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Race and Racialization in Egypt

Session IV-11, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
Earlier this year, Egyptian nationalists took to Twitter to express their outrage at the “One Africa: Returning to the Source” conference taking place in Aswan, Egypt in February 2022. Using the hashtag #StopAfroCentricConference, many users deployed ethno-nationalist language to denounce any connections between Egypt and Blackness; much of the outrage and discourse centered on claims that Egyptians are not Black. This panel explores how Egyptians have historically and contemporarily (dis)engaged with Black people and Blackness. The panel highlights the current scholarship on race and Blackness in Egypt from the 20th century to the present. Drawing connections between policies of mejorar la raza and blanqueamiento, which were born of European-inspired scientific racism, and Egyptian ideas of social improvement , this panel explores how the notion of “tahsīn al-nasal” (“improving the offspring”) in Egypt has driven by the idea of “racial improvement” and heavily influenced by international eugenics theories from the nineteenth into the twenty-first century. This panel grapples with the following questions: How has blackness been depicted in Egyptian popular culture and nationalism? How do multiple colonialisms and nationalism in Egypt produce Blackness? How is anti-Blackness produced through gender and sexuality? How does racialization (in relation to Blackness) happen in the Arab-speaking world? Where did the eugenic language of “improving the offspring” come from in Egypt and how has it been used to discriminate against the darker-skinned? How have Nubians been racialized in Egyptian media landscapes?
  • During the early twentieth century, popular magazines and women’s periodicals in Egypt were often a forum where cartoonists and writers expressed a repudiation of Blackness (Powell). Through literary and visual analysis of two different texts from al-Jins al-laṭīf (The Fair Gender) and al-Muṣawwar (The Illustrated) - one emerging during the pre-independence anticolonial era (1913) and another during Egypt’s postcolonial era (1955) - this paper explores the discursive continuities and shifts that marked Blackness with barbarity and the ideal Egyptian woman as civilizable, as long as she was not Black. In 1913, for example, the prominent women’s periodical al-Jins al-laṭīf that played a notable role in advocating for women’s rights in Egypt, published an article entitled “ʿAwāʾid wa-akhlāq: Ḥurriyyat al-marʾa fī bilād al-mutawaḥḥishīn” (“Customs and Traditions: Women’s Liberation in the Lands of the Savages”). Engaging colonial theories of racial science — which maintained that there was no gender differentiation among Black people since they were “primitive” and less “evolved” — and using the notion of female barbarism as my point of departure, I show how Egyptian writers mobilized British colonial anthropological formations to produce their own gendered nationalism that distanced itself from Blackness. Specifically, this paper asks: how did prominent women’s periodicals, like al-Jins al-laṭīf, deploy morality and modesty as analytics of racialization? I argue that throughout the first half of the twentieth century Egyptian print media continuously reproduced racist and colonial notions of cleanliness, purity, honor, and desire to position the civilizable (non-Black) Egyptian woman against “barbaric” dark-skinned Black women. Indeed, as a 1955 article in al-Muṣawwar titled “Dark and Beautiful” demonstrates, such representations outlived even Egyptian independence in 1952. My analysis reveals that women’s periodicals relied on racialized understandings of gender to advocate for Egyptian women’s rights and liberation by placing Black women outside the pale of Egyptian womanhood and assimilating the latter to European womanhood. Finally, I show how legacies of African slavery and colonialism shaped public discourse around race, gender, and sexuality in colonial and postcolonial Egypt. Citations: Powell, Eve Troutt. A different shade of colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the mastery of the Sudan. University of California Press, 2003.
  • If film acts as a “key institution for the production of national culture,” then this becomes exponentially true in the postcolonial moment. [1] By that measure, I present this work to articulate a mediation of race vis-à-vis indigeneity that confirms the ways in which racialization takes its own form in the Arab-speaking world, distinct from its Western counterpart. I argue that, in the eyes of the state, the Nubian people functioned as the locus for the reinvention of the Egyptian nation in the postcolonial moment: the essentialized qualities of the Nubian peasant would comprise the ibn/bint el-balad (son/daughter of the land) modality. In doing so, Nubian Egyptians ascertained the ‘authenticity’ of the state in relation to its ancient heritage, while also existing as an expression of backwards provincialism, painted in racialized overtones. To pose this question is to address the politics of belonging in a postcolonial nation that sought to “blatantly deny the existence of indigenous people”.[2] With funding from the Egyptian state, the film industry expanded into its ‘Golden Era,' continuing a legacy whereby the Nubian Egyptian acts as a mouthpiece; a silenced site through which the promise of Nasserism could be articulated, provided its people accede to its coercive practices. [1] Abu-Lughod, Lila. Dramas of Nationhood: the Politics of Television in Egypt, 7. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008. [2] Janmyr, Maja. “Human Rights and Nubian Mobilization in Egypt: towards Recognition of Indigeneity,” 718. Third World Quarterly 38, no. 3.2016.
  • Eugenics is the field that gave us the English term “improving the race” and the Spanish term “mejorar la raza”. So where did the widespread eugenic language of taḥsīn al-nasal or “improving the offspring” – popularly used to discriminate in marriage against the darker-skinned – come from in Egypt? There exists little published scholarship on the influence of eugenics on social policies in Arabic-speaking countries such as Egypt. This may be due to the same issues which were faced in the 1990s by researchers of eugenics in Latin America. First, a historical social reluctance to see race in non-north American contexts, and second, only seeing eugenics as “negative” state intervention into reproduction via “hard” methods such as sterilization in the United States and Germany. But in Catholic-dominated Latin America - much as with Muslim-dominated Turkey and Iran in the Middle East - such active interventions were frowned upon as irreligious, and eugenic social control manifested itself through family planning policies and national identity control. Looking for the history of eugenics in Egypt and how it shaped the idea of “improving the offspring” is therefore a question of re-reading social policies previously assumed to be non-eugenic and non-racialized. This paper traces how contemporary Egyptian concepts of race have been influenced by international eugenics theory from the nineteenth into the twenty-first century. If eugenics in Egypt was a nation-state reproductive project aimed at producing the ideal healthy Egyptian through family planning, and if the ideal Egyptian was visually imagined in a particular racial way informed by older Egyptian histories of race and new global ideas of race, then “taḥsīn al-nasal” inevitably became a eugenic attempt of "racial improvement".
  • Departing from my encounter with an archive of manumission certificates, (​tadkhaker hureyya​) issued from 1881-1905 this paper investigates racializing assemblages in modern Egypt. I craft an intersectional and interdisciplinary feminist method drawing from the semiotics ​jins ​in Arabic​ ​as race ​and ​sex​, ​or​ ​sexed race. Ultimately I show how the differences of ​jins ​overwrite and underwrite formulations of ​jinseyya​, or citizenship. I begin by constellating archives at the margins of discourses on Arab modernity and Afro-Arab political solidarity; this accomplishes the double task of outlining the meta-narratives in which I intervene while fleshing out the substance from which racial and civilizational anxieties materialize. I historicize the emergent tensions between African American and Arab racial epistemologies of the late twentieth century by turning to the late nineteenth century, specifically Frederick Douglass’ memoirs of Egypt while showing that the liberalizing projects of the Arab Renaissance, or Nahda, were also raced/sexed projections.I turn to the manumission certificates. Contextualizing them within a genre of biometric documents, I grapple with their role within the consolidation of citizenship as colonial subjectivity. This highlights the imbrication of the processes of racialization and imperial abolition documenting formerly enslaved people as subjects. Pointing to the overlapping of European and Egyptian civilizing projects, this chapter furthers the critique of Nahda liberalism. Confronting the dense descriptions of the people recorded on the documents reveals how racial epistemologies were transcribed onto the flesh. Ultimately, this paper does the work of ​takwin​, assemblage to narrate how race emerges on textual and physical bodies.