I attended a talk last month by Palestinian woman and activist Yafa Jarrar as part of Israeli Apartheid Week at Carleton University. She spoke on a panel entitled “Indigenous and Palestinian women,” which addressed the struggles Aboriginal women in Canada and Palestinian women faced living under apartheid policies. Later, we sat down and discussed the topic of her lecture: Western feminism’s interest in Palestinian women in the armed struggle.
The second intifada, Palestinian uprising, began in 2000. It was after the September 11, 2001 attacks in particular that Western discourse took an eager interest in grouping suicide bombing, Islam, and Palestinians together; anti-colonial feminist scholar Nahla Abdo refers to them in a 2008 essay as the Western media’s “sexiest” topics. The portrayal was both politically-fuelled and colonially-influenced.
Women have always played a role in the Palestinian struggle, both armed and peaceful, but women suicide bombers emerged for the first time during the second Intifada. As Abdo notes, it was then that feminist discourse took a special interest in Palestinian women in the armed resistance. The “conclusion” that mainstream Western feminism came to was shocking to those of us familiar with the historical context of Palestinian women freedom fighters.
Jarrar referenced a few of the many feminists who tackled this topic, among them Andrea Dworkin, Barbara Victor, and Mia Bloom. Dworkin has argued that Palestinian women use suicide bombing to escape sexual abuse and acquire the higher status of a martyr. Victor wrote a book about the first female suicide bombers and attributed personal problems, such as divorce or lack of marriage, as the reasoning behind their actions. She further asserted that the women had been manipulated by men into joining the armed resistance. Bloom also argued that female suicide bombing was a reaction to rape. The examples go on and on, echoing one another, and consistently failing to contextualize the women. Jarrar is not speaking to the justification of suicide bombing and neither is the participation of Palestinian women in armed resistance confined to that act. Rather, she suggests that to begin a feminist discourse on the topic, it is necessary to employ an anti-colonial framework which recognizes the violent nature of Israeli colonialism and the Palestinian right to resistance.
“In reality, research found that the women were highly educated and satisfied in their personal lives,” said Jarrar; “however, they had all suffered from effects of the 1948 Nakbah, the Palestinian Catastrophe, as well as continuing effects of the Israeli apartheid regime. The research shows that they were not acting because they were oppressed by men, but by the Israeli regime.” The above-authors’ portrayal of women’s armed resistance as a reaction to cultural oppression fails to acknowledge that the women were acting against an occupying regime and not because of their position as “oppressed Muslim women.”
Why did Western discourse fail to put these women into context before “rationalizing” their actions? Jarrar says that politically, it is part of a greater failure of putting Palestinians in general into a historical context. “It is also the racism, the generalization, the orientalism, which are enforced through the media and mainstream discourse. It is easy for people to hear that Arab societies are all oppressive and patriarchal. It is easy to blame these phenomena on already-accepted stereotypes.”
Although Palestinian women in the resistance movements identify varyingly with their religion, the fact that they were Muslim, Jarrar says, meant that
“It became much easier for Western feminists to attribute their actions to religious norms and invoke Islamophobia and the belief that Muslim societies are inherently oppressive towards women.
Of course there are many challenges that Muslim women, like Western women, face in their own societies, but it is not the place for Western feminists to mix all of these things together and perpetuate Islamophobic, racist, and even sexist ideas.”
While Jarrar maintained that she had never seen Western discourse accurately represent the struggles of Palestinian women, she did not close the door to the possibility. Necessarily, a Western discourse would have to include the women and their histories in the discussion – “their choices are not being made in a vacuum.” Jarrar insists that a post-colonial analysis is necessary in any work on the topic.
In her time in Canada, Jarrar says that she has experienced people’s surprise when they see the person she is in contrast with their ideas about the oppressed, passive, and uneducated women of Palestine. As is common in the media when a strong Muslim or Arab woman reaches headlines, Jarrar says others have tried to rationalize her as an exceptional case. Rather than step away from colonial misconceptions, some would isolate her as a single independent woman amidst a sea of passive Palestinian women and oppressive Palestinian men. The fact that she does not wear a veil further breaks the conceptions that many Westerners hold about Palestinian women. Jarrar says that this fact will sometimes be used to further isolate her: “you have to be careful not to allow them to delegitimize other women who are veiled and who are independent, take part in the struggle, and make their own decisions.”
As the panel came to a close last month, one audience member asked if it was difficult for the women to share on such personal issues. “It can be very triggering,” admitted Jarrar, especially when the person asking is more interested in the drama of your trauma than in contributing action. “The most important thing for me though,” said Jarrar, “is that we refuse to be victims. This is very empowering.”
Aside from the general difficulties that women at large face living in a patriarchal world, women of colour and Muslim women face an added attack from western feminists claiming to speak in their name. To witness this, one need not look farther than the latest message from the European neo-colonial feminist group Femen: “[Muslim Women Against Femen] write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me’.” Despite it all, as Yafa Jarrar reiterated, we refuse to let it make us into victims.