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Media representations of Palestinian women: post-arab Uprisings

Hall a Shoailn


In February 2012, we woke up to a widely shared video on Facebook: a collection of pictures of Palestinian women in protests. The video was originally titled “Palestine: Women First,” but was later changed to “Nesa’iyeh (a Woman Thing).” The video’s background music features the sexy voice of Lebanese singer Yasmin Hamdan, singing, “Where are you? And where is the love?” As Yasmin searches for her lover, the video reveals pictures of Palestinian women protesting against the Israeli occupation and participating in the March 2011 protests demanding unity between Palestinian factions. The caption reads, “I began to photograph the increasingly central role played by Palestinian women activists [...] These politically-independent women implement a strategy of strictly non-violent protests against Israeli troops.”1 One might think the images, words, and song selection are a contradiction; however, a closer examination of the pictures and the captions beneath them reveal the interrelation between Yasmin’s song and the images of these women.

A few months later, I aimed to research the effect of the Arab Uprisings on the Palestinian women’s movement after 2011, and the contradictions evidenced in the video. I anticipated that Palestinian women would reflect on and speak about the transformative effect of the uprisings on their activism, and how they altered their views of activism and liberation. However, after numerous talks with active women2 in popular resistance in the West Bank,3 my research question shifted. The women spoke largely about the media’s obsession with their activism since the start of the Arab Uprisings and the distorted image surrounding their political participation. The women sensed that their agenda and messages were hijacked by foreign media and replaced with images that did not necessarily represent them. They were portrayed as “modern, “Western,” and “non-violent”: categorizations that they felt distanced them from the overall Palestinian popular resistance and ones they feel are not truly representative of their activism. This characterization is also perceived by some of the interviewed women as politically motivated and part of a larger recreation of the Palestinian image.

This chapter analyzes the media’s preoccupation with active women within the larger scheme of the Arab Uprisings, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA’s) réintroduction of the “non-violent Palestinian,” and the NGO-ization of the Palestinian national agenda. The media’s emphasis—especially that of Western media—originates from the overall Western focus on the participation of women in the Arab Uprisings, along with the PA’s open refusal and, at times, condemnation of armed resistance while deploying nonviolence. The main argument of this chapter is that we must observe the images of protesting women within the shifting variables of class, gender, and politics.

This chapter is largely built on the personal experiences of women who were active in popular resistance against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank after the Arab Uprisings, between 2011 and 2015. This qualitative study is composed of three basic methods: individual interviews, participant observations, and primary and secondary source analyses. The study is based on seven individual interviews conducted with young women who were politically active in the West Bank after the Arab Uprisings. Participants were told the purpose of the study, and the interviews were conducted in Arabic. The women were chosen based on three criteria: their towns, the periods during which they became activists, and the types of protests they attended. All of the interviewed women are active in political and social spheres, and are well known in their local communities.

The women interviewed were from four different cities in Palestine: Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. All of the women except one participated in protests against both the Israeli occupation and the PA’s request for political representation. Two of the interviewed women have been active since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, while four of them began participating in protests between 2003 and 2008. One of the interviewed women became active in 2010. The names present in the study are fictional in order to respect the privacy of the individuals.

Upon interviewing the women regarding their political participation after the Arab Uprisings, many voiced their discontent with the portrayal of women in the media, whether in news articles and photographs, or on social media. For this chapter, I selected a few media articles that most often caused controversy among active women and men when politically active Palestinian women shared the articles on social media. Noticeably, photos and exhibits titled "’Nesa’iyeh” by Israeli photographer Mati Milstein stirred intense discussions among active women and men. Some of his photographs will be examined in this chapter. Two of the interviewed women were represented in these photographs, while three others who were photographed in this exhibit shared their opinions in informal group settings.

This chapter sheds light on how the media fixated on women’s images in popular resistance and protests in an attempt to categorize the protests in Palestine— and in doing so, have created a distorted image of the reality of women’s involvement. It proceeds in three sections. Section “The Palestinian women’s movement” provides a brief background on the Palestinian women’s movement since the late 1920s. Section “Palestinian women in the wake of the Arab Uprisings” discusses how the media portrays Palestinian women’s participation after the “Arab Uprising.” Section “The Palestinian authority: the recreation of the

“nonviolent Palestinian”” then argues that the media’s preoccupation with active Palestinian women should be viewed within larger contexts: the Arab Uprisings, the PA’s réintroduction of the “nonviolent Palestinian,” and the NGO-ization of the Palestinian national agenda. In conclusion, the chapter reflects on how Palestinian women’s image was reconstructed by the political and social changes surrounding them. This image demonstrated how women’s bodies were used as carriers of a modernized, nonviolent message.

The Palestinian women’s movement

Palestinian women’s political participation and organization are strongly connected to the history of Palestine and the Palestinian national struggle. The Palestinian women’s movement articulated in the 1920s under the British Mandate was strongly intertwined with the national movement and its goals. Yet, although this movement played an important role in organizing demonstrations against British colonial policies and Jewish immigration,4 most of the women’s work was charity based and at times only turned to politicized charity work to assist male fighters.5 Furthermore, Palestinian women often met with government officials and constricted ties with other international associations when engaging in demonstrations and organizing.

Hence, the Palestinian women’s movement originated from a political national liberation background rather than a feminist-identifying movement or a movement related to women’s rights.6 As Fleischmann stated in her introduction to The Nation and Its “New” Women,

Women living under colonial hegemonies could not—still cannot—ignore the fact that social and political inequalities of men and women alike were consolidated, controlled, and maintained by colonial state structures. Crucial to understanding Third World feminists is a “notion of agency which works not through the logic of [gender] identification but through the logic of opposition to colonial structures of domination.”7

Islah Jad explains how cultural, religious, and political settings shape the outcomes and strategies of groups; one example is the backlash against urban women in the Great Revolt of 1936-1939.s Peasants disputed the urban elite women’s new ascribed roles during the Mandate and imposed the veil on them—not, as Jad argues, for reasons of “traditionalism” but as a “reflection of class antagonism (resentment) directed against the cultural hegemony of the urban elite, including their women.”9 The peasants described elite women as “less authentic” and “Westernized,” resulting in urban women’s withdrawal from the public sphere.10 Additionally, Fleischmann describes a heated debate in 1920s media between writers and intellectuals on whether or not women must be veiled.11 Those who advocated veiling viewed unveiled women as “Westernized” or closer to the Mandate regime. It seemed a matter of defying Westernization vis-à-vis authentic culture.12 Indeed, in several times throughout history, and particularly when Palestinians were shifting their discourse of resistance and when differences between classes or ideologies clashed, women were tactically attacked for being “modernized,” “Westernized,” or not aligned with the Palestinian society or with a particular individual group, class, or political party.

The Palestinian women’s movement continued to develop throughout the 1948 Nakba (“catastrophe”) of the Palestinians, and during the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, women were integral in various acts of resistance.13 Palestinians sustained a popular uprising while living under the conditions of Israeli military rule, shifting and modifying Palestinian social and political structures, including the roles of women. Between 1967 and 1972, women not only delivered food and weapons to Palestinian freedom fighters but were directly involved in the armed struggle by planning armed activities.14

During the First Intifada—the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli military occupation in 1987—women were a part of everyday resistance. Women of all ages and from different sectors of society participated in protests and civil disobedience. The end of the First Intifada was marked by the signature of the Oslo Peace Accords. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Israeli government signed the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government (Oslo I Accords) in 1993,15 and the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement in 1995 (Oslo II Accords).16 The PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist and, in return, the Israeli government recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.17 The parties also agreed on the creation of the PA, through which Palestinians would self-rule under the Israeli occupation for a transitional period that would eventually lead to a permanent resolution and a viable Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.18 As Jad points out,

In the historic discourse of the Palestinian national movement women were constructed either as the struggling militant or as the self-sacrificing mother ... the woman ‘freedom fighter’ with a gun in her hand was an image promoted by different Palestinian factions, especially on the left.

She rightly asks, “What happened to these images of women under the [Palestinian Authority]?”19

After Oslo, the PA confined women’s activism under its authoritarian and compromised rule, resulting in the demobilization and weakening of grassroots organizations, including the women’s movement.20 Former members of the Palestinian movement mostly became part of the PA’s governmental apparatus or part of the NGO-ization process. Palestinian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are internationally funded institutions, automatically intervened with national and international policy making. The growing numbers of these organizations both after the First Intifada and immediately after Oslo became a dominant trend in the evolution of the Palestinian women’s movement.21

After the failure of the Oslo peace process, the Second Intifada erupted in September 2000 and was largely categorized as violent compared to the first. It is within the aftermath of the Second Intifada and, later, during what became

Media representations of Palestinian women 95 known as the “Arab Uprising,” in which this chapter analyzes the images of Palestinian women deployed by the media. This chapter attempts to view these images within the “complex way in which hegemonic ... political, and patriarchal powers, including the mass media, ostracize Palestinian women and reproduce oppressive gender politics.”22

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