Al Jazeera recently aired a piece titled Lebanon’s Women Warriors, which features the testimonies and stories of eight women who fought against occupying forces from 1975-1990 in Lebanon.
The film offers a unique perspective: it shows the role women played in the war, the unconventional weapons they used, and ways they fought. Perhaps the most striking thing about the piece is that it shows the relationship between women and violence in a way that is not typically expressed.
This period was marked by civil war within Lebanon with the Southern region being polarized by the influx of Palestinian refugees and the presence of the PLO, followed by the presence of Israeli forces. In addition to the presence foreign forces, there was fighting among Christian, Shi’a Muslim, and Sunni Muslim militias, and even between these militias and social, nationalist and communist movements. Needless to say, alliances shifted erratically.
The women in the documentary were mobilized by various causes. They differed in their religious backgrounds: some are Christian, others are Muslim, and a few seem to be irreligious, choosing to align themselves with communist and nationalist socio-political movements instead. The one thing they had in common, however, was that they fought at the front lines alongside other women and men.
The two Muslim women offer some very strong insights on the way women fought and on the culture of violence that was created during this time and is still being maintained through some of their children.
Raja Hassan, the first of these two Muslim women, talks about the unconventional ways in which women fought. She recounts how the women would boil cooking oil and as the soldiers (occupying forces) would come through the alleys the women would throw the hot oil on them from the rooftops of their houses.
The second Muslim woman, Wafa’a Nasrallah (pictured above right), says that women played a bigger role than young men because they were less likely to be caught and arrested by Israeli soldiers. They were able to hide explosives under their clothes and carry them to the sites where they would be detonated by fellow men soldiers. Most of the killings of collaborators were carried out by women, she claims.
She tells us the military names she has given her 20- year-old and 11-year-old daughters while she casually loads and shoots guns with them. Viewers get a sense that what remains from the war is a culture of violence that will continue through these children, whether or not a physical war still exists.
In one scene, Wafa’a is pictured chopping vegetables on a small table. The scene changes and she is putting together a gun whose pieces are laid out on the very same table, perhaps making the statement that for these women the art of dismantling and utilizing weapons has become as ordinary and as much a daily responsibility as cooking a meal.
Another commonality among these women is the way they perceive themselves and their use of violence. Almost all of them say they do not regret fighting and killing, although a few explicitly say they would never carry a gun again because the climate now does not necessitate it. They also agree that violence was/is necessary to defend their country and the honor of their people, showing that women are not just seen as bearers of honor, but also as the defenders of honor—a duty typically assigned to men.
When the women are asked if they think fighting in the war took away their femininity, Maysloon Farhat says that it is quite the opposite-it gave her strength, self-esteem and confidence. On the other hand, Fadia Bazi said that when the war was over she felt she wanted to be like other women: to wear makeup, skirts and fix her hair.
They also speak on the advantages they had as women in these situations. Jocelyn Khoueiri makes a bold statement, saying that “women can be better fighters than men. Because a woman has inside of her all the energy of mothering, and all the energy of life, and all the energy of love. This energy is used to defend the people she loves.”
Another woman, Soha Bechara, explains how she was able to get past guards, in an attempt to assassinate the general of the South Lebanon Army, because they did not suspect her.
Interestingly enough, the documentary opens with a bright pink background as Barbie dolls are pictured with guns, lipsticks with bullets, and hand grenades and
bombs with neutral or feminine items. The pictures and words weave in concepts and ideas that are typically feminine with those that are not typically associated with females. For most of these women, however, these “masculine” actions and items did not take from their femininity. The war, the fighting, and the guns—these things symbolize dignity, honor, and empowerment for these women.
It is refreshing to see perspectives of Muslim women and other women who were empowered by their own choices and by their ability to defend (instead of symbolize) honor.
However, I am left with the unsettling reality that for many growing up in war-torn countries of the Muslim world, the culture of war is so pressing that violence may be perceived as the sole path to empowerment, a sense of self-esteem, or honor. If this is true, then I have to wonder if empowerment which necessitates or breeds a cyclic culture of violence is the kind of empowerment we want women to experience.
You can watch the entire documentary here at Al Jazeera or below: