Interview on Performing Democracy

Kimberly Wedeven Segall, Performing Democracy in Iraq and South Africa: Gender, Media, and Resistance. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2013.

New Texts Out Now: Jadaliyya Interview with Kimberly Segall

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Kimberly Wedeven Segall (KWS): The origins of this book began twenty years ago, when I lived for a year in northern Iraq, recording the stories of Kurdish guerrilla fighters and female survivors of the Al-Anfal, while living in Shaqlawa. Many survivors spoke of the role of song, communal dances, and poetry as part of their pathway to cope with their traumatized past, to persevere, to form collective bonds, even in the aftermath of genocide. When the civil war broke out between two Kurdish groups—exacerbated by the sanctions and their status as unrecognized democracy—there was a split in the gendered reaction to the civil war: many of my female friends were furious that after years of fighting Saddam Hussein, now we are fighting each other. After hearing the explosions and gunfire, night after night, I finally left the region, leaving the two Kurdish families who had adopted me. But before entering the taxi, my friend Asad Gozeh made me promise, “Don’t forget the Kurds.”

Unable to return because of continued violence and war, my research follows paths of memory, charting out stories through blogs and staged protest. For instance, in a Sunni woman’s blog from Baghdad, she looks at the origins and sources of post-upheaval sectarianism and split gendered spaces, elucidating the turmoil of Fallujah and Baghdad. Working with Shiite Iraqi female refugees in Seattle, I continued to keep my promise in forums that use poetry and story to speak of alternative histories. Later, I worked with survivors of torture, alongside a psychologist, in South Africa’s young democracy, and this narrative project records gender shifts in identities of former political prisoners, from victimization to communal forums. Continuing this mnemonic route, I studied a Muslim South African response to 9/11 and the violent aftermath in Iraq, which suggests Nadia David’s changing sense of self, not mainly as Black or Coloured, but as an Islamic feminist. These continually changing gender identities and hybrid positions in young democracies are not elucidated by the media.

In 2013, when I moved back to Iraq for my research sabbatical, I noticed extraordinary economic growth in Erbil, as this northern semi-autonomous state has offered sanctuary to many fleeing from Baghdad, Mosul, and Syria, as well as returnees from the Kurdish diaspora in Europe. In contrast, the media of Arab Winter does not disclose ordinary people and artists who continue to struggle, survive, cope, and give witness to their experiences, what I term a voicing of democracy, despite horrific violence. Performing Democracy challenges us to seek out an alternative map of memory and gendered protest, unlike the quick flashing lens of religious winter; however, unlike other gender studies in this region, it uses the lens of affect theory to show how ordinary people navigate loss with blogs, songs, and protest plays, highlighting traumatic legacies that lead to changing religious and national affinities. And while Western media calls for “Arab Mandelas” in the Middle East, very little attention is paid to the painful transition to democracy that characterizes South Africa. Re-naming diverse identities across geographic and cultural boundaries, Performing Democracy in Iraq and South Africa re-frames expected events in unexpected ways, and the seeds for this book spring from two powerful experiences, in disparate young democracies.

J: What particular gender issues does the book address?

KWS: Watching the television, we see a female protestor struck by the police, stripped down to her blue bra, breaking the silent frame and stereotype of the passive Muslim woman. But in this depiction of violence, gender, and democratic turmoil, what are the missing pieces? Stripping. Substitution. Forgetting. In this televised circuit, shot across waves of telemetry, there is vast circulation, but what is this woman’s story? When a female blogger appears on CNN, she details how this nameless woman has become an icon of protest—a potent and collective site of memory. But her story of involvement in protest is also omitted, so the blogger’s history is likewise unknown. Surely the reasons for protest are variegated? In many ways, “Arab Spring” is a neutered term, and women’s voices have been a “forgotten spring,” my terminology to revision gender, culture, and violence in protest movements. Or to quote my text, “Unlike facile pronouncements of miracles or religious nightmares, at their core, the Arab and African Spring, as emotive ideas, must include a paradigm shift to chart not only unfinished mourning, executed as political protest, but also diverse identifications emerging as part of the politics of healing.” Indeed, public expressions by women are not just contesting state privilege; they are also defining complex identities, not limited to one category of gender, class, minority, religion, or generation—“hybrid blooms of democratic voices.”

J: How does your book contribute to or diverge from previous scholarship on gender and resistance in the Middle East?

KWS: There is a powerful but small group of writers who redefine memory, politics, and gender in this particular region—such as Nicola Pratt and Nadje Al-Ali. But because my study crosses into performance studies, Performing Democracy records protest not just through words, but also bodies. The way bodies matter—whether in the staged protest of a play where survivors speak of the past, or in the street dynamics of a single mother who lights herself on fire to protest injustice—these embodied protests change our understanding of war’s cultural mapping of diaspora, local displacement, and resistance. Through stories and embodiments, Performing Democracy will appeal not only to educated readers, but also to specialists, ranging from gender to culture/performance studies. This book also pays attention to religious identifications, suggesting the way Islamic feminists define their spirituality as part of their resistance against injustice.

Ranging from secular to sacred affinities and crossing national borders, a few of these case studies are famous works—for example, Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire and Satrapi’s Persepolis—but most are based in the original research of innovative, lesser known bloggers, playwrights, and voices of displaced refugee/guerrilla fighters, who use song and poetry to fight their haunting traumatic memories. One woman described how her uncle had been walking with his best friend, who happens to be Sunni, in a Shiite area. When a group of thugs attacked and killed his friend, her uncle could not save him. Being Sunni or Shiite never mattered to them, but this group of thugs condemned his friend for his identification and traumatized her uncle. The terror of this division is not about theology, but it does create an anxiety about sectarian manifestations of this class warfare. And once there is a death—the unbearable spilling of the blood of a close friend or a family member—it is trauma that solidifies its claws into memory.

Also when the blog author that this book analyzes, Riverbend, details the changes at work, she suggests how equal pay and respect characterized her experience as a computer programmer and on the streets, when she could dress in the manner she chose. Now the veil is policed in her neighborhood in Baghdad, and she is not allowed to work at her organization—part of a backlash against the Western occupation. Given her own family’s inter-marriages between Shiite and Sunni, which did not matter before the war, she was forced to flee with her family to Syria. As the Arab Spring empties Syria of millions of inhabitants, the blogger was also forced to flee, again. The movement of peoples and street politics, recorded by blogs and staged protests, resist the obliteration of memory.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

KWS: This book is published by Syracuse University Press, and they focus on Gender and Culture as well as Peace and Conflict Resolution—a perfect match in terms of readership for Performing Democracy, because several chapters speak of the way in which songs, poetry, blogs, and plays can be used to understand conflict. Several of the groups that I work with are refugees, former political prisoners, and guerrilla fighters, so their voices both elucidate gender dynamics and show how they use cultural forms to cope with traumatic histories. Since I facilitate conflict and reconciliation workshops with refugees and torture survivors, these workshops show the process of narrating violence, illuminate the collective memories that emerge in these conflicts, and define various coping strategies.

But perhaps more broadly speaking, I wanted to write a book that highlights the complexity of women’s voices in democratic transitions, appealing to an intelligent readership with the personal, the political, and the power of a story well-told. Because the journey of a researcher is never a straight path—spoken by a practitioner who has lived in Iraq and South Africa—any analysis of performed politics is also a map of one’s own personal biography and political interests. In effect, I witness the stories of others and weave my own memoir, creating an approachable text, captivating for graduate or undergraduate readers—an invitation to an alternative journey across the Arab and African Spring. Hopefully, the use of stories to captivate readers, instead of academic jargon, will provide professors with an appealing classroom text. Having taught Sheherazade Goes West for years, I hope that Performing Democracy provides a similar course text that undergraduate will enjoy reading—but this time on gender, culture, and democratic transition.

Excerpts from Performing Democracy in Iraq and South Africa: Gender, Media, and Resistance

From the Introduction

The stubborn voice—
the one that blogs.
- River, Baghdad Burning, 2005.

Given recent media attention to street culture and popular venues, my idea of “performing democracy” both challenges and extends the framework of protest presented by global media. With great excitement, I trace how blogs that witness street protests and other forms of performed resistance are important creative acts, voicing diverse political identities in a young democracy. At the same time, this book problematizes the way in which media frame culture and politicized terms.

What we are witnessing is not necessarily a renaissance of culture, since these societies have long resisted oppression, and cultural forms have always been working out loss; in fact, any performance of an economic dream can resist state power. Much is forgotten in the blinding flash of the media lens, as in the coverage of the Middle East and Africa: the quick shot of the “Arab Spring,” of Religious Spring, or even of the “miracle” of transition in South Africa, whose young democracy still feels the apartheid tremors of violence and racist economics. While Western media spotlight protest, rightly claiming the importance of political voicing, the swinging lens from political spring to winter ignores creative resistance and simplifies history—with its ebb and flow of traumatic experiences and economic challenges—which carves sacred spaces into communities.

Because traumatic histories, similar to painful personal experiences, can have a silencing effect, this book claims that any form of protest is, at once, a political voicing of past injustice, even as a survivor’s claim of self after unbearable loss can enact personal agency or a claim of communal bonds. Instead of the newsflash that forgets the subtlety of emergent democratic identifications, spoken amidst contestation and gendered territories, can we not spare a glance, a moment to consider the imaginative ways that individuals name themselves, after decades of trauma and their own resistance, in creative forms—in effect, performing democracy.

In my larger attempt to expand on this contemporary paradigm of political bloom, I add three correctives. Cultural forms associated with protest (not to be over-valorized as political tidal waves, nor only noticed for their subtle economic and political tides) should also be considered as important signs to illuminate what is less noticed: gender locations (shifting and diverse), social contestation (often rising from traumatic sites of history), and artistic re-vision (attempts to imagine collective bonds after atrocity). To be sure, I am not claiming that popular speech acts guarantee a democratic revolution, nor do popular expressions wipe out the aftermath of atrocity. But these verbalizations are healing venues, if we consider how repressive regimes, characterized by elite economic privileging after decades of colonization and upheaval, and by imprisonment and torture, have stifled so many voices.

So while acknowledging the ongoing resistance of cultural forms, which are always shifting, and clarifying that media art illuminates social dynamics but, of course, cannot claim to change political tides, I appreciate how the idea of the miracle of South Africa or the hope of the Arab Spring also captures the excitement about these ever-changing, alternative spaces of communication and reception, such as blogs, televised commissions, protest performances of media images, or even broadcasts of songs, like radio hip-hop or rap. What is original is the public participation in emerging cultural forms, and the divergent case studies in this book pay attention to authorship and audience as new Internet forms, televised testimonies, and creative media arts have provided more opportunities for wider involvement.

9-11 Media: Gendered Nationalism beyond Islamic / Jewish Borders

Since the New York incident [September 11], sales have really gone down…
I'm not saying it's your fault.
- Nadia Davids, At Her Feet, 2006

Young democracies are often vulnerable to global tremors. Media images trickle into global consciousness—war casualties broadcast on al-Jazeera, demeaning videos of the prophet sent virtual, worldwide images of 9-11—these images become forces of change. This chapter considers protest and political identity through various responses to global images of tortured or dead bodies in the decade before Arab Spring. What kind of fall-out does a traumatic image—broadcast upon short-waves or televised with telemetry—produce? For instance, watching the twin towers fall, then seeing the rising edifice of US war machines in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian territories has had a global impact. For two female playwrights—whose names reflect their separate Muslim and Jewish heritage—these images have inspired their plays. While we expect Muslim and Jewish communities to respond to US involvement in the Middle East, this chapter shows a surprising response to media: both of these plays focus on feminist-based nationalism. Through innovative protests, these two women consider 9-11 and its aftermath from a distinct national angle—for both of these women are South African. In my analysis of a feminist spring, I demonstrate how these two plays do not just replicate global media, they also show how national identities intertwine with international images and gendered locations—all part of this book's repertoire of traveling sites of public loss and democratic protest.

Nadia Davids' At Her Feet

Set in a Cape Muslim neighborhood, the play At Her Feet performs three mass media images: the first, the shadow of the twin towers falling, re-staged as the shadow of incrimination by a white South African boss towards his Indian-Muslim employee. The second, a magazine cover with the bloodied face of an Iraqi baby, arrests the attention of an expecting Muslim South African mother at the grocery store. The third, a western documentary on a Jordanian woman's death, causes a political response from an Afro-Malay student, a self-described Islamic feminist. A global force, images of loss influence protests in public spaces.

After watching images of the dead and of 9-11, Nadia Davids, a South African playwright, reconsidered her ideas about historical, racial, and religious loyalties. Her identity "used to be very much a race issue," since she is classified as "Coloured": a woman who is "not white and not black." Yet her conception of her identity after September 11 was more about how she "positioned" herself as a "Muslim woman." In the urban communities of Cape Town, she began researching and interviewing other Muslim women, many of whom described their ideas of being Muslim South Africans as a communal bond, or as a "political subjectivity," or as a "spiritual link." Using these interviews and her experience, the playwright formed characters, composed through her research impressions. Connecting multiple female subjectivities in a one-woman play, At Her Feet performs the "fractured, creolized society" that she characterizes as Cape Muslims. And in the midst of these fragments, she imagines feminine connections and disconnections between South Africa and the Middle East.

Baghdad Blogs and Gender Sites: An Iraqi Spring for Youth Culture?

Who knows? Maybe I'll start a tribal blog
and become a virtual sheik myself.
- Riverbend, Baghdad Burning, 2005.

While western media are interested in blogs as a form of personal protest, not much is written on the identities of these bloggers, nor the types of blogs that are being produced. In August 2011, a group of ninety-eight bloggers from fifteen different countries in the Middle East and North Africa responded to a Harvard University survey. Most of the respondents were young, in their twenties. Overall, eighty-one percent blogged in English, ninety percent had university degrees, thirty percent had been threatened. Who are these young twenty-something bloggers and how do their blogs contribute to protest? Blogs offer an important form of on-site testimony—a mapping of public and private space. Not just historical documentation, blogging records changing political emotions. In the two blogs in this chapter, both were re-published as books: one in 2003, one in 2005. While both bloggers, using code-names of Salam Pax and River, integrate wit and witnessing, they face distinct pressures at work, because during the violence of a political transition, there are gendered experiences. One is not paid for two months at his architectural firm, and he fears an extremist backlash during the political upheaval, a potential threat to this twenty-nine-year-old, gay architect. The other, a twenty-four-year-old, female computer programmer, is no longer accepted at work, a backlash against women, after the western occupation. Savvy users of a youth culture lingo, both "River" and "Pax" create forms of self-expression that mix western media and personal experience—a hybrid national location that communicates political desire.


From the Conclusion

This political tide is “widespread” and “cannot be put back in the bottle,” claims Rami Khouri, but we “have to be realistic about time frames.”

More than a mere twitter on the global screen of Western media, the Arab and African Spring provides a window into democratic desire. Not just a sign-up sheet for protest, the Facebook pages and public stages personify a sentimental citizenship, a communal voicing. Often part of a youthful movement, these testimonial sites of desire pointedly redirect Western media, engaging us with multiple, creative permutations. Such political springs bloom in the massive participation of African township dwellers at the truth and reconciliation commission and in the Arab youth blogs that call for spring, even as they have protested injustices and advocated for economic opportunities. These alternative locations and innovative forms, alongside their widespread audiences, although not necessarily a recent phenomenon, have caught our attention. Changing our usual view of the Arab and African other as the object of our terror and terrorizing policies after 9/11, perhaps, after a decade of frosty imperialism, it may also be springtime for listening to these voices of global creativity: gendered landscapes of popular uprisings and political revolt. Challenging assumptions about time and political transformations, Performing Democracy has questioned when we begin this drive toward democracy, whose voices we authorize, and what we expect.

[Excerpted from Kimberly Wedeven Segall, Performing Democracy in Iraq and South Africa: Gender, Media, and Resistance, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2013 by Syracuse University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]