Nearly sisters: the common cause of Israeli and Palestinian women

By Khaled Diab

The fog of war obscures the similar challenges facing women in and and how the conflict hinders them from finding common cause.

Monday 13 August 2012

A photo of a presumed Israeli soldier exercising her right to bare arms – and legs and midriff – with a machine gun slung casually over her shoulder has gone viral.

While supporters of Israel have seized on this image to talk up the virtues of the IDF, pro- are bound to view this as an attempt to sex up the ugly reality of the harsh occupation – after all, regardless of how “sexy” an assault rifle-bikini combo on a Tel Aviv beach seems to distant voyeurs, relocate it to a West Bank checkpoint, and it rapidly loses its questionable charm.

As the proud ‘Only in Israel' caption accompanying the snapshot clearly demonstrates, this modern-day Jewish Amazon confirms Israel's image amongst its cheerleaders as the land of tough, independent and sexy women who are every bit their men's equal, unlike those oppressed, repressed and depressed Arab women.

Of course, like with all myths, there is a kernel of truth to this. Secular Israeli women are, judging by what I've seen, probably the most independent and empowered women in the , but their Palestinian “sisters” are hardly pushovers, as I've found out for myself through encounters with eccentrically philosophical doctors and capable professionals, frontline activists, articulate artists, and more.

Besides, there is, quite literally, another Israel. Only 60-odd km away from “decadent” and “hedonistic” Tel Aviv, lies “holy” Jerusalem, a theocratic stone's throw away from Tehran. In the city's ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods, where vigilante modesty patrols intimidate the streets, women must dress modestly, are segregated from men during religious festivals, often occupy the back of the bus, and their ‘offensive' form is effaced from posters.

The main difference between Jewish and Muslim (and Christian too) in the is less one of substance and more about fashion – hijabs vs wigs and scarves. For moderately religious , shorter skirts are ‘in' and trousers are ‘sin', while the fashion-conscious ‘muhajaba' will don skin-tight jeans but not bare any part of her legs.

But fashion tastes amongst the ultra-conservative are converging, as reflected by the tiny but growing minority of Jewish women choosing to dress in Islamic-style black niqabs and loose gowns to protect their “chastity”. The Rabbinate has become so alarmed by this development that it has condemned this practice as a form of veiled sexual deviancy, though the leader of the “Jewish burqa” movement insists that it is an ancient Jewish tradition.

Of course, the public role some women play in fundamentalist Jewish and Islamic movements could be viewed as an emancipation of sorts, even if they do preach what secularists like myself view as the subjugation of women, but which they see as respect and honour.

Besides, even among secularists, chauvinism is not always far beneath the surface. Take the supposedly emancipating image of the bikini-clad soldier. While male fighters tend to be celebrated for their courage and bravery, the fawning, fondling hand of misogyny ensures that this “hot chick” is praised for her “Guns'n'Buns” and for putting the “ass in assassin”.

Similarly, while hard-talking male journalists the world over are often widely admired, even by their detractors, it can be a different story for women. Lisa Goldman, an award-winning journalist and co-founder of the independent leftwing +972 magazine, complained of the naked misogyny and the very personal nature of the attacks she has to endure from opponents. “The criticism directed at me is harsher than that directed at my male colleagues who often write more radical stuff than I do,” she told me.

Now back to the machine gun. The spectacle of women bearing arms in the Middle East is hardly unique to Israel (where women, with the exception of one infantry battalion, are actually not allowed to serve in combat), though in the Arab context, such as in Algeria, it has tended to be as paramilitaries.

The “poster girl” of Palestinian armed resistance has to be Leila Khaled, the first woman ever to hijack an aircraft, in 1969, heading from Rome to Athens – though it should be pointed out that she has claimed publicly that she never intended to harm, nor ever did in reality, the passengers. Although Israelis regard Khaled as terrorism personified, photos of her – smiling enigmatically or staring dreamily, while holding an AK-47 and wearing a ring made of a bullet and a grenade pin – have become iconic in many Palestinian circles.

Khaled was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which like much of the Palestinian secular left, and in a similar vein to early secular Zionism, saw the empowerment of women as a crucial prerequisite for national salvation and justice.

The unfolding reality of the conflict has both empowered and weakened women on both sides. An example of this is how Palestinian women have been empowered enough to take to the streets to protest the occupation but are, along with their families and male comrades who “let” them go out, mocked mercilessly by conservatives for emasculating the struggle and trying to usurp what should be men's work, activists have told me.

And things are not improving or are getting worse, especially in Gaza.

“Palestinian women are highly educated but the positions they occupy are not commensurate to their abilities,” says Nancy Sadiq, who runs a pro-democracy and peace NGO, Panorama, in Ramallah. “At meetings or conferences, I am invariably one of the only women there.”

“In general, a woman tends be to a second-class citizen, whether here or in Israel, though Israeli women have better legal, social and economic rights. The difference is one of degree,” she adds.

In fact, has been prevalent in Zionism which, after all, has sought to craft the tough and muscular new Jew who would never again go like a “lamb to the slaughter”. Even the ostensibly egalitarian kibbutzim were not able to dispel fully the spectre of traditional roles. This was something which shocked my compatriot, the maverick adventurer Sana Hasan, the first Egyptian civilian to visit Israel, in the mid-1970s, at a time when the two countries were still in a state of war. “It took me a while to realise that the glamorous image of women pioneers ploughing fields and carting manure… was largely mythical,” she wrote.

The conflict has threatened the gains Israeli and Palestinian women have registered, partly due to the rise in importance of “traditional values” and the religious which it has engendered. Though fundamentalism is partially a reaction to the insecurity bred by modernity, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, it is also a response to victory and defeat.

Fundamentalists and religious conservatives often connect Arab weakness to “immorality” and displeasing God. And returning to the “straight path”, in this worldview, involves restoring women's “honour”. In addition, living under the autocracy of occupation, much like living under dictatorship, robs people of their freewill and men of their perceived “manhood”, leading many to exercise control over all that's left to them: women and children.

But Israel's victories and might have not enabled women to cast off the suffocating straitjacket of religious patriarchy. On the contrary, the idea that the whimsical Abrahamic God is apparently smiling on Israel has led to an upsurge in religious fundamentalism, much of it messianic in nature. As the demographic balance between “secular” and “religious” gradually shifts in the latter's favour, the importance of women living by the laws of the Torah and Halakha is growing. Although Orthodox women now have the opportunity to study Rabbinic texts and train in particular areas of Jewish law, the basic outlines of the traditional patriarchy still remain intact in religious circles.

The fog of conflict obscures the fact that the gender wars in Israel and Palestine are remarkably similar, and that Arab and Jewish women share much in common in their struggle against the patriarchal order. In a less polarised context, women on both sides of the divide might have found common cause in their struggle against the wave of increasingly rigid religiosity, and its accompanying gender restrictions, engulfing both societies.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Haaretz on 9 August 2012.


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7 thoughts on “Nearly sisters: the common cause of Israeli and Palestinian women

  • I love the picture, bikini with Rifle, amazing

  • Thoughtful article. The points of intersection are infinitely more inspiring these days than what divides us.

  • I agree that women in both
    societies face many of the same problems, but even in the most
    conservative religious and traditional circles we do not have honor
    killings. That difference is not only one of degree.

  • I
    agree with you! At least with the last 4 paragraphs of your piece. The
    struggle of the Jewish secular woman is as never-ending and more and
    more uphill as it is for the Arab secular woman in the Middle East of
    today, due to the addition of the increasing influence and predominance of the extremist-ultra-orthodox-religious groups to a culture that is pretty chauvinistic to begin with.
    Overall your piece makes it for a very interesting peek on what ‘the other’ thinks about us.

    The first time I saw that picture with the “only in Israel” slogan I
    thought: how sad but how amazing that youngsters in ‘a’ society can
    integrate such a hard reality and duty to her daily life and not let it
    consume her desire to enjoy her life. The idea of extrapolating it or
    adding anything close to “unlike those oppressed, repressed and
    depressed Arab women” was far from my wildest ideas, which might explain
    the exhausting –and sobering- mental exercise it was when I read that
    line in your piece.
    Maybe I’ve been lucky to know better. Most of
    my life I’ve been in touch or seen or heard or read of strong,
    independent, and powerful Arab women. With hijabs or not, mostly not as
    in the Americas (including the South part of the continent) that is not
    as common a sight or expected way to dress as it may be in Europe.
    Living here has only reinforced that experience.
    I can see how
    Arabs can perceive a symbolic menace on a picture of a rifle hanging on
    the back of a bikini-clad unbothered Israeli girl, but I as much as I
    try I cannot compare this version of “female hero” to a female terrorist
    figure, no matter how good intentioned she might have been and how
    humanly she might have treated her victims. Like I cannot equate the
    murder of Israeli Olympic athletes kidnapped in Munich to the death of
    the kidnappers. FYI: for me as a Jew that sees the principle of
    love-thy-neighbor as the foundation of my religion and moral stand, any
    Jewish ultra-nationalist, religious or not, that advocate the killing,
    kidnapping, or terrorizing of Arabs or anyone at all, deserve the label
    and treatment of criminals, like the anti-Israeli/Jewish terrorist do.

    And about the “myth” of the “egalitarian” pioneers and the Israeli
    society: No matter how egalitarian the pioneers wanted to be, they came
    from societies (Arab, European, American, or Asian) where that was not
    the norm, especially when it comes to the interpretations of the
    scriptures they were taught (the ultra-orthodox groups of today -Mea
    Shearim between them- can give us a glimpse of that), so sooner or
    later, one way or another, especially in times of crisis, that
    subconsciously-inherited model of what the role of men and women in
    society should-be, shows up. It’s been my experience that even the most
    ‘feminist-left-winger’ of women I got in touch -in Israel- will say
    something that shows how conservative their own perception of their
    reality as a woman really is. I can imagine that a similar thing may
    play for our Arab counterparts (or as I’d like to call them: our

  • KhaledDiab

    You’re absolutely right…
    and totally wrong… To clear up a few points, yes there are numerous
    Arab men who use the term “battlle of the sexes”, though you do have a
    point about the use of the term. That said, the term does not necessaril
    imply that men are the “enemy” – just some of them are. As for the
    right to bear arms, I’m well aware of what you say, but I wasn’t talking
    about a constitutional right, like the US, but the right for everyone
    in uniform. Besides, I punned the “right to bare arms”. You talk about
    religious v secular societies. I beg to differ. Politically, both are
    still more or less secular, but socially they are growing increasingly
    religious. Polls today show that the majority of Israelis are believers.
    The main difference is that more Israelis have a liberal interpretation
    of their faith than Palestinians. Many of the other differences you
    cite are superficial or not entirely accurate, but I do agree, as I
    stated in the article, that Israeli women generally have more personal
    freedoms than Palestinians – it’s a question of degree, not contrasts.

  • Similar…but totally different…I don’t think the Arab woman in Hebron
    is facing the same battle of the sexes” that the woman in Tel Aviv is. And
    I doubt any Arab women would use the term “battle of the sexes”, only
    overly feminist women
    talk that way as if the men are the “enemy”. There is no “right
    to bear arms” in Israel (in the opposite, it is hard to get a gun license).
    While women don’t serve in combat units, those that do go to the army (50%)
    learn how to shoot. You compare a society that is primarily secular, albeit in
    your view chauvinist, with a society that is primarily religious. You compare a
    society where almost every woman has a curfew (i.e she can’t stay out all night
    partying) and few if any women live alone or with their boyfriend before
    marriage, to a society where most women will live in an apartment at some time
    in their life and pay rent by themselves. One society where probably more than
    half the women do not work, to one in which most women have jobs. You compare a
    society where women routinely show their shoulders in public to one in which a
    woman showing her shoulders in photos and in public is considered quite
    immodest. A society where a woman drinking and smoking outside is considered
    normal, to one where such women would only drink and smoke in certain private
    or semi-private circumstances. These are surely litle slices of life, but they
    represent a great chasm of difference. That there is a section of society, in
    Mae Sharim, that is more conservative and extreme than the average part of
    Palestinian society, is true, but it too isn’t comparable for the same reason:
    it is so much more extreme in some ways. And Leila Khaled, let’s just say she
    was not representative of Palestinian women either their life choices or their
    political and religious views, even if some might look up to her. Not trying
    rag on your nice article, but I think it isn’t quite right…


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