By Mouna El Kahla
What would you do if you were denied attending the funeral procession of a loved one on the basis of your sex? In Tunisia, funeral processions are rituals relegated only to men. Lina Ben Mhenni is one of the icons of the Tunisian revolution of 2011. Ben Mhenni’s blog, Tunisian Girl, was credited for its instrumental role in mobilizing protestors in Tunisia. Ben Mhenni’s activism should be viewed in light of the historical moment she embodied. Her blog created a new frontier for many feminist activists who were eager to protest in a space beyond the boundaries of state feminism.
In her life as in her death, Mehnni continued to challenge the gendered notions of the public sphere. The “viralization” of Mhenni’s inner circle of women carrying her casket will forever remain a symbol of the feminist Tunisian revolution post the so-called Arab spring. Moreover, Ben Mhenni’s funeral transgresses the strict demarcation of what is deemed the private and public sphere. The fact that her funeral went viral raises questions about the notions of the public sphere in the digital age. Breaking such a public taboo may lead us to challenge Jürgen Habermas’s notions on the public sphere in the digital age of social media. In this reflection paper, I will briefly address the limitations of using a Habermasian frame to examine the public sphere in the digital age, especially after the so–called Arab Spring. In addition, I will examine how feminists from the margin use the digital public sphere for the formation of a new frontier for subaltern resistance.
Habermas’s Public Sphere
In his book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), Habermas historicizes the political paradigm shift in the public arena in Europe. Habermas points out how the birth of a new class in France, termed the bourgeois, lead to the genesis of the public sphere. Subsequently, cafes and journals in 1700s enabled citizens, mainly bourgeois men, to discuss freely political affairs of the times. Such discussion occurred beyond the official political institution, yet it excreted pressure on the state (Habermas, 1962). The democratic nature of the public sphere started to erode according to Habermas, especially at the end of 1800s in Europe and the United States. He attributes the initial erosion of the public sphere to government interventions in trading that weakened the power of the bourgeois and their participation in the public sphere. Surprisingly, the 20th century with its mass media revolution further convoluted the idea of a public sphere. Since most media outlets accept private funding, politicians, or the wealthy to manufacture consent use them. One could argue that the hegemony of the ruling class, “the public sphere has seized to be an inclusive communicative space for rational-critical debate, and is now a venue for the instrumental rationale of the system” (Valtysson, 2012, p. 78).
Valtysson (2012) sheds light on how Habermas draws a connection between the erosion of the individual or collective resistance/power and appropriation of the public sphere by capital owners. Nonetheless, the Habermasian framework remains a critical way many scholars of the Arab World incorporate when they examine political changes brought about by the so-called Arab Spring. Abbott (2016) questions the validity of the research that frames “the empirical evidence of democratization” (p.337). She makes us question “these new empirical manifestations” which could be linked to the “transformation in existing political structures [that] remains unspecified” (p.337). Among the most important critical issues, that Abbott raises here is whether scholars of the Arab World have misused the concept of Habermasian public sphere as the trajectory of social change in the Arab World is more complicated than the Eurocentric model provided by Habermas. According to Abbott “ this should not be interpreted as a deficiency to emulate Eurocentric patterns of social change, rather the Arab states exhibit a much greater degree of social diversity and consequently social phenomena have a more differentiated relationship to capitalism than the bourgeoisie in Structural Transformation” (p.373). However, using a strict Habermasian lens in dealing with the public sphere may lead scholars to underplay the changes occurring in the Arab World. By approaching the public sphere post the Arab Spring as a failure because it does not follow the teleological trajectory of political progress in the West and treating “the Arab public sphere” as a monolith, scholars may fail to conceptualize the political changes taking place in the region. As Abbott says, “ The current conceptualization of the Arab public sphere presents a single transnational homogeneous Arab identity public enabled to debate political issues in public locations by information and communications technologies” (p.373). Abbott offers insights into how scholars of the Arab world study the political changes in the vast complex spectrum across many nation-states in the Arab region monolithically. Therefore, the way those scholars approach the role that social media plays in forming public opinion in the digital public sphere should be challenged. Consequently, inciting the need for new radical feminist epistemologies that deals with “the public sphere” in the digital age is equally important.
A Radical Feminist Critique of Habermas’s Public Sphere
Habermas’s public sphere is often critiqued by feminists’ scholars for its normative exclusion to women when approaching the public sphere. In her Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy’ (1990), Nancy Fraser’s highlights the power inequality inherit in the Habermasian notion of the public sphere as it is a sphere that excludes marginalized and subaltern groups. Thus, the public sphere, in its systemic exclusionary nature, is not accessible to the disenfranchised mases who do not get to form public opinion on critical issues. According to Fraser, scholars use broad generalization when framing the “public sphere”. As Fraser observers:
“I mean the confusion that involves the use of the very same expression ‘the public sphere’ but in a sense that is less previse and less useful than Habermas’s. This expression has been used by many feminists to refer to everything that is outside the domestic or familial sphere. Thus, ‘the public sphere’ in this usage conflates at least three analytically distinct things: the state, the official-economy of paid employment, and areas of public discourse”(Fraser, 1990, p. 57)
In reference to Fraser’s critique of the confusion in approaching what Habermas termed “the public sphere”, the resistance of those who are marginalized remain unnoticed. Many resistance acts that occur in the realm of the domestic or familial remain invisible. Habermas’s public sphere is one that belong to those who participate in the official “bourgeois masculinist” forums of the center such as mainstream media and official economy. In contrast, Fraser calls for a “subaltern counter-publics” which is a historically alternative space where marginalized groups get to ““invent and circulate counter-discourses” (p.67). Fraser challenges the modernist assumption about the trajectory of democratic political change in which only the official public sphere plays a role. For her, the alternative plurality or public spaces that Fraser proposes here challenges the monolithic approach towards “common concerns” that are deliberated in the public sphere. In the light of gender and class parity that we witness today, how common are those “common concern”? Could social media then provide an alternative public sphere for the marginalized masses?
Transgressing Binaries through the Digitalization of the Public Sphere
Social media tools offer a space for “subaltern counter-public” sphere that feminist from the margin need. Such views finds its echoes in Hosni’s (2017) assertions who concurs that the Habermasian conceptualization of the public space is widely criticized for its “exclusions of various types of people, notably women” (para. 30). On the other hand, Hosni highlights how the digitization of the public sphere may turn into a “glocal” movement of feminist solidarity. She finds this evident in the case of Ben Mhenni’s blog, A Tunisian Girl, which mobilized the masses across the Arab World. Her blog was the inspiration to many others in Egypt, and thus it was the catalyst of change for a glocal movement of public protest.
Another example that Hosni cites where the digital public sphere explodes the binary between the private vs. public and the local vs. global is exemplified in Saudi women’s demand to allow them to drive. One could argue that images and posts shared by Saudi women where they demanded to end this prohibition played a focal role in pressuring Saudi officials to abolish the law that contradicts the image of modern reformed state, which the Kingdom tries to portray in Western news media. As Hosni argues, the way that social media transformed the public sphere resulted in a hybridity between the private and the public, which in turn made the visibility of “Middle Eastern women in the political public sphere possible (para. 31)”. Thus, the digital public sphere could be viewed a transformative space for “women to establish social and political networks and organizations (Stephan 2007:62) as conducive to their empowerment” (Hosni, 2017, para. 31). An alternative public sphere utilizing social media could bring to mind the field of global solidarity that bell hooks (1989) characterizes as inclusive space “where we [subaltern subjects] recover ourselves, where we move in solidarity to erase the category colonized /coloniser. Marginality as site of resistance. Enter that space. Let us meet there. Enter that space. We greet you as liberators” (p. 36). Despite the potential of an alternative public sphere for marginal masses, one should not overly romanticize the digitization of the public sphere.
Feminist scholars such as Tufekci (2017) and Hosni (2017) may offer us new cartographies where the digitized public sphere is a space plays a pivotal role in “networked protest”. However, challenging the binary private/public should remain a goal to transformative feminists from the margin. The corporeal “performative resistance” exemplified in Ben Mhenni’s feminized funeral creates a new grammar of resistance from the margin. This feminism challenges mainstream political under the umbrella of state feminism. Such feminism is not concerned with breaking the glass ceiling or procuring a quota for female representation in the parliament, but it is a new brand of feminism belonging to the 99%. By mitigating the digitized private sphere into a public sphere of transgression, even the simple act of feminized funeral, such as Ben Mhenni’s becomes an intense site of performative corporeal resistance. The space of hybridity of the alternative digital public sphere moves beyond nation state- centric participation. The public sphere may be shaped trans-nationally through a web of solidarity. Most importantly, activism in this sphere challenges what is relegated to the realm of a domestic. Such feminism is one that is shaped even through interweaving the mundane site of dying into the political public sphere yielding a resistance that is built over our dead bodies.
Abbott, L. M. (2016). The conceptual public sphere and its problems: Habermas, political action and the Arab states. Journal of International Political Theory, 12(3), 365–379. doi: 10.1177/1755088216651302
Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text, (25/26), 56. doi: 10.2307/466240
Habermas, J. (1962). The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
hooks, b. (1989). Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness. Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 36 (1), pp. 15-23
Hosni, D. (2017). Middle Eastern Women’s ‘Glocal’: Journeying between the Online and Public Spheres . CyberOrient, 11(1). Retrieved from http://www.cyberorient.net/article.do?articleId=9814
Tufekci, Z. (2018). Twitter And Tear Gas: the power and fragility of networked protest. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Valtysson, B. (2012). Facebook as a Digital Public Sphere: Processes of Colonization and Emancipation. Triple C: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, 10(1), 77–91. doi: 10.31269/triplec.v10i1.312