Futures won and lost: personal hopes, utopian aspirations and post-revolutionary disappointment among young Muslim volunteers in Cairo
The 21st century has witnessed a range of mass movements and street protests around the Arab world. In early 2011, an uprising founded on visions for a more just and free Egypt led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, while the following years and the election of Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi proved that the military regime was far from defeated. Nevertheless, both opposition protests and state arrests continue to influence politics and everyday life in the country. For young people, political events are often formative for their images of what the future holds and what possible selves they imagine. The contemporary context of Egypt thus provides an opportunity to analytically explore the dynamics and intertwinement of personal hopes, utopian aspirations and post-revolutionary nostalgia and disappointment.
In my Identities article, ‘Experimenting with alternative futures in Cairo: young Muslim volunteers between god and the nation’, I examine how the personal hopes of young middle-class Egyptians develop into utopian aspirations for an alternative society, and eventually, how such aspirations are both strengthened and shattered in the aftermath of an uprising. Through ethnographic fieldwork among volunteers in Resala, Egypt’s largest Muslim youth NGO, from 2009 to 2015, I followed some of these young people from their first experiences with Muslim volunteer work through their excitement of the 2011 uprising. and finally to post-revolutionary times where they again renegotiate their orientations towards the future.
'They can either free us or finish us, once and for all!' an elderly woman told me in 2015 at a small protest gathering in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir. The woman had joined her neighbours at a local district official’s office to demand the removal of a military bunker from their neighbourhood. For the previous twenty-five years, the bunker had been a threatening presence in their neighbourhood. The soldiers stationed inside monitored public movement closely and violently enforced the ever-shifting rules of mobility, especially during curfews, when government arbitrarily closed down entire towns and cities. The soldiers didn’t hesitate to beat up, detain or even shoot at civilians seen out walking on the streets during curfews.
The Kashmiri protestors knew well that the local official they were meeting with their appeal had no power to remove the bunker. But there was nowhere else to protest, for those who possessed real power and made decisions that profoundly affected the lives of ordinary Kashmiris — the higher echelons of the Indian political, bureaucratic and military establishment — were furthest from these everyday sites of anxiety and fear in Kashmir.
Since 1990, when Indian military were given emergency powers in the region to curb the popular pro-independence movement, Kashmir had come to resemble an occupied zone. The woman’s words reflected a deep sense of claustrophobia felt by many Kashmiris, especially the youth, who have seen public spaces in the region being taken over by the Indian forces.
In 2016, after a rebel commander’s killing, Kashmir erupted in widespread protests. Indian authorities governing the region used the protest as an opportunity to intensify its control over public spaces. Curfews became the dominant strategy to do so. Even limited protests, like the one the woman had attended, became impossible and criminalised.
In my Identities article, 'Counter-maps of the ordinary: occupation, subjectivity, and walking under curfew in Kashmir', I draw from my ethnographic fieldwork to trace how the anxieties and fears about ordinary mobility in public spaces are felt and expressed in urban settings in Kashmir, and to show how the state power has taken the form of an arbitrary spatial and temporal control over everyday life in the region.
I also show how in response to this form of control Kashmiris adopt their own spatial practices of resistance to deny Indian state full control over public spaces. These practices range from spontaneous public gatherings to street confrontations as soon as the curfews are lifted, and not only expose Indian state in Kashmir as fundamentally repressive but also keep alive the widespread sentiment for Kashmiri azadi (freedom).
Beyond direct forms of resistance, Kashmiris also use less visible practices, which I call counter-mapping, to create possibilities for safe walking under the highly surveillant occupation. These practices give new meanings to ordinary practices like walking. Walking and gathering in public spaces, as well as commentaries about these practices in the public sphere, become opportunities for reflection as well as a public critique of the nature of the occupation.
On August 5, 2019, as India unilaterally moved to abrogate historical legal provisions (Articles 370 and 35A) that once symbolised Kashmir’s 'autonomous status' and protected rights over land, yet another curfew was imposed, this time to prevent Kashmiris from even uttering dissent. The efficiency with which India, for all practical purposes, imprisoned 8 million Kashmiris under curfew and muted them by blockading all communication (one month of the siege has passed as of this writing), only shows that the occupation — including its infrastructure of control and mechanisms of violence — works primarily by exerting a total power over the space and time of Kashmiri life. However, such totalisation of power over life is neither sustainable nor will, as Kashmir’s history of protest shows, Kashmiri people accept it.
Blog post by Mohamad Junaid, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, USA
Read the full article: Junaid, Mohamad. Counter-maps of the ordinary: occupation, subjectivity, and walking under curfew in Kashmir. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1633115