Her Resistance is the Larger Beauty

The objectification of women in Palestinian resistance is, like all other forms of objectification, demeaning, disrespectful, and most importantly: in disregard of the true essence of Palestinian resistance.

There has never been gender equality so well defined as there was when Palestinian resistance was founded upon increasing British and Zionist colonialism, which began more than 8 decades back. Palestinian women and men fought valiantly side by side, without being subjected to misogynic retorts by society. Yet years later, when capitalism and NGO investment in an illusion of a Palestinian state destroyed the golden relation both genders lived by, the integral role of Palestinian women in resistance that was recorded up until the first Intifada in 1987 had drastically died down.

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The apathy that has gripped Palestine from the 1993 dreaded failure of the Oslo accords is, however slowly, and however insufficient, lessening. For the first time since, protests against the Zionist occupation and PA suppression have been taking place and have had women in the frontlines, always. It is not the case if, to “balance the roles”, the men throw rocks at Israeli military jeeps and soldiers and the women chant in objection to occupation and to energize the men, for many times I have seen the glorious act of Palestinian women throwing rocks, and men have often led the chants. It is only a matter of choice. In resistance, there is no specific role defined for each gender. (Of course, this is not practiced everywhere; the village of Kafr alDeek used to hold weekly demonstrations against the occupation, but due to chauvinism that has risen to effect all aspects of society including resistance in this village specifically, no women were present at the demos. This may be one of the reasons the protests in this village ended a few months after they began without having much impact on the Israeli occupation.)

Where am I getting with this? Well, simply: the reactions to Palestinian women taking part in confrontations with Israeli occupation forces have not been exactly welcoming by all due to the lingering presence of patriarchy. Most importantly, the idea of women taking part in protests has not always been interpreted correctly. That is what I will focus on.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of objectifying women in resistance, and it may even be done unconsciously. Not only is this disrespecting the cause, but it also emphasizes the reason women stand up for themselves.  Fawning over Palestinian women as pictures of them are caught in mid-protest disgraces the Palestinian cause into a show; a display of the seemingly beautiful people that fight. It does not bring the cause itself into light.

You may or may not have heard of the photo exhibition Nesa’iyeh. In its advertisement, it states “The evolving situation on the ground presented Milstein [photographer] with an opportunity to attempt to honestly and fairly create a unique visual record of the new reality and emerging paradigm being created by revolutionary Palestinian women.”

I have not been to the exhibition but I have seen Milstein’s photography. He is one photographer of many that offends the Palestinian cause as he focuses on the faces and expressions of “female Palestinian Gandhis” instead of what they resist for. Glorifying humans by capturing their evident facial strength and beauty with a click of a lens is photographic skill- when it is done to one half of the Palestinian struggle, the women, it is objectification; this offensive practice completely disregards the struggle that Palestinians, particularly the women, have been living in and sacrificing for.

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This is one example of the exteriorization of the Palestinian cause. Another common one is the exaggerated hype on the subject of the kuffiyeh- the traditional checkered scarf that was acclaimed to be a national symbol of Palestinian resistance since the fighting against British colonialism (it is not called “Fateh’s scarf” or “Arafat’s scarf” as it was worn long before Fateh came into existence but that is besides the point for now.)

Along with its symbolic purpose, I personally wear the kuffiyeh at demos to cover my face and identity (from the loving parents as well as from the IOF). It is simply insulting to wear a kuffiyeh for the sole reason of emphasizing one’s kohl-lined eyes. Of course, we are not to blame the women who applied kohl and/or mascara (or simply have beautiful eyes) for the photographs taken of them as they are in mid protest dodging plastic coated metal bullets and fighting the suffocation of the tear gas, kuffiyehs covering everything but their eyes. The photographers that intentionally focus on a woman’s exterior during such an event are to be held responsible, and those who endorse and romanticize it as acts of power and resistance are to be educated (sadly, many are Palestinians). Simply put, captivation of a person’s beauty is not Palestinian resistance, but a materialization of Palestinians and their cause.

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Notice the difference between each picture. One is a clear objectification. The other actually brings the purpose of resistance to show.

To externalize Palestinian women is to externalize a vital part of Palestinian resistance. Instead of romanticizing her, the least that could be done to a Palestinian woman, the fundamental anchor for Palestinians, who sold her gold to afford a new rifle for her husband, dug drenches in an attempt to thwart Zionist advancement into their villages, birthed martyrs, spends year after year yearning for her imprisoned children, siblings, spouse, whose revolutionary voice rings higher than all others, is, to rightfully give her esteem-not for herself, but for her resistance in the name of a free Palestine. This may only be done by nullifying objectification, and when all Palestinian women regain their essential stand in resistance.

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9 comments on “Her Resistance is the Larger Beauty

  1. [...] Deema al-Saafin [@River2TheSea] on the history of gender equality in #Palestine resistance that’s sorely lacking today http://thekfcmonument.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/her-resistance-is-the-larger-beauty/ [...]

  2. [...] Third, and most importantly, I wouldn’t be writing this if it weren’t for Deema Alsaafin and her eyeopening piece on how the exhibit, in her words, “offends the Palestinian cause“. [...]

  3. Justathought says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject.
    It seems to me though that you are doing the very thing you are claiming to be fighting against… “There has never been gender equality so well defined as there was when Palestinian resistance was founded” <– I very much doubt that this is true and that the women were not cooking, cleaning and mothering the fighters… Those who fought usually did so after losing a male family member to death or to prison… What you are describing is a pure myth, exalted mostly by men…

    "Instead of romanticizing her, the least that could be done to a Palestinian woman, the fundamental anchor for Palestinians, who sold her gold to afford a new rifle for her husband, dug drenches in an attempt to thwart Zionist advancement into their villages, birthed martyrs. . ." <– If that's not romanticizing, I am not sure what is…

    You might have a point in there but it gets lost in your black-or-white perspective and your hyperbolic language…

    Moreover, you seem to be forgetting that emotion is what gets people to respond and adhere to causes and well-done portraits are a powerful vector of emotion… Humans are attracted to beauty, that is a fact. Further, there are several types of photography, not all of it is bare matter-of-fact news coverage. Personally, I much prefer seeing in the news the picture of a beautiful Palestinian girl whose face is covered by a kuffieh than an umptenth picture of a young men covered by the same garment menacingly throwing a stone or burning a tire… The portrait of the girl humanizes Palestinians to all those who want to portray them as a bunch of ruthless terrorists.

    Finally, by slamming the idea that a picture can be taken of a woman's face because she is beautiful, you are not only rejecting a certain vision of art (which is of course your right to do) but – more importantly – you are implicitly providing fuel to those who argue that women should hide in shame and behave in a way so as to never attract attention in any way or that a woman being beautiful and people noticing is a bad, nasty thing…

    There are so many issues to tackle regarding the way Palestinians and Palestinian resistance are portrayed in the world; it seems like you chose to create an additional one that is not really there…

    • Thank you for reading and your comment.
      I do not know how or why you would ever assume that just because the women cooked and cleaned for their husbands, they didn’t fight with them as well. The occupation affects every aspect of life, therefore it was only fitting if the women resisted, too.
      I was not aiming to romanticize, but I was aiming to generalize a woman’s role in Palestinian resistance with mentioning facts, and not names.
      Further reading your comment, it seems to me that you have misunderstood my point. It is not a problem if photographers capture women in mid protest, but it is clear objectification if they intentionally focus on her exterior without bringing the subject of what she resists for into light. I am not blaming Palestinian women for being beautiful, as I clearly expressed in the post.
      I respect your opinion and I cannot force you to see things my way but I’ll have you know that this subject is very much alive or else I wouldn’t have written about it in the first place.

  4. meena says:

    Notice the difference between each picture. One is a clear objectification. The other actually brings the purpose of resistance to show.

    Thanks for your post. The two photos side-by-side really showed the difference between taking women’s politics seriously, and not doing so.. It is a widespread problem.

  5. Mati Milstein says:

    Hey Deema… Thank you for taking the time to write this critique; I really do appreciate it. Your points have been noted and I’d certainly find valuable the opportunity to discuss them further at some point. Cheers, Mati

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