responsible for ruining its reputation’, and ‘Our female students’ chastity and honour are protected’.

Act 7? [8]

The relationship between this series of acts and events is not one of cause and effect, but one of resonance. In the first instance, the human chains in Cairo and Amman (Acts 2 and 4) were responding to each other, and they were both also responding to the moment in time they were caught up in: when collective action gathered the pavements, roads and squares, animating the architecture of a ‘public’ space in such a way as to reconfigure its very materiality (Butler 2011 [9]). In a second of a series of lectures titled Bodies in Alliance, Butler examines the ways in which bodies congregating together as a collective (in Tahrir and elsewhere) do not make a claim in public space, but lay claim to space as public. The prior existence of a material environment for public assembly and speech (such as a square) is not reducible to the public character of the space. The space becomes a public space when it is contested as such: when action animates and reconfigures the architecture of the square (ibid.).

If, following from Butler’s argument above, we can think of the ways in which a collective body in action can reconfigure and produce its material environment as public space, can we also think of the white A4 paper in the above mentioned acts as material elements that were variously configured and reconfigured, located and dislocated, as ‘voice’?

The white A4 papers were first used to express not the student’s voice, but the harassers’ speech (Act 1). The A4 papers were used to produce what the students had heard. By making what they had heard ‘appear’ to others there was a demand to register an experience, to acknowledge the need to struggle. The speech printed on the A4 papers was not the female student’s voice, but the remarks were not speaking on their behalf either. The space uninhabitable between their bodies and the papers they held – the very ‘between’ – became constitutive of a claim to public voice [10].

The white A4 papers were used differently in Cairo (Act 2). The papers became a way for the body to speak where it would not have been physically possible to be heard [on the pavement lining a busy Cairo street during rush hour]. The papers carried the voice and made it transposable: it carried it to the cars driving by that road, and communicated it through the sharing of pictures beyond. When the Jordanian activists responded to this act a month later (Act 4) the A4 paper was translated into their act in this configuration.

The A4 paper may have pre-existed as a medium that lends itself to expression, but it was produced as public voice through the various ways it was incorporated into acts of resilience and resistance. It enabled the recognition of bodies as speaking publicly through their silence. Qourshah’s appropriation of the A4 paper (Act 6) would return to delegitimise these reconfigurations and claims to public voice by positioning himself as a sole vocally-speaking subject in front of silent women holding A4 papers (this time with statements in ‘proper’ fusḥa Arabic, not vernacular expression). In so doing he reaffirmed established power relations of who speaks and who is spoken for, of individual representation subjugating public collective voice.

If the feminist acts of resistance given an account of here enable us to think of bodies as speaking through their silence, then the resilience of such acts of resistance will depend on their continued ability to contest not just what is said by established and dominant authorities, but also what is done. Such authorities will invariably resort to vocally-speaking subjects (like Qourshah): the use of recognised and legitimate political forms and structures, like speech, renders actions beyond these recognised structures as naïve and illegitimate. By speaking vocally, positioning himself in front of the silent female protesters and dislocating the A4 papers as ‘voice’, Qourshah exposed the vulnerability of such acts by emphasising their ‘silence’. Yet in so doing he also invariably pointed to their strength: their demand not for representation but for public voice.

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[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-1ssxaYheE

[2] http://www.7iber.com/2012/06/women-ethics/

[3] http://lasharaffiljareemah.ning.com/notes/%D8%B2%D9%8A%D9%8A_%D8%B2%D9%8A%D9%83%3A_%D8%A3%D9%88%D9%84_%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%A9_%D8%A8%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9_%D9%86%D8%B3%D9%88%D9%8A%D8%A9

[4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYOhXaX_Q0k

[5] Committee on Academic Freedom (MESA) (28 October 2012) Letter Concerning Removal of Professor Rula Quawas from Her Post as Dean at the University of Jordan http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/8072/letter-concerning-removal-of-professor-rula-quawas 

[6] http://scoopat.net/أخبار/د-امجد-قورشة-يكتب-“الحرية-الاكاديمية”-غطاء-لتدمير-سمعة-الجامعة-وفضح-الاردن-ونشر-الرذيلة

[7] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxgFZP1RaBM

[8] To interpret my own interpretation of a series of acts as an act itself derives from the very purpose of this archive, as discussed by Engin Isin in Why Acts? (http://www.enginfisin.eu/cms/why-acts/). In the first instance the archive contributes towards collating, preserving and presenting acts that might other wise fall below the radars of recognition. The collated acts themselves, continues Isin, may well be significant to foster an effective democratic culture themselves, but the archive opens up another possibility still: challenging the assumed binaries between action and thought through developing “a distinct way of doing social and political thought by actually doing it”. The analysis is an act: it acts as an extension of the actions in question and brings them to the attention of new audiences across new mediums. The acts are thinking: they are interlocutors, produced by and producing the analysis – not its “subject matter”.

[9] Butler, Judith (7 September 2011) Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street http://www.eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en

[10] In the same lecture mentioned earlier Butler begins with the impossibility of giving an account of how one appears to others (‘being a body for another in a way that I cannot be for myself’) precisely because we are more than visual phenomena to each other. A body cannot inhabit the perspective through which it appears to others. In this sense bodies are dispossessed by their own sociality. Yet, this dispossession is necessary: our ‘appearance’ to each other – if we take this ‘appearance’ to constitute a claim to be heard and recognised – depends on there being space between us. The necessity of this space becomes more clear when we think about bodies that act collectively; Butler argues that it is through the gaps ‘between’ bodies in their plurality that they are seen as acting and acting politically. While this conceptualization of action as emergent from the ‘between’ can be easily configured into analysing Acts 2 and 4, it would be interesting to complicate this idea further with reference to Act 1: here the ‘between’ is created between a body and a perspective that it not only cannot inhabit, but one that it does not wish to inhabit, and it is this refusal itself that allows us to see ‘ voice’ as emerging from the space – the ‘between’ – of the body and the speech it is giving ‘appearance’ to.

 

 

 

 


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One Response to Acts of Inscription: White A4 paper contested

  1. Deena says:

    For more reflections/discussions of the feminist human chain in Amman, you may find interesting a series of blogs on the Oecumene website, beginning with Raghda’s post ‘Women as People’ (http://www.oecumene.eu/blog/women-as-people), Albarazi’s response: ‘A critique of Levantine women rights movements’ (http://www.oecumene.eu/blog/a-critique-of-levantine-women-rights-movements) and my own response to Albarazi (http://www.oecumene.eu/blog/a-response-to-a-critique-of-levantine-women-rights-movements).

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