Feminism and Peace Activism

Women fighters, as I show above, are accommodated by the nationalist proj­ect of liberation, but both their femininity and their subjectivity are compro­mised to accommodate patriarchal anxieties. Some women fighters see them­selves as feminist activists, working towards a more egalitarian and open society. But some feminist organizations see nationalism, and particularly the armed forces, as standing in contradiction to the foundation of any feminist agenda. In what follows I address some feminist positions with regard to the place of women in the armed forces and in peace activism.

Wafa Idris was described by her family as a tomboy (Beaumont 2002) and by the Arab press (in some cases) as a feminist (Nir 2002) and a national hero­ine. However, the feminist label is tricky and context-dependent. While the Palestinian Authority now encourages women to participate in armed strug­gle alongside men, the question of whether these acts are feminist depends on different interpretations of feminism. The Jordanian daily Al Dustour stated in an editorial:

Wafa Idris, like the rest of the young women of her generation, never dreamed of owning a bmw or of having a cellular phone. Wafa did not carry make-up in her suitcase, but enough explosives to fill the enemy with horror. Wasn’t it the west that kept demanding that eastern woman become equal to man? Well, this is how we understand equality—this is how the martyr Wafa understood equal­ity. (A. Chancellor, Guardian, 23 February 2002)

This cynical response alludes to a colonial (and neocolonial) configuration of a binary opposition between East and West, to Orientalist critiques of gen­der inequality in the Middle East, and to the demands of early waves of West­ern feminism to universalize the woman’s question above and beyond race, eth­nicity, and nationality. The article, then, uses the term “feminism” to mock a set of Western discourses about the Middle East and gender rather than to invoke a Middle Eastern form of feminism.

Some editorials have suggested that the phenomenon of the female sui­cide bombers should be read as an indication that Palestinian men cannot protect Palestinian women, and so women have to protect themselves. This explanation is also common with regard to the Tamil female fighters (Black Tigers) who opted to join the armed forces because, otherwise, they would face gang rapes and murder. Self-defence for a woman in a violent patriarchal society, then, is tied to the nationalist armed struggle, and while refusing the victim role is a positive move, it is not necessarily a feminist one. Moreover, neither Islam nor Judaism prevent women from fighting, and, in fact, self­defence is considered a virtue in both religions.18 Ismai’l Abu Samad, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said: “Jihad against the enemy is an obligation that applies not only to men but also to women. Islam has never differentiated between men and women on the battlefield” (Middle East Online, 2002).

While Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (the spiritual leader of the Hamas movement until his assassination in March 2004) had some reservations, he, too, agreed that Islam does not prohibit women from fighting; in fact, in the case of an occupation it is the duty of a man, a woman, a slave, and a master to fight such occupation (Afaq Arabiyah, 30 January 2002). It is clear then that the “Joan of Arc” imagery, associated particularly with the suicide bombers inside Arab society, is not necessarily read as either subversive or feminist. Accord­ing to Kamila Shamise (Guardian, 27 April 2002):

Female suicide bombers are not a recent phenomena, they’re just new to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Tamil Tigers have recruited more women than men for suicide attacks, and not just because women are less likely to get searched or to arouse suspicion. Men are considered more suited to training recruits, so it’s just more efficient to have women kill themselves. No surprise to find men keeping themselves at the centre of things, relegating women to positions of service rather than strategy.

Shamise claims that, like Charlie’s Angels, who do the work for “him” by risk­ing themselves, the three suicide bombers (at the time of publication of her article) only enable Arafat to ensure that the centre of power remains out of reach of women’s participation. The bafflement with which the Western world has met the phenomenon is due to overly simplistic explanations of why men

engage in suicide bombing——— that is, their fundamental religious belief,

along with the promise that seventy virgins will await them in heaven. Alas, Shamise shows that the virgins, or houris, are genderless and that they await anyone who gets to heaven regardless of how they got there. She concludes by saying: “why would any woman be in a hurry to get handed over to a host of genderless virgins?” (Guardian, 27 April 2002).

In Israel, too, the inclusion of women as fighters is not automatically per­ceived as a feminist act. True, the decision of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to remove women from combat—because he wanted to use them in the rear (Bloom 1993,133) for less prestigious and less dangerous jobs— was clearly chauvinistic. But the opposite does not follow; that is, that inclusion of women in fighting forces is necessarily a feminist act. In fact, most of the feminist organizations in Israel are pro-peace and are decisively non-violent in their forms of protest.

Since the beginning of the first Intifada at least a dozen Israeli women’s organizations have been working with Palestinian women to promote peace, dialogue, and non-violence. In this current Intifada a new movement has emerged: mothers and wives of soldiers go to stand at the roadblocks where their husbands and sons serve. They place signs reminding the soldiers to act humanely, inviting them to quit the army and go home. Another feminist organization, Machsom Watch, places daily teams of women at the roadblocks, where they observe the behaviour of the soldiers who control the movement of Palestinians. During Ta’ayush19 activities it is generally agreed that, should the army stop the group on the road, the women members will negotiate with the soldiers. The idea is to break the pattern, to force soldiers to engage in a discourse with women who do not serve in combat roles, who do not share the same army experience and, therefore, who will not accommodate norma­tive masculine army behaviour.

Some Palestinian and Israeli feminists question whether nationalism and feminism are compatible. In the introduction to their book Women and the

Politics of Military Confrontation Nahla Abdo and Ronit Lentin develop a fas­cinating dialogue with regard to the relationship between feminism and nation­alism. Both see themselves as national subjects, and Abdo even comments on how, at one point in her life, circumstances forced her to be more a Palestin­ian than a gendered subject. And yet both see nationalism as problematic for women. Abdo writes:

But as a feminist, I cannot but argue that nationalism is conceived by and for men (Anderson’s “horizontal brotherhood”), without taking into account either the experience of women, or their active participation in national liberation struggles….My critique of nationalism also stems from my understanding of Zionist nationalism as a masculine construction, in which the “new Hebrew” was male, and in which diaspora Judaism was feminized, in contrast with Israeli nationalism.

Like many of the women whose narratives are presented in the book, Abdo’s gendered identity is tied to a national one, but, as a result of feminist criticism, she started to steer away from nationalism. For these women dialogue across nationality, collaborative efforts, and peace activism are all natural conse­quences of their feminism. The Jerusalem Link, an umbrella organization made up of diverse Palestinian and Israeli feminist groups, and Women in Black (when they share events with Palestinians) are good examples of this approach to feminism.20 In the recent documentary This Is Not Living,21 which focuses on Palestinian women’s lives under Israeli occupation, all the women interviewed ask for peace, for compromise, and for the end to violence. These women want to live a quiet and dignified life, and they do not condone vio­lence because they are victims of it. Moreover, these women see the parallels between their oppression as Palestinians and their oppression as women.

With the benefit of a feminist analysis, these organizations also see a cor­relation between domestic violence in Israel and the conflict with the Pales­tinians. In a famous case from the first Intifada a soldier shot and killed a seventeen-year-old Palestinian woman who was sitting on her balcony read­ing a book. The soldier was tried but released, and two years later he shot and killed his ex-girlfriend (whom he had abused for years). The connection, or pattern, between these two events was somewhat contested then, but it became very clear after the first Gulf War. During that war most Israeli men sat at home with their families, experiencing the same anxiety that is shared at the “rear.” Men reported feeling impotent and irritable, and, at the end of the war, Israel had seen a significant rise in domestic violence, with half a dozen murdered wives and the shelters for battered women filled beyond capacity (Sharoni 1994,121-37).

In her work on gender and resistance in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict Simona Sharoni (1994,123) traces the complex webs that connect and differ­entiate Palestinian and Israeli women: “Palestinian women have had to con­front violence on two intimately related fronts: as members of the Palestinian community; and as women. Their homes and bodies have become the battle­fields for these confrontations.” But the Palestinian woman is not alone as Israeli women are also treated as occupied territories: their bodies are recruited for the national project of reproduction and their legal rights are restricted on numerous grounds (Sharoni 1994,125). Sharoni emphasizes these connections between Israeli and Palestinian women because she believes that gender analy­sis could lead to alliances that would result in further understanding and com­promise.


The women of Women in Black—an organization of Israeli women that has been demonstrating weekly against the occupation since 1988—often encounter verbal abuse. Men shout epithets at them, such as “whores of Arafat” or “Arab lovers,” thus combining militarism with sexism (Sharoni 1994,125). And here we have come a full circle: the Palestinian suicide bombers are Arafat’s angels and the Israeli peace activists are Arafat’s whores. Victims of patriarchal and nationalist history, and heroines by their own acts, these women, whether or not they foreground gender issues, choose to enact their subjectivity. But this subjectivity, especially when it chafes against the expectations of proper fem­ininity, is sometimes coded as monstrous. The monstrosity, I believe, is entirely the creation of a fearful patriarchal imaginary, which cannot sustain the idea of capable, assertive, and violent femininity, and thus sets out to punish it.22 Compounded with anti-Islamist, and anti-Arabic sentiments, the image of the female suicide bomber is projected back to us by a xenophobic and chau­vinistic hegemonic mirror—the mirror of Western media. Not surprisingly then—and as a product of that hegemonic system—Colin Powell coined the term “homicide bombers.” But in the Arab world these women are martyrs, freedom fighters, victims, and heroines who sacrifice everything for the sake of the nation. Both Israel and the world media marketed Israeli women fight­ers as innovative, egalitarian, and progressive, while they marketed Palestin­ian women fighters as individualistic, irrational, and barbaric. Wafa Idris vol­unteered in an ambulance for months during the Intifada, prompting Peter Beaumont to entitle his article “From an Angel of Mercy, to an Angel of Death” (Guardian, 31 January 2002). But Kitty, the Christian American nurse of Exo-

Feminism and Peace Activism

Figure 34 Scene from Exodus, i960 (with permission of mgm).

dus, was willing to kill too, and this blonde angelic manifestation of woman­liness was never referred to as “an angel of death" The monster, I therefore con­clude, is in the eye (and mind) of the beholder.

The Woman Fighter

One of the mythic icons of the Jewish woman fighter prior the 1948 war is that of a Palmach13 girl, hiding grenades in her bra. This mental image accom­panied my upbringing, suggesting that women were brave and capable and that they contributed to Israeli independence as much as did men. Surprisingly, nei­ther I nor my peers considered the evocative trope of (quite literally) explo­sive sexuality to be a possible aspect of the metaphor. The socialist model of equality underplayed female sexuality, and by the time I was a child—and Golda Meir a prime minister—power meant being “as good as a man"14 More­over, if women did use their sexuality to forward nationalist goals in the 1940s, this aspect of their contribution was eradicated from, or minimized within, official narratives: the myth concentrated on their bravery rather than on their tactics.

Naturally, the reality of the fight for Israel’s independence was not exem­plary of gender egalitarianism: only 10 percent of the Palmach members were women, and, during the 1948 war, only 20 percent of the Israeli army were women. Most women served as nurses, medics, communication specialists, and administrators (Bloom 1993). Very few served in combat roles, and those were controversial but necessary (due to the lack of trained male personnel). Com­bat roles for women were eliminated shortly after the war ended in 1949, when the army was able to train enough men. After 1949 women were drafted for a mandatory service period (now eighteen months) but were not positioned in combat units. However, in recent years, women have been trained for combat in ground troops; they have become tank and artillery instructors, and Israel has just seen the first woman pilot graduate from the air force’s prestigious pilot course. The fight to get into the course was initiated by Alice Miller, and when the army denied her access to it, she took the case to the Supreme Court and eventually won. She also pleaded her case with a veteran air force commander, and then Israeli president, Ezer Weitzman. Weitzman responded by saying, “Meidalleh (little girl in Yiddish), why don’t you go and knit socks for the sol­diers instead?” This response publicly exposed the extent to which the patri­archal power structure in Israeli society is both hegemonic and oblivious to

gender issues. After all, the presidency in Israel is not political but ceremo­nial, and Weitzman did not even consider that his response might offend at least 50 per cent of the population he represents. Women’s organizations lob­bied for Miller’s inclusion in the pilot’s course and sharply criticized Weitz – man.

The Israeli army, however, was not the first army to draft and train women in the region. The Palmach women were often trained in the British army, which, since 1941, recruited women for its Auxiliary Territorial Service (ats). Since the British did not want to send English women to the Middle East, they recruited 4,000 primarily Jewish, but also Palestinian and Armenian, women for their units, and even trained a few dozen to be officers (Bloom 1993,129-30). These women volunteers were faced with sharp societal criticism and were regarded as deviant. Anne Bloom conducted interviews with those volunteers and found that, “if not labeled outright as prostitutes, they were called adventure-seekers, husband-hunters, or escapees from unhappy mar­riages. Many women reported that their families were ostracized” (130).

Similarly, after Wafa Idris committed suicide in Jerusalem, the articles in the Arab press tried to explain her behaviour by alluding to her divorce (due to her inability to bear children) and her unhappiness when her ex-husband remarried and had kids. And Anne Applebaum (Slate, 2 April 2002) expresses astonishment at Akhras’s suicide bombing: “Not only was she not male, she was not overtly religious, not estranged form her family, not openly associ­ated with any radical groups. She can hardly be described as a woman with­out a future. She was young, she was a good student, and she was engaged to be married.”15 In both the Palestinian and Israeli examples we see an attempt to associate the uncharacteristic behaviour of women fighters with personal, and particularly romantic, unhappiness. But when that explanation fails, the critics are unable to explain why a woman would choose such a path. In both societies this marginal behaviour is incorporated into a heroic national nar­rative that glosses over the problems these women experience in a male – dominated world. Israel prides itself on equality and uses the army, and the myth of women’s participation in the 1948 war, as an example of its enlight­ened nature.

The Palestinians, in turn, hail the women fighters as national symbols, and, on 1 March 2002, the Fatah movement announced the establishment of a women’s brigade in honour of the martyr Wafa Idris (Al Quds, 1 March 2002). In other words, while women are not considered or represented as equal to men on the battlefield (or off it), women fighters are put on a pedestal. It is important to note that Palestinian women also have numerous role mod­

els, the most famous being Leila Khaled (Black September airplane hijacking in Jordan) and Dalal el Moughrabi (1978 hijacking of a bus inside Israel): these women became a stronger symbol for Palestine than did any male fighter pre­cisely because their behaviour was considered to be unique. And, as men­tioned above, since the beginning of the first Intifada in 1987 many Palestin­ian women mobilized resistance movements, and many were arrested for active participation in the Intifada (Giacaman and Johnson 1989). Recently, an editorial in a Palestinian paper suggested that “he who marries a good girl will not be asked for a high bride price—a girl marries a warrior and asks for a rifle in place of a dowry” (Al Quds, 1 March 2002).

One of the differences between the Israeli and Palestinian women fight­ers is that outsiders consider the former to be courageous and the latter to be monstrous. The reasons for this are complex and are tied to historical as well as cultural norms that extend well beyond the scope of this chapter. Still, it is worth briefly articulating a few of these reasons. First, the 1948 war was fought when the world was recovering from the Second World War and was riddled with guilt over the Holocaust, so the images of Jewish women fighting for independence (in what was then coded as survival) were construed as coura­geous. Second, Israeli women were not seen as individuals but, rather, as part of a socialist system, the group, the kibbutz, the Palmach, and, later, the army. The collective nature of the struggle, and the inclusion of women as an inte­gral part of it, softened gender-specific, film noir-ish patriarchal fears and, therefore, masked some of the issues at hand. In contrast, the Palestinian fighters are individuals, operating in cells with men but not trained or recruited in any organized fashion. Their national narratives of heroism are individu­alistic in nature and do not amount (yet) to the establishment of a group narrative.

Despite differences in reception in the West, I contend that, in both cases, through sacrificing their personal and private family lives (which are associ­ated with femininity), the women become symbolic of, or synonymous with, the nation but then lose their prescribed gender identity as well as other aspects of their subjectivity.16 To exemplify the loss of female subjectivity I refer to the film The Battle of Algiers (1965). This film covers the last few years in the fln’s fight for independence from the French, and, as mentioned above, women took an integral role in this battle. In one scene we see three women prepare to carry bombs from the (Muslim) Casbah to the French part of town. They bleach their hair blonde, shorten their dresses (or exchange them for 1960s Western-style miniskirts), put on makeup, and thus mask their Islamic, or North-African, appearance (see fig. 30). The film then shows each one of them

The Woman FighterFigure 30 Scene from The Battle of Algiers, 1965 (Criterion)

Figure 31 Scene from The Battle of Algiers, 1965 (Criterion).

passing through the checkpoints, reassembling at a shop so that a man can install and set the bombs and then drop them off at ice cream parlours, cof­fee houses, and the race tracks—all places were the French spend a good deal of time.

This scene shows how women characters perform a particular (Western) sexuality and enact an identity that enables them to “pass” as French and eas­ily move between the Casbah and the French city (see fig. 31). In assuming this mask, they exchange their “Arabness” for “Frenchness” and, ironically, gain an even stronger “Algerianness.” But this willingness on the part of women to assume a visual identity in order to serve the nation suggests that their core identity is malleable. None of the male protagonists in the film could pass as French, so their identity is secured as Algerian or Arab—and, I would claim,
as “men" However, women’s visual (or ethnic) and behavioural (or gender) masquerade indicates that their femininity can be divorced from their national role; that is, as long as is necessary they are fighters but as soon as independ­ence is achieved it is assumed that they will resume their “feminine” roles and become subservient wives and mothers. In any case, none of the female char­acters in the film is evolved and complex, none has subjectivity or much agency to begin with. We know nothing about their lives beyond their own screen actions, and we know nothing about their motives, ideological differences, and so on. I contend that the women represent an excess of symbolism: they are the heroic, suffering, struggling nation. And, as such, they are fetishized— not as sexual objects but, rather, as asexual national ones.

In films about Israel’s early days women fighters take on a similar role to that mentioned above, thus losing not only a gendered subjectivity but also any subjectivity whatsoever. In Exodus (i960) Karen, the young Holocaust survivor, makes it to Israel only to fight and die for its establishment. She is stripped of a personality and a future of her own, and stands as a symbolic rep­resentation of European Jewry, which needs to die in order to facilitate the birth of the new Jew (represented in the film by Ari Ben-Canaan). In her fas­cinating book Identity Politics on the Israeli Screen, Yosefa Loshitzky suggests a unique reading of Karen’s death and burial in the same grave with the “Uncle Tom” Arab, Taha. Loshitzky (2001, 9) points out that a subversive reading would indicate that the “Zionist state was established on the graves of the Palestinians and the Holocaust survivors.” Either way, she shows that the sym­bolic nature of the character of Karen (and of Taha, for that matter) eliminates her subjectivity while enabling her to function as a dramatic prop. Similarly, Ella Shohat (1987,58-76) shows that Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955), which sup­posedly tells the story of four 1948 fighters—three men and a woman—in actuality only tells the story of the men. The characters are a pro-Israeli Irish­man, an American Jew, a Sabra (Israeli-born man), and an Oriental Jewish woman (see fig. 32). While the men each get to recount the story of how they got to that hilltop in a series of flashbacks, the woman is denied a story of her own; she thus lacks the individuality and unique identity given to the others. Shohat claims that this omission is a result of the woman being an Oriental Jew, but I would suggest that the combination of her gender and ethnicity serves as a double justification for not assigning her a story and, thus, subjec­tivity (see fig. 33).

To conclude this section I would like to suggest that women fighters are conceived as deficient with regard to performing a certain form of expected femininity (albeit they are not necessarily deficient with regard to sexuality);

The Woman FighterFigure 32 Dead woman holding flag in hand, from Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, 1955 (with permis­sion of Ergo Media Inc.).

Figure 33 Dead woman covered with flag, from Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, 1955 (with permis­sion of Ergo Media Inc.).

instead, they perform an aggressive and physical (or masculine) role, which the national project incorporates as one of its symbols of national struggle. How­ever, by taking that symbolic role, women fighters are stripped of ethnic or gen­
dered subjectivity and are, in fact, objectified as icons.17 This objectification resolves patriarchal anxieties about violent women, or even about state violence in the hands of women, and at the same time produces a positive narrative of national struggle. To illustrate this point one can look at Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist (2000), which tells the story of Malli, a Tamil fighter chosen for a suicide bombing mission (designed after the 1991 mission to kill Rajiv Gandhi). Malli is a very young woman, a skilled and fierce fighter, committed to the cause, and determined to execute it. But when she finds out she is pregnant— as a result of a one-night affair with a Tamil fighter whom she later watched being killed by soldiers—Malli starts to have doubts, and eventually she revokes her mission. It is interesting to note that Malli thinks of the fetus as a boy, and her reason for continuing to live involves raising him to avenge his father’s death. The film, then, falls into a patriarchal pattern, whereby Malli is accepted as a fighter (in avenging the death of her brother and fighting for independ­ence) so long as she is neither sexual nor reproductive. Interestingly, it is patri­archy (in the form of an old man) that informs her she is pregnant (basing his assumption on an intuition and on her vomiting once), and immediately thereafter she “knows” that, indeed, she is pregnant. From that moment, too, the images start to emphasize her femininity, thus preparing the grounds for her to desert the mission, something the film clearly morally condones. In other words, as soon as her sexual subjectivity is enacted she is no longer a suit­able candidate for the suicide mission” the icon of the nation now needs to take on the role of the mother-nation and raise her son to heroism.

Nationalism and Feminism

Tlatli, Mehta, and Khleifi did not invent the fictitious and cinematic config­uration whereby woman and nation are equated. In fact, feminism in Israel, India, Tunisia, and Palestine (as well as elsewhere) had developed in tandem with national liberation movements. Much like the American women’s suffrage movement—which emerged out of the comparison between the statuses of women and African-American slaves—the diverse national liberation move­ments have taught women to fight for group rights, including women’s rights. In other words, American women activists realized that what they (or their hus­bands) were doing for others (i. e., African Americans) they were not doing for themselves. Similarly, women active in national liberation movements saw the parallels between occupation and patriarchal control, and they started to fight for women’s rights as well as national rights.

For Israeli women the fight started in the early days of the Kibbutz,9 which was supposed to be egalitarian and socialist. Yet, until the mid-i93os, women did not partake in defence roles and were negligible in political or adminis­trative posts. However, using socialist arguments, they slowly gained more influential roles to the point that, during the Arab revolt of 1936-39, women were an integral part of the Kibbutz defence system (Fogiel-Bijaoui 1992). At the same time, women were fighting to participate in jobs generally consid­ered masculine (such as agricultural roles), and eventually younger women without children gained some access to those positions. But, according to Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaoui (1992, 227), “women participated in the struggle for a national homeland and eventual independence, but this in no way changed the sexual distribution in the kibbutz. One of the reasons, we would argue, is that, in spite of their feelings of frustration and anger, the war restrained women from struggling for equality of rights, and caused them to fight for equality of duties.” It seems then that the inclusion of women in masculine positions, including that of fighter, was possible only so long as it was perceived by the patriarchal state institutions to be a national necessity rather than a feminist act. However, the rhetoric and tactics of the national liberation movement supplied women with tools for a (still ongoing) feminist struggle.

Similarly, Palestinian women were somewhat active politically through­out the British mandate as well as during the subsequent Jordanian and Israeli rule, but their organizations (various forms of women’s committees) were formed primarily around distribution of charity, care for orphans and pris­oners, and other traditionally feminine roles. However, since the beginning of the first Intifada in 1987, feminist organizations have become active in fight­ing both the Israeli occupation and gender inequality. The Palestinian Women’s

Action Committee was formed, and throughout the six years of the first Intifada over 1,000 women were arrested every year: 119 were killed, 460 were imprisoned for long terms, and 250 were deported.10 The Veiled Hope (a 1994 documentary by Norma Marcus) and The Women Next Door (1992) both chart the evolution of a feminist identity alongside a national one. But The Women Next Door also shows a difference between West Bank and Gaza Strip women, whereby the former address gender inequality while the latter become more Islamist and traditionalist. In the West Bank a discussion emerges on domes­tic violence or the rights of women to work and study, while in Gaza women put on the veil.11 The veil, which was sometimes hailed by nationalist move­ments as a symbol of cultural independence in the face of colonialism and global interventions, is a complicated symbol, used by different agencies for different reasons. Some feminists fight it as oppressive, while others adopt it as a means to avoid being objectified by the male gaze.

The veil’s symbolic tension is also evident in independence struggles else­where. For example, in Algeria the French justified much of their colonialist activity by pointing to the inferior status of women,12 and the Algerian nation­alist response was to assign a political content to tradition. While women’s participation in the Algerian National Liberation Front (fln) armed struggle was marketed as a sign of the freedom women have under Islam, the veil was worn as a sign of patriotism. But after independence, the National Union of Algerian Women was negatively sanctioned, and women were “instructed to serve the woman’s interest as wife and mother and not to abandon the ethi­cal code deeply held by the people” (Nashat and Tucker 1999,112). Once inde­pendence was achieved the veil lost its anti-colonial status and became a marker of traditional feminine performance.

In The Women Next Door, Amal Ouachadan-Labadi explains that the Palestinian Women’s Action Committee in the Occupied Territories was estab­lished as an organization that fights at once for women’s social rights and for national liberation. According to Labadi,

If we want to go on with national liberation, putting aside our liberation as women, we would end up in the houses again. We will be locked up in our houses, and we do not want to repeat the experience of women in Algiers. We work for national liberation, where the women (as half of the population) will be equal to men in every aspect of life: work, education, marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. (The Women Next Door 1992)

It seems clear that once national subjectivity is articulated, gendered sub­jectivity emerges as well, but it is not always the Western version of a gen­dered subjectivity. It is also evident that the nationalist project of statehood is rarely interested in freeing women from the confines of patriarchy, and therefore women’s relationships to the newly established nation-state are com­plex. However, not all feminist organizations tie the two liberations together; some, as I discuss later, have questioned nationalist movements altogether, particularly as they relate to women.

Cinematic Context

I begin with a brief analysis of violence that is enacted against women within the context of national liberation movements. I have in mind an image from Deepa Mehta’s 1999 film Earth. Mehta tells a story of a Hindu nanny to a Per­sian family living in 1947 Lahore on the eve of the partition of India and Pak­istan. The nanny, Shanta, is courted by three men: two are Muslim and one is

Sikh. At a time of growing ethnic and religious segregation, Shanta seems to be able to bring the men together, symbolizing a united, tolerant, and multi­cultural India. As the atmosphere in town gets tense, the militant Muslim, Imam Din, proposes marriage to Shanta as a means to secure her safety. But Shanta turns him down as she is in love with Hassan, the apolitical Muslim. The film ends with Hassan’s death and Shanta being dragged by her hair (pre­sumably to her death) by Imam Din. What is striking to me in this film, as in Moufita Tlatli’s Silences of the Palace (set in Tunisia), is the equation made between the woman protagonist and the nation struggling for independence.5 In both films the woman is like the nation—occupied—and in both the nation’s independence does not guarantee the woman’s liberation. In other words, both Mehta and Tlatli conclude that while the struggle to end colonialism (in Pakistan/India and Tunisia respectively) has succeeded, the struggle to liber­ate woman is still ongoing. The woman protagonist is not able to save herself; instead, she can aid the male fighters in achieving independence, only to be abandoned and oppressed by them afterwards.6

Male filmmakers also use the trope of the woman-nation as an evocative symbol of personal sacrifice for the good of the nation.7 Michel Khleifi’s Wed­ding in Galilee (1987) recounts the story of the wedding of a Palestinian mukhtar’s (mayor’s) son, which is performed under the controlling eye of Israeli army personnel, who manipulate the Mukhtar to invite them. The son, humiliated by these circumstances, suffers from impotence, and the bride— in a horrific scene—takes her own virginity, to save the honour of the family, patriarchy, and the nation.

In all these examples we see that the woman is presented as a victim of both patriarchy and nationalism, and if she makes a heroic gesture, it is always to benefit the nation (or patriarchy) rather than her status as a woman. In other words, she can become a national heroine only if she compromises or aban­dons her own (gendered) interests as a female subject, succumbing to the asexual role of the mother-nation.8 Following this analysis, we can examine how these women negotiate the expectations nationalism has of them with regard to their gendered identity, and we can see what avenues are open or closed to them as national and gendered subjects. In particular, these films suggested that the women could choose either to be victims (of occupation and patriarchy) or to be nationalist heroines. But recent events made me realize that the heroine-victim dichotomy is too simplistic and that it does not account for the image of the Palestinian woman suicide bomber as a monster.

In the Name of the Nation: Images of Palestinian and Israeli Women Fighters


[ 15 ]


Since the beginning of 2002 the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has seen a new flavour of resistance, whereby Palestinian women have joined the ranks of suicide bombers. Previously, upon revealing that I am from Israel, the North American response was often pity and compassion for having come from a war zone. My conversant would usually express sympathy and worry for the sake of my family in Jerusalem and ask questions about the situation. But since women started killing themselves, I have encountered a new set of baffled questions or requests for me to explain the phenomenon. The idea that women are sent to kill themselves, or choose to do so, appalls North Americans. On numerous occasions I have been told that the interviews with mothers who claim they encourage their daughters to kill themselves in this way, and wish they could do the same, are distressing. The photos of the women were fea­tured in the media with stories emphasizing their beauty, intelligence, and mis-used future, and (at least) in North America a bewildered response ensued. It also seems that the gender shift in suicide bombers has resulted in a shift in attitudes towards me, from a victim to an expert. I—a woman, a feminist, and a Palestinian sympathizer—found myself asked to explain a phenomenon that I find anti-feminist. Moreover, since I am an Israeli, Palestinian suicide attacks—particularly those taking place inside Israel—are naturally emotion­ally charged for me. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of female suicide bombers and the responses to it challenged me to question the representation of women fighters in general and to try to complicate the North American discourse about Palestinian female suicide bombers in particular.

In April of 2002 I was shopping for gifts for my yearly visit to Israel, and a vendor said: “How can they send women to kill themselves and others? Are they animals? And this one, she had a future, she was engaged, she was study­ing, she was beautiful… .What kind of a society is this?” He was referring to Ayat Akhras who, on 29 March 2002 blew herself up at a supermarket in Jerusalem, killing herself and two others and wounding dozens. Since 27 Jan­uary 2002, the day that Wafa Idris strapped ten kilograms of explosives to her­self and blew herself up in downtown Jerusalem, an excited discourse has emerged (both in the Arab world and in the West) on those “angels of deaths,” or “Joans of Arc,” depending on one’s political position.2 Even Adbusters, the leftist anti-capitalist magazine, published a full-page photo of Akhras, with a centred caption reading “Something to die for.” The designed pun on her beauty and her cause is not incidental. Whether Adbusters intended it or not, this language falls into traditional Orientalist lingo, and even under the most charitable reading, Akhras is, at the very least, romanticized and fetishized. To be fair, the photo is contrasted with obscured images of North American kids who supposedly commit suicide and have “nothing to live for,” so the context for the photo-essay is neither the Palestinian fight for independence nor women suicide bombers. Still, this out-of-context use only draws more attention to its stereotypical implications (Adbusters, July/August 2002).

But the attention is not exclusive to the Arab world, and an array of ques­tions emerge: Why are the actions of Idris, Abu Aisheh, and Akhras more hor­rific than those of their male colleagues? Why did Sadam Hussein dedicate a memorial site for them and not for the dozens of male suicide bombers? The answer most clearly has to do with the very fact of their gender: violent women are conceived in the cultural imaginary to be deficient in the feminine qual­ities of nurturance and mercy. But the situation is more complex with women who fight for national liberation as they betray yet another stereotype, that of the mother-nation: the supportive, nursing, accepting meta-mother; the one who teaches mother tongue and the love of the country; the one who brings forth life (not death and destruction) and nurtures it. Moreover, the mother – nation is also the one who is supposed to raise her son to fight for liberation, to be a hero, but who does not go to war herself. Yet, as I show bellow, national liberation movements found interesting ways to incorporate women fighters

as part of their myth of nationalist heroism. While these gender stereotypes are reflected in the reservations generated by women fighters, I see a serious cultural discrepancy at work: Israeli women were fighters in the 1948 war, and they are resuming those tasks in recent years after a long fight with the army over gender. While the Palestinian woman fighter is seen in the West as a demon, a product of a sick and distorted society, the Israeli woman fighter is considered a sign of progress, equality, and modernity.3 A similar comparison can be made between the representation of women who serve in the Canadian or American armed forces, who are considered feminist, individualist, and competitive, and the representation of women who serve in the Iranian or Iraqi armies. The latter are always shown in large, seemingly conformist groups, holding guns, their faces stern, which presumably conveys the idea that they have been brainwashed and indoctrinated.

In this chapter I explore the cultural images of Palestinian and Israeli women fighters and attempt to address an array of issues regarding the inter­section of gender with nationalism in general and with the historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, from the days of the British mandate, to the 1948 war, to the present. I discuss the suicide bombers as part of a variety of tactics employed by occupied peoples in their struggle to become sovereign. These tactics range from fighting in armed forces, to supporting sol­diers, to community organizations, and peace activism. I suggest that the rep­resentation of women during the struggle for liberation functions on a con­tinuum from victims (of the occupier) to national heroines to monsters.4 The application of these labels (both inside and outside their respective societies) is not solely a consequence of acts committed but, rather, of the interaction between gender, race, nationality, and a particular historical and media moment. In other words, a nationalist movement may incorporate women fighters and hail them, while outsiders may condemn them. At the same time, due to historical circumstances, similar acts may be hailed by outsiders with regard to one society (Israeli) and condemned with regard to another (Pales­tinian).

Showing Rape: The Double Victim

As feminists we are caught between a rock and a hard place: the erasure of rape from the narrative bears the marks of a patriarchal discourse on honour and chastity; yet showing rape, some argue, eroticizes it for the male gaze and purveys the victim myth. How do we refuse to erase the palpability of rape and negotiate the splintering of the private/public trauma associated with it? Insaaf came under fire from Indian feminists because the fictional representation of rape elided the reality of underclass women’s rape by the state (police or war­ring armies). Further, a (commercial) filmmaker’s intervention in a discourse forced upon the nation by women was viewed as opportunism, which femi­nists found particularly odious. Equally, feminists who had seen (or not seen) the film roundly declared that the filmic depiction of rape could only titillate and entertain male viewers.25

Some of these criticisms are valid; still, too much gets thrown out with the bath water. It is no accident that Insaaf chose an up-market model as the vic­tim of rape. By showing a woman voluntarily “selling” herself in the world of advertising, the film operates through the same doublespeak discussed earlier. Popular cinema in general focuses on the lives of the rich and famous, just as alternative cinema is conversely obsessed with portraying the lives of the poor, the subaltern. By focusing on Bharati, played by Zeenat Aman (who herself won the “Miss Asia title” in 1969), the film plays on extratextual information that the audience has about the star and situates itself in the space between Aman’s real life and the character she plays on screen. Insaaf, unlike Teesri Manzil or Aradhna, set the new trend of eroticizing the heroine’s body. Bharati’s job of striking poses, openly flaunting herself before the camera, centres attention on her body. The centrality of Bharati/Aman’s body (mis)leads the audience into drawing incorrect conclusions regarding beauty, desire, lust, and rape. The subtext of this is the most insidious of rape myths: “she asked for it.” While such a critique rings true, it is equally pertinent that the film’s second half subverts the argument of the first half.

When a humdrum, low-paid existence replaces Bharati’s glamorous lifestyle after the courtroom fiasco, her little sister Nita gets a hard-won inter­view with a prestigious firm. It is of course a set-up, an occasion for Ramesh Gupta to assert his personal vendetta against Nita for testifying against him in court. If initially the film makes confused connections between lust, desire, and rape, on the one hand, and women’s culpability on the other, this latter part of the film clearly deflects such a thesis. Nita represents the position of millions of women in lowly, underpaid positions, acutely vulnerable to men with power.

Regarding the rape scene’s imbrication in representations of the already (sexually) coded woman’s body, I disagree with Indian feminists who argue that the rape sequence in Insaaf is titillating. Although protracted, it conveys noth­ing but pain, horror, and naked male aggression. The rape is unquestionably gruesome. When Ramesh enters Bharati’s bedroom he intimidates her and his intentions are soon clear. As she protests, “No, no,” Ramesh taunts, “Yes, yes.. .beauty queen… .Now kiss me.” Bharati first fights back, then breaks down and finally passes out. She lies on the floor on the other side of the bed; in view are her feet tied to the bed, her head thrown back in an expression of terror that turns to numbness from exhaustion as Ramesh Gupta stays on top of her.

Mary Ann Doane (1988, 216) discusses the impasse confronting feminist filmmakers (or theorists for that matter) that stems from a “theoretical dis­course that denies the neutrality of the cinematic apparatus itself. A machine for the production of image and sounds, the cinema generates and guarantees pleasure by a corroboration of the spectator’s identity.. .[an] identity.. .bound up with that of the voyeur and the fetishist.” She points to essentialist and anti-essentialist theories wherein the former presume and aim to restore rep­resentation of the female form in “images which provide a pure reflection of woman” (225), while the anti-essentialist refuses “any attempt to figure or rep­resent that body,” since the female body is always already and inescapably coded, written, overdetermined.

In her attempt to go beyond this impasse Doane (1988, 226) identifies the stakes involved as “not simply concerning] an isolated image of the body. rather, the syntax which constitutes the body as a term.” In Insaaf, the rape scene’s mise-en-scene, attacked so vociferously by feminists, frustrates, refuses to indulge the voyeur’s fetishistic gaze, without neglecting to “show” the brutality of rape. Its “syntax” distances it from the “mandatory rape scenes” reviled in Hindi films. Displacing elliptical references to rape in the Richardson/Forster tradition, pushing rape into the public domain, and refus­ing its status as a private matter are unequivocal gains made by the women’s movement.26

Yet scopophilic pleasure in rape representations is still a tangled issue. Linda Williams offers a psychoanalytic explanation of melodrama (weepies), horror, and pornography, three “body genres” that she classifies by their con­vulsive impact on the body—tears, fear, and orgasm, or the “tearjerker,”“fear – jerker,” and texts “some people might be inclined to ‘jerk off’” to. Williams draws attention to the perversions that these genres draw upon: masochism in melodrama, an oscillation between sadism and masochism in horror, and

sadism, at least in the anti-pornography group’s perception of pornography. Williams (1995,148), however, urges us to see

the value of not invoking the perversions as terms of condemnation. As even the most cursory reading of Freud shows, sexuality is, by definition, perverse. The “aims” and “objects” of sexual desire are often obscure and inherently sub­stitutive. Unless we are willing to see reproduction as the common goal of sex­ual drive, then we all have to admit, as Jonathan Dollimore has put it, that we are all perverts. Dollimore’s goal of retrieving the “concept of perversion as a category of cultural analysis,” as a structure intrinsic to all sexuality rather than extrinsic to it, is crucial to any attempt to understand cultural forms.. .in which fantasy predominates.27

Invoking Clover’s reading of the horror genre, Shohini Ghosh (1996,176) points to the difficulty of fixing (gender) identification among viewers, and Lalitha Gopalan (1997,53) concedes the viewer’s oscillation between masochism in rape and sadism in revenge sequences. Even if we do admit to a variety of permutations and combinations in the masochistic/sadistic viewing posi­tions—masochistic identification with rape, sadistic identification with revenge, a masochistic identification with rape and revenge, or a sadistic incitement in the rape and revenge sequences—it is not clear what is at stake for us as fem­inists. What are our anxieties about the effects of spectatorial arousal?

We might reconsider our own anxieties about the rape scene and focus instead on various other moments in the first half of Insaaf (especially the advertising agency’s filming) that fetishize the female body as an object of the male gaze. The onus of such a construction shifts to a different filmmaking mode—advertising—and its recipients, the generalized consumer’s scopophilic gratification, rather than the male’s gaze. Bharati’s post-rape depression inter­rupts her ability to glow for the camera and infuse consumer products with her radiance, motivating the second half of the film. Racialized beauty myths and proliferating beauty pageants (C. Chopra and F. Baria, India Today, 15 November 1996), offering women dramatic upward mobility from India’s small towns to metropolitan penthouses, are aspects Insaaf clairvoyantly sig­nals. This naturalized body/beauty myth combines far more pernicious aspects of patriarchy, capital, and commodification.

I draw a distinction here between the fetishization and sublimation of women’s bodies for consumer commodities in advertising, and felicitations of the body as a site of intimacy, pleasure, and desire. In the 1980s the sexualized Hindi film heroine was no longer punished as was the phallic vamp for satis­fying specular desires to see women’s bodies, as Pandit Indra candidly states. Previous female stars’ feigned lack of awareness about their bodies gave way to consciously teasing the limits of, and the pleasure in, “showing.” In the 1990s bawdy film songs further pushed the boundaries of sexualized public dis­course. Playing off the ribaldry in the rasiya tradition, these songs celebrate the risque once associated with the peasantry and folk music. Displacing earlier decades of film music’s lilting poetry fashioned by a refined urbane sensibil­ity, these tongue-in-cheek lyrics reflect the trouble between the sexes as well as women’s pleasure in being both the objects and the subjects of desire.

Bharati’s courtroom tirade at the end of the film results in more than a symbolic victory. The judge ruefully admits the court’s (read Indian state’s) fail­ure towards women and sets Bharati free. The sequence’s extreme lack of cred­ibility undermines it and fails to vindicate the original indictment of the judi­cial system. Yet a lot has changed since the self-punishing Vandana in Aradhana a decade before quietly acquiesced to a twelve-year incarceration for defend­ing herself against rape. If melodrama condenses profound public/private conflicts, at once exposing and reaffirming power relations (Gledhill 1987; Landy 1991), it is also a vivid emotional register in Hindi films. In Aradhana the centrality of affect shored up by the profilmic masculine fantasy acknowl­edges patriarchal oppression and proffers reverence in the form of a grand award from the state (fusing mother/nation/state)—an awkward and phan – tasmic compensation. On the other hand, in the post-198os woman’s film nothing short of “sweet revenge” compensates for women’s suffering.

The 1980s rape-revenge film, fuelled by women’s rage, dramatizes a pub­lic discourse that repudiates victimization and patriarchy and that is distinct from the pre-198os obsessive “inscription” and “erasure” of sexual violence, Teesri Manzil-style. The topos of rape, a weapon against the weak, is used by filmmakers as a rhetorical trope to conjure images of power, coercion, and humiliation in conflicts between the culturally powerless and powerful.28 Yet domination/subordination, as Priyamvada Gopal points out in the context of Bandit Queen, is not an eternal category but an unstable one, and the venge­ful action fulfills this prophecy. Nor is “meaning,” and here I reiterate her invo­cation of Susie Tharu: “so much total expression as a tension, a difference from that which went before” (Tharu 1989, 866).

I contend that the historical context is crucial to understanding the arrival of the avenging women’s film, its success and role in the circulation of dis­courses between representation and reality.29 In the films I have discussed— from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—I see the discourse on womanhood in an orbit from reverence to rape, and then revenge. It is no accident that the sharp reaction to Mathura’s rape in 1978 spearheaded the women’s movement. Gopalan’s anguished point is that, within the Hindi film narrative, it takes a woman’s rape to permit revenge. Ironically, and rather more ominously, the rape-revenge genre’s history reflects an unhappy reality. It took Mathura’s (and Rameeza Bee’s and Maya Tyagi’s) rape for the nation to focus attention on women’s rage organized as a movement.

Women’s Rage

Feminist anxieties about constructing vengeful heroines through rape-revenge narratives in the 1980s circle around eroticizing rape scenes and, hence, per­petuating a victim syndrome while masquerading the revenge as female agency.15 I propose that a historical approach might be helpful here. Com­paring these films to their antecedents—the classic Aradhna-style victim, or the inscription erasure in Teesri Manzil—not only plots elements of continu­ity and change underscoring the industry’s obvious generic impulse for rep­etition and difference but, more important, accounts for a broader discursive context of which these films are a part. Reverence no longer serves as sufficient compensation for the suffering victim woman.

Insaafka Taraazu16 is indeed, as Lalitha Gopalan argues, the “inaugural moment” in rape-revenge films. She, among others (Rajadhyaksha and Wille – men 1995, 416), points to the Mathura rape trial as structuring the context of Insaafka Taraazus reception. In 1979 the Supreme Court overturned a High Court ruling and freed two police constables accused of raping Mathura, a minor, in police custody. In 1978 a Muslim woman, Rameeza Bee, was raped in police custody in Hyderabad, and her husband, a rickshaw puller, was mur­dered for protesting about it. In 1980 Maya Tyagi was raped in Baghpat, Haryana, then stripped naked and walked through the streets by the police. The “rape bill”—the upshot of public shock and women’s rage—became the Anti-Rape Act in 1986 (Kumar 1994,127-42; Kannabiran 1996,32-41),

I wish to stress that context is central to understanding the avenging women subgenre. The Mathura rape trial marks the resurgence of the women’s movement in India, dormant since pre-independence. In this phase women organized spontaneously, not under male leadership; a “grassroots female mil­itancy” (Ehrenreich 1995, 85)17 forced itself onto the national agenda, using rape as a powerful trope in a national discourse on women’s subjugation by individual men and institutions. Nationwide agitations by women coalesced

to demand changes in the “rape laws.” The concatenate effect of this histori­cal moment shapes the latter-day woman’s film.

The maker of Insaafka Taraazu, B. R. Chopra, a reigning auteur in the film industry since the 1950s, has carved a special niche in Hindi cinema in his explorations of gender politics through the vicissitudes of heterosexual love. Chopra’s films often trace the liminal social space women occupy, question­ing permissible moral boundaries, even as he might carefully reinstate them. His other films that stand out in this respect are Gumrah/Deception (1967), Dhund/Fog (1973), and Pati Patni aur Woh/Husband, Wife and the Other (1978). Insaafka Taraazu, hot on the heels of the demand to reopen the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Mathura trial, bears more than an incidental rela­tion to the public discourse the verdict set off. Historically, the event marks the beginning of the (re)entry of a discourse on women’s place in the private and public spheres framed in terms of women’s rights (not reform, “uplift,” or the need to nurture special “feminine virtues”).

The nation underwent a long consciousness-raising process as women challenged and rewrote discriminatory laws on domestic violence, rape, dowry, and the growing incidence of “dowry deaths.” Family courts—instituted solely to relieve conventional courts from the burden of family disputes—and the soaring divorce rates were testimony to the serious “gender trouble” stirred up by women’s grassroots militancy. This ferment in gender relations features in popular films. Women, albeit feminized and sexualized, were once revered for their suffering. As the decades go by, however, they are increasingly capable of violence and taking control.

Insaafka Taraazu was released while the debate was still under way on new legislative measures to punish rape offenders and to replace rape laws first established during British colonial rule. The film’s heroine, Bharati18 (Zeenat Aman), winner of the “Miss India” title, is an independent career woman, working as a model and making good money to support herself and her schoolgirl sister, Nita (Padmini Kolahpure), in an apartment in Bombay. The film begins with Bharati winning a beauty contest determined by popu­lar mandate (i. e., the audience within the film). The man who awards her the highest score, Ramesh Gupta (Raj Babbar), receives the honour of placing the crown on her head.

Ramesh, a long-standing admirer of Bharati, uses his wealth to his advan­tage and makes casual efforts to be with her, while she, self-absorbed and pre­occupied with her fiance Ashok, obliges Ramesh in the routine fashion that a star obliges fans. Slighted by her lack of interest one day when he visits her, Ramesh barges into her room and, in a protracted sequence, attacks her, ties

Women’s Rage

Figure 29 Scene from Insaafka Taraazu/Scales of Justice, 1980 (with permission of Screen).

her down, and repeatedly rapes her. Bharati falls unconscious, and somewhere towards the end of this sequence her sister Nita comes home, sees Ramesh on top of Bharati, and flees the house, fearful and confused.

When Bharati reports the incident and presses charges, her lawyer warns that loopholes in the anti-rape laws make it virtually impossible to prove the rapist’s guilt. In fact the defendant’s lawyer easily reinterprets the sequence of events, casting severe doubts on her lack of “consent,” the critical issue in all rape litigation. Bharati loses the lawsuit even though her lawyer is a commit­ted and competent woman, and despite the trial’s widespread publicity. Shunned by advertising companies that can no longer afford to have her name associated with their products, and by her prospective in-laws, who cannot cope with the adverse publicity associated with her, Bharati leaves Bombay.

Dispirited and depressed, she relocates with her sister in Pune (a city close to Bombay) and takes a low-paid job as a secretary in a store selling firearms. Nita, meanwhile, interviews for a job with a prestigious firm, but the interview turns into a nightmare when the firm’s proprietor, the interviewer, is none other than Ramesh, who traps her in a room, humiliates her, and rapes her too. When Nita returns home and collapses, Bharati responds by taking a gun from the store, following Ramesh to his office, and killing him at close range, in cold blood, and in full view of his colleagues.

Bharati is arrested and tried. She refuses to hire a lawyer, choosing instead to defend herself. The court fails to recognize her due to the transformation in her appearance. In an impassioned speech about the miscarriage of justice for women, she reminds the court that she is Bharati, the model who was once raped by Ramesh Gupta. The failure to punish her rapist then, she argues, had only encouraged him to victimize another woman. In a dramatic end to the court proceedings, the judge, impressed by Bharati’s arguments, sets her free.

In Insaafka Taraazu the victim becomes vengeful and victorious not only against the man who victimizes her but also against the entire misogynist juridical system. The film examines the ramifications of rape: the fact that it is nothing but an assertion of male aggression and power; that the rape gets rehearsed both literally and figuratively in a court trial meant to punish the rapist; that the rapist gets off due to lack of conclusive evidence; that the vic­tim faces social ostracism along with acute depression and trauma in the after­math; and that the crowning act of injustice is the court setting the rapist free. The film truly centres on the woman’s narrative: the rapist’s character is not elaborated beyond the fact that he is a well-to-do, “normal,” even pleasant person, someone whose violence leaves an unsuspecting Bharati and the audi­ence shocked and dismayed.19

The narrative structure explores two possible responses to rape that pop­ular films have deployed. First, recourse to the legal process turns out to be a farce that leads to yet another woman becoming a rape victim. Second, the film valorizes a wonderful revenge fantasy: direct action and punishment followed by success in court. In the first courtroom proceedings, Insaafka Taraazu is unequivocal in condemning the juridical-legal system. As the woman lawyer tells Bharati at the outset: “It is very hard to establish rape. That is why so many rapists go unpunished. And whether or not the rapist is punished, one thing is certain, the woman definitely gets a bad name….You may not know this, but for a woman, a court case involving rape is not very different from rape.” At the same time the lawyer invokes “shame” and “honour,” qualities at stake for the shareef aurat (good woman).

Bharati’s response is firm—“I now neither care about society, nor about getting a bad name”—but she is less tough than she thinks. The defence attor­ney’s reinterpretation of her as a model, along with a photo series of her with Ramesh, resembles Barthes’s principle of writerly texts (1974,3-9).20 Her pho­tographs, he argues, demonstrate the inner logic of an alluring sex object and a “modern” woman’s permissive lifestyle. The defendant’s lawyer badgers her for her “improper” conduct, which is demonstrated by her choosing a profes­

sion in which she displays her body. When Ramesh is set free for lack of suf­ficient evidence, Bharati sinks into a depression, unable to cope either with the publicity following the debacle in court or with a job requiring her to suffuse consumer products with her charm.

It is the second time around, when Nita gets raped by Ramesh Gupta for daring to testify against him in court, that Bharati takes direct action. Nita, mak­ing a career as a stenographer, is no model selling her body. As Bharati’s lawyer states before she takes up the case, “A woman has to stand up some day and say she has the right to say, ‘No,’ and no man can touch her without her con­sent.” Yet the first half of the film obfuscates this point, particularly through Ramesh’s lawyer’s vociferous argument in court. By posing extraneous issues such as Bharati’s professional career as a model and the sexualization of her body that inheres to that career, the film implies a difficulty in demarcating consent from a woman’s prior conduct (Balasubrahmanyan 1990,107-53; Kannabiran 1996,32-41).21

Compared to both Bharati’s and Nita’s brutal rapes, involving terror, pain, humiliation, and a tortured aftermath, Bharati’s swift action against Ramesh seems painless. The film does not escalate the horror and cruelty in which Hollywood slasher films and, to a lesser extent, latter-day rape-revenge Hindi films indulge.22 What the film carefully implants, however, is a woman char­acter, once a victim but now ready to fight back. It is she (initially through a female lawyer) who takes up the fight, not her boyfriend, the police, or her father. It is worth noting that Bharati’s maternal vengeance here is on behalf of her sister.

The weakest point in the film is the last sequence, in which Bharati makes her impassioned speech in court against rape. She likens women to temples of worship: each time a woman is violated, she says, a religious shrine is des­ecrated. In the montage of visuals that accompany her soliloquy, we witness a church, a Hindu temple, and a mosque crumbling. The allusion to women as symbols of (men’s) religious communities is disconcerting, if not down­right dangerous. While the film text elsewhere attempts to undermine patri­archal ideology, here it suddenly falls into the trap of rejecting rape not because it is a uniquely perverse assertion of men’s power but because women, the victims, are likened to religious shrines. The film suddenly and unex­pectedly concludes with an insidious thesis on rape. Rather than laying bare the connection between rape and patriarchy, it ends up invoking extant patri­archal discourses within Hindu tradition that place women in binary posi­tions as the devi or dasi (goddess or slave). Holding women up as objects of reverence is posited as a counterpoint to rape rather than as a continuum within patriarchal discourse. This aspect of the film is more reprehensible than is the depiction of rape that Indian feminists protested, which I discuss later.

Clearly, despite the film ending with a tirade about reverence for women, what was new in Insaaf was that the woman, a victim such as those in the genre of Hindi films from Mother India to Aradhana, turned into a vigilante. In the 1980s the avenging woman figure became a trend: the “angry woman,” replacing the “angry man” of the 1970s. Carol Clover (1993,76), in the Amer­ican context, points to the appearance of “rape-revenge” films as popular cul­ture’s response to the women’s movement—feminism’s gift to popular cul­ture: “The marriage of rape to revenge was made in movie heaven… .Ironically enough, it was a marriage for which the matchmaker was the women’s move­ment, for in terms more or less explicitly feminist, rape became not only a deed deserving of brutal retribution, but a deed that women themselves (not cops, boyfriends, or fathers) undertook to redress.”

It was perhaps this innovation, the introduction of rape to the revenge schema, already a staple of popular Hindi cinema, that made Insaaf ka Taraazu popular, spawning a veritable new subgenre. It led the way to fusing themes of sexual violence/rape—a handy (though not exclusive) trope23 with which to excoriate and expose the pervasive violence (between classes) and corrup­tion (within institutions) that humiliated heroines avenge. Although rape appeared in earlier films it was never at the centre of the narrative, and even when it was salient, allusions to its reality were carefully repressed. The rape threat, hovering in the margin of pre-i98os films like Teesri Manzil, is seized upon and made central in the 1980s. Women exterminating men appeared in earlier films, such as Mother India and Mamta/Maternal Love (1966) (Thomas 1989).24 However, in these films women’s fury and power service conservative patriarchal ideals apotheosizing motherhood. Here women are objects of rev­erential fervour rather than agents exacting revenge in the name of wom­ankind.

Judged by its production values, Insaaf ka Taraazu is unusually poor, which comes as a surprise, given that the film was made by B. R. Chopra, a seasoned director. Aman’s method acting, meant to convey a post-rape depres­sive stupor, lacks credibility. The song sequences fill out a parsimonious story­line, in contrast with Hindi cinema’s usual multiple subplots that weave together during three hours of screen time. Furthermore, the long takes, vir­tually static camera, and flat three-key lighting make the film visually unin­teresting.

Double-Speak about the Body

Between the moral authority of the state’s censor board and preoccupation with women’s bodies through strategic camera angles and movement is the grati­fication and scopic pleasure that filmed bodies, especially those of the vamp, offer to both male and female viewers. The vamp is presented as the sexual – ized woman, craving men and their attention by inviting their gaze upon her­self, her body, her eroticized gestures and movements. This exhibitionism, pleasurable to the audience, is simultaneously condemned as immodest, pruri­ent, and “bad" Thus one can enjoy the visual pleasure, the spectacular and erotic dance numbers, while airing moral indignation by condemning the woman in unison with the narrative in which she is inevitably punished.

This doublespeak is evident not only in films but in the entire discursive culture surrounding films. It operates no differently in associated texts such as the film magazines. During my search for secondary sources on films and film history in the Indian National Film Archives at Pune, I was struck by one preoccupation in film magazines through four decades ofpost-independence cinema. The industry positions itself as demanding freedom of expression and opposing censorship. At the heart ofthis wrangle is the contentious issue of how much the films can show—a debate that is really about nothing more than the right to show and see the woman’s body. In magazines that repro­duce ad nauseam stills, centrefolds, pin-ups, shots from films, and close-ups of physical details of the female stars, the accompanying written text virtu­ously repudiates the industry and the film stars for their declining values. The visuals show the reader what is being decried. Such doublespeak contin­ues in the films’ texts, which invite us to see and then condemn the “bad” woman.

Culling a few candid moments from the discourse in the film magazines, I cite a film fan, who, in an unusually plain-spoken way reminds us of film’s nature—intrinsically and organically linked to the pleasures of voyeurism and scopophilia. In the 1940s this fan wrote unselfconsciously to the magazine Film India about his admiration for a new actress, Begum Para. He marvelled at her diaphanous sarees, which enabled him to gaze at her magnificent breasts. In a similar vein, Pandit Indra makes a case against the puritanical censor­ship advocated by Film India’s editor and the state. The open depiction of sex and the body are, he argues, part of India’s classical poetry. He quotes at length from various Hindu poets, including the fourth-century poet Kalidasa’s poems in shringaar rasa,12 full of descriptions of gods and goddesses, their bodies, details about their lovemaking, and frequent references to the breasts and but­tocks of the amorous women. Analogously, he goes on, films “without romance will be as tasteless as food without salt!.. .The editor should not try.. .to destroy the sweetness of our life leading us towards [the] darkness of so-called purity” (P. Indra, Film India, July 1947).13

While the discourse on the extent to which films can or should “show” (women’s) bodies continues to this day, the figure of the vamp has become con­spicuous by its absence. We can only speculate about the changes that prompted this. The distance travelled can be graphically measured by the extent to which

the heroines substituted for the vamps. As the Helen-type figure atrophied in Hindi films during the 1970s, the female lead by the 1980s was transformed from a childlike innocent to a sexually alluring creature. In short, if heroines could satisfy what Begum Para’s admirer sought in the movies, the vamp was redun­dant. Much of this had to do with changing boundaries within rules govern­ing sexuality: the boundaries “good” women could occupy expanded slightly. Eroticizing the heroine marked a new trend; the vamp’s figure thereafter was banished from Hindi films.14

The Sexed Body and Ocular Pleasure

Before turning to the charge of masculine subterfuge employed in depicting rape scenes, I want to make an observation about the figure of the vamp—a liminal figure, favoured for decades in Hindi cinema, that significantly atten­uated in the 1970s and had disappeared by the 1980s, coinciding with the emer­gence of the avenging woman. In a film about mystery and intrigue, the chi­canery Sunita and Anil perform differ only in degree from the subterfuge in which Ruby engages. Yet Ruby is singled out as Sunita’s opposite: the vamp. Ruby, a nightclub worker, makes a living as a vaudevillian. The “difference” between Ruby and Sunita is that Sunita, because of her feminine status, is the object of desire. Ruby, however, transgresses the line: a sexualized subject with a desire of her own, she aggressively pursues the man she loves. She appropri­ates “phallic power” and must pay for it with her death.

The actress Helen, who plays the Ruby-like figure in scores of films, is iconic of the vamp. In the roles she repeats again and again, Helen portrays not so much the “wicked” woman as the naughty, sexually alluring, immod­est one—coded by her erotic, nimbly performed dance numbers—a wonder­ful medley of flamenco, jazz, modern, and belly dance movements set to adap­tations of rock ’n’ roll or jazz rhythms. Located in the public sphere, in the world of men, she is somehow bereft of a man of her own. Desired by all, yet loved

The Sexed Body and Ocular Pleasure

Figure 28 Scene from Teesri Manzil/Third Floor, 1965 (with permission of Screen).

by none, she inevitably—as in Teesri Manzil—zeroes in on the hero in her search to be loved by one man.

Yet within the pleasures and dangers of a liminal but exciting nightlife experienced by the privileged few, Helen is the “bad” undomesticated woman. For this she is punished with death, always an accidental act of “fate.” Not altogether insignificant are the communal overtones of Helen’s off-screen minority status as a Christian. Perceived as part of the Anglo-Indian commu­nity, an “impure” breed that could never gain legitimacy in a society acutely conscious of“origins,” Helen plays with the pleasure and anxiety that the oth- erized Western lifestyle elicits.