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-
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.