Incarceration, Surveillance, Policing: The Political Economies of Industrial Complexes

Author Bio: 

Ghiwa Sayegh is a queer feminist writer, publisher, and archivist. She is the editor in chief of Kohl, a journal she has conceived, and the co-founder of Intersectional Knowledge Publishers. Ghiwa is a member of the collective RESURJ - Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice. She is passionate about the intersections of sex and sexuality, migration, global economies, and feminist histories. Her influences are Audre Lorde and Sara Ahmed.

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Ghiwa Sayegh. "Incarceration, Surveillance, Policing: The Political Economies of Industrial Complexes". Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research Vol. 4 Non. 1 (2018): pp. 1-5. (Last accessed on 05 avril 2020). Available at: https://kohljournal.press/fr/node/26.
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We lead precarious lives. Our empirical realities are burdened with consecutive crises; to look beyond their temporal chronology would underline adversity as the driving force behind queer and intersectional feminist activisms in the context of West Asia and North Africa. The Egyptian police intensified its crackdown on feminists and people with non-normative sexualities. The occupation in Palestine persevered in its incarceration of Palestinian girls and minors, unlawfully extended the detention of Khalida Jarrar, and murdered civilians protesting behind the buffer zone of Gaza’s armistice lines. The Lebanese state continues to detain migrant domestic workers, refugees, and trans* people, in the midst of blatant corruption and power-mongering sectarianism. These incidents are but few of the moments that give rise to states of urgency and panic, orchestrated by systems of control.

Acting as self-perpetuating mechanisms, systems of control monopolize land, resources, geopolitical localities, offline and online spaces, but also policies, discourse, and public support. Their operational breadth is made viable by the incarceration, surveillance, and policing triad, which regulates the subjects of control through punitive measures and tight supervision. Perhaps the most globalized, assimilated, and normalized trope of control systems is the notion of “state” as compulsory. Although state practices are criticized by rights and humanitarian actors, the polity of the state is rarely perceived as an ideological struggle; its hegemony is treated as default. Discourses about oppression and fighting the “system” abound, but they are seldom associated with the monopoly exercised by the state, as an entity, over communities it wants to regulate, whether as a survival tactic, or as a mean of extraction and exploitation. Instead, this type of pervasive oppression is compartmentalized, attributed to individuals in power or specific policies, and thought to be redressed through reforms or adjustments.

To look at the crux of state formations and their functioning entails a careful consideration of the myths and promises of law and order states purport to bring about. What is considered law is framed as necessary measures, meant to achieve what the system was not catered towards in the first place. Incarceration, as a mean of criminalization, bears “correctional” and “penitential” connotations. However, Zahra Abdallah, who worked with former female inmates in Egypt through storytelling, recounts in “What Stories Do to Our Hearts” that prison systems do not afford their prisoners any kind of rehabilitation, let alone healthcare. Instead, they face a double predicament: not only are they criminalized, but they are subsequently stuck in a loop of social stigma, abandonment, and impoverishment. Meanwhile, at least at face value, the state accumulates capital through the various institutions and mechanisms that sustain prisons. But is it possible to talk of a prison-industrial complex in the context of the West Asia and North Africa regions?

The prison-industrial complex came to indicate the proliferation of privatized prison facilities in the U.S. and the increased incarceration of populations along racial, gendered, and “citizen” status lines, turning prisons into capitalist machineries. This particular context bears similarities to settler colonies’ treatment of indigenous populations, whether in Palestine or through the “Arab” hegemony over ethnic minorities such as Kurdish, Amazigh, or Nubian populations. Surely, the historical conditions that brought about industrial complexes in the U.S. are not transferrable. But to deconstruct the premises of states and borders necessarily entails treating contexts as more than their mere geography. For instance, G4S, a British multinational security corporation, controls prisons in the U.S., provides machineries and guards at Israeli checkpoints in Palestine, and sub-contracts the security of high-end buildings and visa application centers in Lebanon. It therefore becomes impossible to confine theory, praxis, and their critique to geopolitical borders alone, except in their naming and the resources that made this naming possible. On the one hand, contexts are by and large transnational and defined by the ways they intersect and interlink. On the other hand, discourse that travels across contexts and struggles is shaped and informed by the remainders of colonization, globalized open markets, and local and historical formations.

To look at industrial complexes contextually and locally calls for a problematization of profit and capital. With the flow of capital concurring with that of control systems, profit is not limited to its material or financial dimensions. As Amira Mahmoud Othman shows in “States of Wait: The Death Penalty in Contemporary Egypt,” a security state such as Egypt’s employs prisons and capital punishment as means to eliminate politicized bodies deemed “killable.” Beyond individual threats to the state’s sovereignty, these practices serve as discipline and policing to deter political opponents from organizing and mobilizing, regardless of their positionality. But the treatment of “citizens” and “non-citizens” is, more often than not, regulated by their profitability to the state and the role they play in its survival. For instance, “citizens” with accumulated social and financial capital are less likely to be affected by the machineries of incarceration-surveillance-policing. As for migrant workers and refugees, they are allowed to exist within the imagined borders of the nation-state as long as their bodies are “healthy” and able, therefore profitable to the political economy of the state. In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers are incarcerated and/or deported the moment their bodies can no longer sustain a labor that is legible by the state.

It therefore comes as no surprise that states that read their subjectivity as the absolute default would engender institutions and mechanisms of control that are both patriarchal and normative. The promotion of gender as a binary and of compulsory heterosexuality and marriage reinforces the illusion of state “morality” in order to regulate and control its subjects through state actors and institutions. In “The Required Labels,” Esraa Husain describes their experience of harassment and intimidation at a Kuwaiti police station for “imitating the other gender.” This kind of policing deters and distracts public attention from state corruption and surveillance, as argued by Lara Mansour in “ICTs as the Bullring: A Case Study of the Rainbow Flag Incident in Cairo.” On the other hand, Mariam Mecky’s “State Policing: Moral Panics and Masculinity in post-2011 Egypt” looks at moral panics as tools of control and power that differentiate between subjects according to arbitrary notions of gender roles and respectability; female protestors, for instance, become “violable bodies” distinct from virtuous “daughters” that uphold the honor of the nation.

Respectability as a pillar of state can perhaps best be explained by Mansour’s reference to the “anxiety of the void,” or the state covering the gaps that could mitigate its power through criminalization and surveillance. Mansour also describes ICTs as the “bullring” – an arena for state surveillance. This mechanism rounds up those who challenge elements of the state’s sexual and/or socio-political sovereignty, and is translated into offline arrests and persecution. But ICTs are also a site of struggle, alternative technologies, and counter-discursive practices, as states employ digital and social media for propaganda and “belief control” though data set patterns, while setting into motion its punitive measures. Taming dissent as a strategy of self-preservation does not only happen in the visible realm of arrests and public repression, but also through digital and discursive means aimed at controlling those who reside in the state’s geography. This is perhaps why the state’s policies and practices are antagonistic to social justice movements, especially when justice perceives struggles as indivisible. In her mini zine, Islam Khatib shows the interlinkages between the prison-industrial complex and reproductive justice, which also sets the tone for Kohl and the A Project’s December 2018 issue on reproductive justice. Within this framework, we are left with the realization that what is made “legal” can only be so insofar it is under the umbrella of the state and its institutions. As Roula Seghaier argues in “Policing Women’s Sexualities and Getting Credit for It: Sex Work and the Tunisian State,” public sex work regulated by the state is the only legal form of sex work in Tunisia, as the state profits off of its regulation and legalization. Therefore, we must ask the uneasy questions of whether the thought, work, and struggle we invest in reforms only serve to sustain the system by whitewashing its image, because “our bodies and the products of our labor are used by institutions as evidence of inclusion,”1 because this labor would only be allowed when it does serve the system.

Of course feminists rage; we despair; we feel helpless; we demand and cheer for reforms; we offer our bodies in the best ways we know; we hold on to hope in all its forms. But some of us are left with the uncomfortable feeling that we are treating the symptoms, that we are offered minor margins of disruption to quell voices of dissent, that our horizons for liberation are delineated by the same systems of control we were fighting against in the first place. Angela Davis once said that “we always use as our standard those who are at the center of the structures we want to dismantle.”2 When we confuse dismantling the system with infiltrating it, when access to positions and policy reforms become our sole mean and goal, when we aspire for that standard, we are being pushed us into compromises that distract us, keep us busy with bureaucracy, and ultimately wear us down with the false promise that reform would progress into dismantlement. Faced with this entrapment, we need to push with all we have, politically, materially, discursively. When we engage in this colossal life project, it becomes easy to fall into the production of “sanctity” that dismisses critique as divisive, precisely because of what this work entails. But in “The Employments of the Punitive System in Zionism’s Exploitation of Homosexuality,” Musa Shadeedi explores the shifts in Zionist discourse vis-à-vis Palestinian homosexuals as essential to the sustaining of occupation. It is imperative, therefore, to treat discourse as a site of struggle. Expecting accolades and brushing off criticism as deliberate attacks prevents introspection, and by extension, imaginaries of liberation against systems of control and oppression, even if not all of them would come into fruition.

It is also important to consider the various ways in which the same strategies of institutionalized surveillance and policing overspill into non-state entities, actors, and organizations, as illustrated by this issue’s conversation between Sana, Tee Mk, Raed, Katya, and Rana in “Institutional Surveillance and Policing: Documenting Student Activism at AUB.” Consequently, they need to be named and accounted for whenever they appear within our movements. In “Slowing It Down: Embodied Complicity and the Challenges of Feminist Solidarity at the 2017 Beirut Workers’ Day March,” Allison Finn comes to the uncomfortable realization that her body inadvertently became a tool for policing migrant domestic workers, when she had meant to be in solidarity with their struggle. Our movements strive to be solidaric, but this solidarity is fraught with unequal privileges. An awareness of internal differences of class and citizenship status alone would not be sufficient to address the power dynamics that seep into our movements. In “Parliamentary Elections, Civil Society, and Barriers to Political Change,” Joumana Talhouk explores the ways in which election campaigns by “civil society” lists played into a system that is by definition exclusionary when it comes to migrants, refugees, and the working class. To echo Angela Davis, “Who’s going to be in a position to penetrate the glass ceiling, to break through the glass ceiling if not those who are already on top?”3 We must ask ourselves what tools we are perpetuating when we compromise for a narrative of the greater good, when the greater good is not the here and now.

Finn considered that the question is “not if we are complicit, but what we do with our awareness of that complicity.” Within our movements, reconciliatory moves call for a focus on the goal, despite the different “strategies” employed to achieve that goal. But a strategy is indivisible from its political ideology; its normalization would only serve to render one demand palatable to the system at the expense of other struggles. To what extent do our movements reproduce peer to peer surveillance and policing, to what extent have our imaginaries been limited by these mechanisms when we attempt change? As Nour Abu-Assab and Nof Nasser-Eddine tell us in “Queering Justice: States as Machines of Oppression,” the “pursuit of justice, as we want it,” is uncompromising.

  • 1. Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017. 263-264.
  • 2. Davis, Angela. “Angela Davis in Conversation.” Women of the World (WOW) Festival. Southbank Center, 2017. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMUskpoNdIc
  • 3. Ibid.
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