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.