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