What media coverage of Alaa Abdel Fattah says about the invisibility of Muslim Men's Suffering
Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abdel Fattah has been on hunger strike since April to protest the injustice of his charges. The activist, who was at the forefront of anti-government protests in Egypt, has been repeatedly imprisoned since 2014 and is currently serving a five-year sentence for ‘spreading fake news’.
With the arrival of the COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, fresh attention has been drawn to Abdel Fattah’s case – and that of other Egyptian political prisoners – due to a concerted effort by his family and human rights organisations.
Many consider the international event to be an exercise in greenwashing the Egyptian regime’s repression of civil society.
To coincide with the beginning of COP, on 6 November Abdel Fattah intensified his hunger strike – he stopped drinking water entirely. It was estimated he would have just days to live. This naturally escalated international outrage regarding his situation.
''Although this re-humanisation of Muslim and Arab men does criticise and reject gender binaries and racist stereotypes about non-Western masculinities, it also traps individuals in a bind. These men are not given the opportunity to embody a plurality of characteristics, to choose the methods of resistance most relevant to them, to defend themselves physically when attacked, and to be flawed – that is, to be human.''
His case has raised several questions because of the level of traction and form of coverage it has received in the media, including why there is somewhat of a fixation with depicting Abdel Fattah as ‘rational’. Additionally, why his role as a brother and father, as well his feminine-coded characteristics (his caring nature, his love for his family, his soft smile), have been emphasised so strongly?
This is undoubtedly an attempt to humanise Abdel Fattah, given the media landscape.
Orientalism in the media
The oriental tropes about Muslim and Arab men being violent, oppressive, and fanatical, have long been criticised by scholars like Edward Said. In order for Muslim men’s suffering to gain attention internationally, their loved ones and communities usually embark on a strategic process of re-humanisation.
The recent coverage of Alaa Abdel Fattah has demonstrated this perfectly: he is portrayed as being missed by his two sisters and young son, and in photographs or footage used, he is smiling and surrounded by his family, or is physically weakened due to his hunger strike.
This narrative re-humanises him through relational feminisation: his suffering matters because either he matters to women, he embodies feminine-coded characteristics of being caring (in comparison to oriental tropes of men who share a similar ethnic and religious background), or because he is rendered physically effeminate through his soft smile or frail physical state.
Whilst this tactic is completely understandable for those desperate to have their beloved men freed or mourned, this tells us a lot about societal discourse, and more importantly, the men whose suffering remains invisible in international discourse. Despite actively inverting traditional discourse on gender roles, this pathway is equally as prescriptive and hegemonic.
Men who do not or cannot fit into these categories are unable to be re-humanised in international media and so their suffering continues without attention. There are many Muslim and Arab men who do not have mothers, sisters and children to petition for them, and who legitimately choose physical methods of resistance against their far more violent oppressors. These men’s suffering is purposefully erased, and their humanity is consistently denied.
Prevented from simply being human
Although this re-humanisation of Muslim and Arab men does criticise and reject gender binaries and racist stereotypes about non-Western masculinities, it also traps individuals in a bind. These men are not given the opportunity to embody a plurality of characteristics, to choose the methods of resistance most relevant to them, to defend themselves physically when attacked, and to be flawed – that is, to be human.
The bar for their re-humanisation is purposely raised so that they do not have freedom of choice, and many men are excluded. The ‘Algerian Six’, for example, were unlawfully detained in Guantanamo Bay as ‘enemy combatants’ for seven years because they were Muslim fighters in the Bosnian War. Their acts of violence were used as justification for disproportionate state-sanctioned terror. Likewise, Palestinian Sami al-Ksbeh, 17, was lethally shot for throwing stones at an Israeli army vehicle.
Such political discourse also harms women and must be recognised as a feminist issue. The category of ‘women and children’, strips women of their ability to embody different characteristics, and indeed questions the love they have for the men of their communities who do not embody feminised characteristics and continue to be demonised by the Western media. Indeed, feminist activism allows us to expose how the same Islamophobic and anti-Arab rhetoric that brutalises men also oppresses Muslim and Arab women.
Ultimately, women and the communities they belong to can never be free whilst the men they love are suffering or forced to adhere to artificially imposed and deeply colonial standards just to be regarded as human.
In truth, this should serve as a wakeup call to writers and activists. We must collectively expose impossible standards for re-humanisation that should not be the role of those on the front lines who are fighting against time to help their loved ones. It is the role of those who are privileged enough to be divorced from such urgent campaigns, and who have platforms to speak on international political discourse.
For anyone who considers themselves to be a decolonial feminist, we must – as Sarah Ahmed says – “find ways to support those who are not supported”. Highlighting both existing dehumanisation and the rigid pathways to re-humanisation can hopefully be a starting point for this work.
Hannah al-Khafaji is an MA student in Middle East Politics & Arabic at the University of Exeter. She writes predominately on decoloniality, gender, and post-2003 violence in Iraq.
Follow her on Twitter: @hannaalkhafaji
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.