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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Online webinar
Event date: 
Thursday, 18 November, 2021 - 17:30
Event organiser: 

MES Public Talks Seminar given by Dr Hannah Elsisi Ashmawi, Junior Research Fellow, Pembroke College, Cambridge

We regret that this event has had to be cancelled. We hope to reschedule it in the near future.

What do prisons do? What kind of social and political order do they produce and reproduce? Accounts of modern Egyptian history are rife with movements and states mounting claims and counterclaims to power, sovereignty, and freedom. They are never free of: “large waves of arrests”, “imprisoned intellectuals”, “repression campaigns”, but rarely follow up: and then what? Yet power contestation does not cease at the moment of arrest; life does not end at the prison’s gates. That is, prisons do not spell the death of politics or, necessarily, of bodies. If anything, I argue, the space of the prison was a pivotal site of power contestation and cultural production in 20th century Egypt, and might be reconstrued alongside such spaces as the coffeehouse and the mosque as spatial anchors of Middle East history. Much is made and unmade in prison: political subjectivities, networks and organisations, disciplinary regimes, hegemonic orders. Carcerality is productive.

This paper traces the emergence of gendered repertoires of state power and punishment, focusing on men’s prisons in Egypt between 1950-1960: rituals of coercion marked by gender abasement, sexual anxiety and dramaturgical scripting. It asks: when and why did power contestation take this form and with what effects? How is power historically constituted in and through gender, or, what is the power of gender? I argue that these carceral logics, spaces and struggles 1) emerged out of a particular historical conjuncture and contradiction – the early expansion of a militarized post-colonial state whose political project was chiefly constructed against the colonial right to kill. 2) Were contingent – a product of trial and error, multiple agencies, longer and contemporary histories in which carceral gender regimes played the ultimate critical role in authorizing hegemonic order. 3) Indexed an imbroglio of sovereign and masculinist (disciplinary) power that perdured through the end of the century as the Egyptian state’s signature of power. Such a reading perforce reactivates history in the living present – the 2013 coup, say, not as a past event, but a continuation of struggles otherwise, elsewhere, perhaps out of sight but not out of power.


Dr Assef Ashraf: