There are already Palestinian Gandhis — THEY ARE WOMEN

Mati Milstein

“The Israeli army has long ago formulated a standard response to men throwing rocks, but at this moment it remains pretty much helpless when facing strong and vocal nonviolent women.”


Connection Point Manager Yasmina Mrabet interviewed photojournalist Mati Milstein about his current project: Palestine: Women First, curated by Saher Saman.  His responses are below.

What inspired you to begin photographing Palestinian women activists?

I first started photographing the activists during the March 15, 2011 Palestinian unity rallies in Ramallah, which called for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. At that time, the only thing that stood out about these rallies for me was the fact that protesters were women rather than men. I didn’t then realize who these women were or why they were unique. In general, Palestinian men have long formed the visual standard for political activity, be it directed against the Israeli occupation or related to internal Palestinian issues. Therefore, to see women leading chants, holding megaphones, and directing protest activities was a first for me as a photojournalist.

I have worked in this region for nearly 15 years and almost without exception, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been driven by a well-worn paradigm and a routine script: force counters force; men react violently to the actions of men.

But, starting on March 15, a core group of young, independent women began to alter the very nature and dynamic of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. During the Ramallah rallies, in an incident that illustrates the marginalization of strong, vocal women within their own society, they were physically attacked by Palestinian Authority security forces and Fatah loyalists. These women began to make conscious decisions to stand on the front lines against gender inequality, the Palestinian establishment and the Israeli occupation. The very nature of their activities began to challenge—and alter to a certain degree—both the struggle against the occupation and the often chauvinist nature of their own society. Though some Palestinian villages actually forbid women from participating in protests against Israeli security forces, the women of the “March 15 coalition”–as some have dubbed the—have taken their actions to the small West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, week after week facing off against Israeli troops employing potentially deadly weapons. Not backing down even in the face of verbal sexual harassment and physical violence on the part of Israeli soldiers, these women have earned the respect of the village’s men and have taken on central roles in protest actions.

Around this time, I read a feminist analysis by Gila Danino-Yona of photographic news coverage of the Arab Spring revolutions titled “Women of the Revolution or Revolutionary Women?” that appeared in Hebrew on the Reuma blog. The news media depictions of women revolutionaries and protesters across the Middle East and North Africa, by and large, visually depicted women as secondary, auxiliary—or even outright weak and subservient—characters in the groundswell that swept our world. But what I personally witnessed on the ground in Palestine countered this visual depiction of women activists elsewhere in the Middle East. Danino-Yona’s critique of the Arab Spring’s photojournalism coverage seeped into my consciousness and as I continued to document the actions of these Palestinian activists, I made a deliberate decision to attempt to depict them photographically as they actually are—not as we or I expect, want, or believe them to be.

Given the strength of patriarchal values in both Israeli and Palestinian societies, what tactics have you witnessed women activists using to get their voices heard? Are these tactics working?

The very fact that the role of women in Palestinian political activity continues to grow indicates that they have achieved a certain level of acceptance. This group of women is also set apart from some of their male colleagues—though certainly not all, and they do work closely with like-minded male activists—by employing a strictly nonviolent approach in their actions. Soldiers are trained to counter violence and respond easily and comfortably to acts of violence and, generally, when violence takes place, it is men who employ it. So when confronted by women employing strictly nonviolent tactics—often face-to-face at zero distance—Israeli soldiers find themselves both at a tactical and psychological disadvantage. The women sometimes make attempts to draw the soldiers into conversation or debate, challenging them verbally and sometimes quite harshly. The soldiers appear to experience emotional discomfort and rarely make eye contact with the women; they seem unable to respond with anything aside from default violence. In more recent weeks, Israeli army units have employed new tactics that simply prevent the women from even approaching their lines, thus eliminating the need for soldiers to confront the women face to face.

Nonviolence is a fundamental tenet for these women and I have seen them expend significant energy during protests in efforts to prevent Palestinian men or youths from throwing stones at Israeli troops. They feel that stone throwing can undermine their strategy of nonviolence and creates—and these are my words here, not theirs—a certain legitimacy and ease for the army to then respond with violence of its own. The Israeli army has long ago formulated a standard response to men throwing rocks, but at this moment it remains pretty much helpless when facing strong and vocal nonviolent women. Often, in demonstrations where they play key roles, the women are successful in quelling expressions of violence from the Palestinian side. But they still remain a relatively small core group and I cannot testify to the wider impact or influence of their efforts beyond the scope of events in which I have witnessed them participating directly.

Do Israeli women participate alongside Palestinian women in any of the protests?

Israeli women do participate, alongside Palestinian women, in West Bank protests against the Israeli occupation. Israeli supporters—be they women or men—receive a warm welcome from Palestinians so long as this type of cooperative action is seen not as “co-existence” but rather as “co-resistance.” The primary difference being that “co-existence” is perceived as a sort of “normalization” of the conflict that—while demonstrating how some Israelis and Palestinians can be nice and play well together—nevertheless simply maintains the status quo of the occupation and the current unequal power dynamics between Israel and the Palestinians. In short, “co-existence” programs are seen by those opposing them as structures that maintain and sustain the occupation. “Co-resistance” on the other hand, as I understand it, is an approach that is not just aimed at ending the Israeli occupation and securing justice for the Palestinian people, but one that also seeks in the meanwhile to alter the entire dynamic and commonly-accepted narrative of the conflict, and the prevalent “us versus them” dichotomy.

Palestinian activist during March 15 protests

If there is one thing about the Palestinian women’s movement you could highlight to the world, what would it be?

There are two specific photographs from the project I’d like to mention that I believe precisely illustrate the reality of Palestinian woman activists. One depicts an activist during the March 15 protests. She is standing on the balcony of a building in central Ramallah looking down at the crowd. The late-afternoon sun illuminates her face. She is framed by a giant poster, holding her furled national flag, surrounded and dwarfed by larger-than-life Palestinian male political figures. The opening in the poster is roughly cut, as if she has had to use whatever tools she happened to have at her disposal to improvise and force her way through the barrier simply in order to see and to be seen.

The second photograph depicts a headshot of a woman participating in a demonstration against Israeli soldiers in Nabi Saleh. Although her head and face are covered in a bright yellow textile, her nail polish, a ring, and glimpses of long hair testify to the fact that this individual is a woman. I believe this image speaks directly to the nature of these women and their actions: this individual is not covering her head and face due to religious or social pressure. Rather she has deliberately chosen to place herself in this situation and to cover her face, not to reduce her public profile, but rather to protect herself from tear gas so that she might participate in direct political action in a manner that challenges—albeit in different ways—the Israeli and Palestinian men involved in her oppression.

Many, in Israel and elsewhere, lament what they believe to be as the absence of a “Palestinian Gandhi”—an individual who can (as these critics see it) act altruistically and nobly, without violence, to “deliver” the Palestinian people from the mess which they themselves are seen as responsible for getting themselves into. However, I would contend that there is indeed already a Palestinian Gandhi. In fact, there are many. These Palestinian women activists are risking their freedom and their lives to secure justice for their people. They condemn the use of violence and they look to creative solutions to an occupation that has certainly left the Palestinian nation on the losing end. Rather than engaging in activities that reinforce a violent and unjust status quo, they are, by personal example, demonstrating the way towards a different path of justice and equality not just for the Palestinian people as a whole, but also for Palestinian women.

Finally, what can you tell us about your approach to this project, given your own background as an Israeli man?

It is important for me to emphasize—particularly in the framework of the approach I have taken during the course of work on the project—that I certainly don’t intend to speak for or represent these activists in any way. In fact, this runs directly counter to my intentions and it is not my place to do so. Everything I have said here is based on my own observations and reflections during the time I spent working with them. I am an outside observer and—as an Israeli man—I indeed embody what many perceive to be the archetypal enemy. I am fully aware of the baggage that comes with being an occupier “documenting” the occupied. There is nothing I can do to eliminate this baggage nor can I pretend that it doesn’t exist; but I can recognize and accept it and attempt to act with a certain sensitivity and awareness that will take this power dynamic into account during the course of my work.

I came to this project during a period of extreme frustration with my own society and the injustice of the stagnant status quo in which one nation controls and dictates the terms of life for another. During this period, I have also come to know personally the very people who have long been my own perceived “enemy.” I feel, in a way, rejuvenated by what I have witnessed while working on this project. I feel very fortunate that these women have so graciously allowed me to document their actions and helped me learn about their approach to our joint reality. I have, thanks in no small part to this exposure, been forced to reevaluate my perception of my own long-assumed reality. My world has been irrevocably altered.

Palestine: Women First is slated to exhibit at Marji Gallery & Contemporary Projects in Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States in Spring 2012. Curated by Saher Saman.

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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