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.