Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?

This post was contributed by Dr Barbara Zollner, lecturer in Middle East Politics, Department of Politics. Here Dr Zollner offers an insight into issues to be discussed at a public colloquium at Birkbeck (“Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?”) on Friday 10 June. The colloquium is run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research

‘There is no freedom when you are in fear’; so goes the title strip of the song Akher Okhneya (Last Song) by the Egyptian music-group Cairokee. The rap, which is shot on a deserted railway-line in Cairo, echoes the feelings of many young Egyptians. The mass-movement against authoritarianism in Middle Eastern countries, commonly known as the Arab Spring, gave hope to their call for political and personal freedom.

Thousands joined the protest, but subsequently many saw themselves excluded from democracy-building. Fewer continue to dream of revolution today. The view of these shabab (literally, young people, but usually refers to the Tahrir movement) is that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood ‘hijacked’ the prospect of political change. This led them to side with the Tamarrod movement against President Mursi, which in turn opened the door for al-Sisi’s military coup.

Now, five years after their Arab Spring, Egypt faces another authoritarian military regime under President al-Sisi that uses nationalist overtones to crush any social movement, any contentious politics, any dissent.

‘The beneficiary is the one who controls you, the one who’s making you passive, who’s dictating you where to go, the one who’s predominating you. They imprisoned you inside your mind, the bars are your fear. You are afraid to think free, because you are afraid they might catch you.’ Cairokee, Akher Oghniya


The future of democracy looks bleak

Egypt, although an obvious case, is not the only example that the hopes associated with the Arab Spring are crushed by new authoritarianism, civil war, ethnic and sectarian strife. All over the Middle East, whether in Gulf oil-monarchies, eastern-Mediterranean and north-African republics (with perhaps Tunisia as a remarkable exception) and even in constitutional monarchies, the future of democracy looks rather bleak.

Within this turmoil, social movements (SM) are severely restrained in their activities, yet they continue to shout HURIYYA – FREEDOM. It is these movements, that continue a struggle for political reform across the Middle East, that are the focal point for a one day colloquium at Birkbeck.

Despite considerable interest in the current regional crisis, there is surprisingly little systematic research on the responsibility of SMs in successful or indeed failed democratic transitions. The short period of the Arab Spring provides rich material to explore this theme. It allows us to analyse, compare and theorise on specific empirical cases, including Islamist and secular movements that depart from the mainstream focus.

Questions arise such as whether and, if so, to what extent, SMs are responsible for the failure of democratic transition in the Middle East. Moreover, what happened to SMs and SMOs five years after the Arab Spring? Did they simply implode or did they reconfigure their political activism, potentially even turning towards violence?

The one-day colloquium intends to explore these issues. It seeks to bring together Middle East experts with an interest in contentious politics to study how these relate to processes of fundamental political change such as democratic transition, civil war, the rise of extremist movements and counter-revolutions.

“5 years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?” – a one day Colloquium, run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, will be held at Birkbeck on Friday 10 June.

Book on to the colloquium and view the full programme here

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Homonationalisms and Criminalized Queers: A panel discussion about global sexual politics

This post was contributed by Dr Tara Atluri, visiting research fellow in the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH) and the Department of Geography, Environment, and Development Studies. Here, Dr Atluri gives an insight into her forthcoming public lecture on 16 March 2016


Supreme Court of India - Retouched

The Supreme Court of India

Slavoj Žižek suggests that the task of philosophy is not to solve problems but to reframe what we conceive of as problems. Rather than providing succinct answers, critical thinking involves asking questions. An assemblage of critical thinkers will gather to dialogue, debate, and question global sexualities and sexual politics today.


This panel discussion will question the politics of sexualities, focusing on key moments such as the decision made by the Supreme Court of India to uphold Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial sodomy law that criminalizes queer sex and people. We will also address contentious issues such as European “gay conditionality” policies, which propose that financial aid to countries in the Global South should be dependant on the institution of LGBTQ rights. Finally, panellists will discuss `race,’ racism, sexualities, and citizenship. (The Better India article: ‘Renewed hope for LGBT community. Supreme Court will hear curative plea on Section 377‘).

In a time when “sexual freedom” is often inseparable within mainstream discourse from market based capitalist freedom, we will ask who put the “progress” in “progressive” sexual politics? In a time in which European governments act as benevolent saviors of queers in the Global South through aid conditionality proposals that threaten to further impoverish formerly colonized countries (where queerness was often originally made criminal through European colonial law) we will question who speaks on behalf of whom and why?

In our contemporary political milieu, where there is often little time and space for patient reflection and thoughtful discussion, this panel will offer the chance to enter into thoughtful dialogue and debate.


Mayur Suresh

Mayur Suresh is a lecturer at the School of Law, SOAS. His research focuses on ethnographic approaches to legal cultures. Previously, he was part of the legal team that successfully challenged section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (a colonial law that criminalizes diverse sexualities in India) in the Delhi High Court, and defended that judgment in the Supreme Court. Find out more

Dr. Alyosxa Tudor

Dr. Alyosxa Tudor is LSE Fellow in Transnational Gender Studies and Fellow at the Centre for Gender Studies, SOAS, University of London with focus on ‘Gendering Migration and Diasporas’ and ‘Queer Politics’. Their work connects trans and queer feminist approaches with transnational feminism and postcolonial studies. Alyosxa’s main research interest lies in analysing (knowledge productions on) migrations, diasporas and borders in relation to critiques of Eurocentrism and to processes of gendering and racialisation. In the past they have worked as an Assistant Researcher at the Centre for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies, Humboldt University, in Berlin (2008-2011), and were a Visiting Scholar at the Centre of Gender Excellence, Linköping University, in Sweden (2013-2014).


Alyosxa is the author of the 2014 monograph ‘from [al’manja] with love’, which revisits critical migration studies with the insights of postcolonial and decolonial approaches and carves out a perspective on power relations that brings together transnational feminism and trans (gender) politics. In their current research project on transnationalism, Alyosxa analyses links between conceptualisations of trans-gender and trans-national and aims for a critical redefinition of political agency. Through an analysis of theories on transing, passing and performativity in queer-, trans-, and transnational feminist knowledge production and illustrated by discursive examples from transgender communities and Romanian migrant communities they call for a conceptualisation of entangled power relations that does not rely on fixed pre-established categories but defines subjectivity through risk in political struggle. Find out more

Calogero Giametta

Calogero Giametta is a sociologist with a research focus on migration, gender and sexuality. More precisely, his work has concentrated on two forms of legal protection addressing non-EU migrants: anti-trafficking initiatives and the right of asylum (i.e. in France and the UK). He is interested in examining how these protection mechanisms, by being deployed as filtering instruments, follow the logic of sexual humanitarianism.


In so doing he questions the specific ways in which migration control operates through humanitarian interventions under neoliberal democracies. Between 2010 and 2014 his PhD research looked at the lived experiences of gender and sexual minority refugees, and on the discourses linking the politics of sexuality and the British refugee granting process. This included ethnography with gender and sexual minority asylum seekers living in the UK. Currently through his post-doctoral fellowship he is analysing broader humanitarian discourses and practices when gender and sexuality become rights-claiming objects within racialised migration regimes. Find out more

Tara Atluri

Tara Atluri has a PHD in Sociology. She is a lecturer at the Ontario College of Art and Design University. Drawing on research about the protests that followed the 2012 Delhi gang rape case and 2013 decision to criminalize queer sexualities in India, she recently published the book Āzādī: Sexual Politics and Postcolonial Worlds.


Tara Atluri is at Birkbeck College this term as a Visiting Research fellow in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Development Studies (GEDS). Find out more

Tara Atluri will deliver a BIH Public Lecture (titled “Homonationalisms and Criminalized Queers: A Panel Discussion about Global Sexual Politics”) on 16 March 2016 (6-8pm) Room 415, Malet Street Main Building. Book your place here

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Between the Sheets/In the Streets

This post was contributed by Dr Tara Atluri, visiting research fellow in the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH) and the Department of Geography, Environment, and Development Studies. Here, Dr Atluri gives an insight into her forthcoming Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR) Methods Lunch on 9 March 2016.

Between the sheets/In the streets event

¿Qué queremos? ¡Justicia! ¿Cuándo? ¡Ahora!

¿Como lograrémos? Luchando! ¿Como lucharemos? Duro, duro / duro, duro, duro!

نظرية المساواة بين الجنسين

In “The Politics of Translation” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak states “The task of the feminist translator is to consider language as a clue to the workings of gendered agency…”(179) How might this quote be applicable to conducting research pertaining to sexualities in the Global South? How is the language that one uses to ask questions about sex, sexuality, and gender central to the kinds of dialogues that one will have and to their research findings?

One can consider Hijras, female to male transgender persons who have a religious and cultural lineage in the Indian subcontinent that pre-dates British colonialism. Within Western secular language Hijras are referred to as transgender persons. And yet, what is perhaps interesting to consider is how ideas of agency and legal rights structure Western grammars of feminism and sexuality. Being transgender is often conceived of as a secular identity that is tied to Western secular legal and medical categories. However, Hijras have historically been considered to be religious figures who sacrifice their genitals in a religious ceremony and upon doing so become those who are considered by the religious to have sacred powers, often to bless children.

In posing questions about sexuality, desire, gender, and feminism how might one conceive of ways to ask questions and frame research that moves away from the assumption that English language secular Western rights based categories of LGBTQ are universal and beneficial to all? (See Big Think video: “Your behaviour creates your gender”)

About the event

This BISR Methods Lunch will pose questions regarding the theoretical and ideological frameworks that often guide research pertaining to gender and sexuality in formerly colonized countries. We will question the Orientalist underpinnings of approaches to uniform ideas of “Eastern” sexualities and also question the colonial nature of doing research about “others.” The workshop will also offer ideas and possible frameworks for conducting ethical, politically informed, engaged, and philosophically thoughtful research.

Aimed at postgraduate students from across the college, this event convened by BiGS will examine methodologies and approaches to sexuality studies, and their intersection with ideas of development and sexualities in the Global South. This Masterclass will generate training opportunities for postgraduate students in several areas of expertise. This event offers students the chance to learn divergent research methods.

Areas of research expertise that students will explore include: Approaches to sexualities in the Global South, Feminist/Queer ethnography, Qualitative and Quantitative approaches to gender and sexuality, and theoretical perspectives pertaining to sexualities and development, globally.

In leading this seminar, Tara Atluri will draw on research done in the Indian subcontinent following the 2012 Delhi gang rape case and 2013 decision by the Supreme Court of India to criminalize same sex desire. This research culminated in the forthcoming manuscript- Āzādī: Sexual Politics and Postcolonial Worlds. (Toronto: Demeter Press, 2016)

Tara Atluri will deliver the “BISR Methods Lunch: Between the Sheets/In the Streets: Interdisciplinary Sexuality and Gender Studies Research” on 9 March 2016 (12pm-1.30pm) Room 402, Malet Street Main Building. Book your place here

Works Cited

  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993.

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Racism and Nationalism after the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election

This post was contributed by Dr Brendan McGeever of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck)

Racism-Nationalism-in-the-UKOn Friday November 13 the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research very generously hosted a one-day colloquium on the theme ‘Racism and Nationalism after the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election’. The event brought together seven speakers to address the relationship between racism and nationalism in the Scottish, Welsh, English and Northern Irish contexts. The rationale for doing so was born out of a desire to reflect on the historic events of the past year or so – the Scottish Referendum of September 2014 and the General Election of May 2015.

With the dramatic electoral surge of the Scottish National Party and the prospect of the EU Referendum to come, the British state, it seems, has entered a new phase of constitutional crisis. In these changing times, with UKIP also on the rise electorally and the future of the Union seeming uncertain, the colloquium offered a timely opportunity to explore the extent to which racism across Britain is finding expression through the assertion of new nationalisms.

‘Non-racial’ Wales, and Unionism in Northern Ireland

The day was split into three sessions. In the first of these, Dr Bethan Harries (University of Manchester) presented on racism and nationalism in Wales, and Dr Robbie McVeigh addressed the Northern Irish context. Dr Harries began proceedings by showing how a discourse of national ‘innocence’ has led to an erasure of Welsh complicity in colonialism. The dominant political narrative in Wales, Dr Harries argued, is not ‘post-racial’ but actually ‘non-racial’, and it presents serious barriers to the elaboration of an anti-racist politics in the here and now.

In the second presentation, Dr McVeigh offered a stark picture of Northern Ireland, where the decline of Unionism as a political force is leading to the articulation of a specifically defensive type of racist politics that is not just colour-coded, but anti-Catholic as well. Dr McVeigh further argued that as Unionism continues to be rooted in a shrinking demographic base, the politics of racism and British nationalism will likely come to be posed in ever sharper terms.

Ethnic and national belonging in Scotland

The second session was dedicated entirely to Scotland, and included presentations by Dr Nasar Meer (University of Strathclyde) and Dr Brendan McGeever (Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck). In his presentation, Dr Meer surveyed elite political discourses in Scotland on ethnic and national belonging, showing that despite the real advances that have been made in recent years, there remains much to do.

By referencing various interviews with members of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, Dr Meer showed how implicit hierarchies continue to shape elite understandings of Scottish nationhood. In a paper co-written with Professor Satnam Virdee (University of Glasgow), Dr McGeever suggested the question of racism has been largely occluded from the national conversation that has been taking place since the beginning of the Independence referendum campaigns, and that this has further consolidated the longstanding Scottish myth that there is ‘no problem here’.

This national re-imagining of Scotland as a uniquely ‘tolerant’ society acquires its powerful appeal, argued McGeever, precisely through its capacity to define itself in opposition to that which it is not (e.g. British/English). According to McGeever, not only does this project Scotland’s disproportionate role in Slavery and Empire onto England, but it arguably prevents any serious discussion of racism in the country today.

England, north and south

The third and final session consisted of two papers on England, the first given by Professor Anoop Nayak (Newcastle University), who explored racism and nationalism in North East England, and the second by Dr Steve Garner (Birmingham City University) who discussed south England. Professor Nayak’s contribution took the form of a historical-geography of the North East, showing how its transition from being a region of production to consumption has been accompanied by further transformations in the politics of racism and identity. Professor Nayak argued the case for decoupling whiteness from nationalism, and suggested that English nationalism is not of high capital in the North East and that local and regional identifications remain much stronger. This, he argued, is reflected in both the politics of racism and anti-racism.

The final paper by Dr Garner presented a quite different picture of South England. Based on a range of qualitative interviews with white working class participants in Bristol and Plymouth, Dr Garner showed how English national belonging is deeply racialised, and is structured by a ‘moral economy of whiteness’. Garner examined the affective and emotional routes through such racialised nationalism is articulated, showing how ‘nation’, ‘welfare’ and ‘immigration’ provide the frame through which racism and (localised) English nationalism come to be expressed.

Finally, Professor Claire Alexander (University of Manchester) gave a set of closing remarks that offered insights into each of the presentations. Professor Alexander closed the event by inviting participants to reconsider Englishness and English nationhood, and to question why minorities in England continue to find them so difficult to claim as their own.

With Britain’s constitutional crisis remaining far from resolved, it seems that the various issues discussed in this colloquium are unlikely to go away any time soon.

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(Homepage slider image caption: ‘UK Grunge Flag’, CC Nicholas Raymond via Flickr)

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