Stop the obsession with what Palestinian women activists are wearing

hayat.jpg

Al-Hayat used the author’s image without permission in a demeaning fashion.

Last year I wrote an article titled “How obsession with ‘nonviolence’ harms the Palestinian cause.” This time around, it seems that how obsession with the way a woman dresses herself harms the Palestinian cause is a topic that needs, finally, to be discussed openly, addressing Palestinians themselves.

I woke up yesterday to an appalling article in Arabic (published by the Saudi-owned, London-based newspaper al-Hayat) being shared derisively by friends and contacts alike, with my photo—the same one I use for my blog here on The Electronic Intifada —as the featured image. The headline reads: “The veil (or hijab) creeping on to the the heads of ‘female comrades’ does not negate liberation.”

My initial reaction was to laugh contemptuously. But the far-reaching consequences are, after all, serious, and when a picture of an individual is used for such an article without her knowledge or consent, the individual’s non-partisan beliefs and political independence are compromised. And I believe mine were. 

Damaging

The article discusses the phenomenon or the increase in Palestinian women belonging to leftist groups wearing hijab — covering their heads with a scarf — and quotes several senior leftist politicians who offer their own explanations, some citing factors ranging from societal pressures, to personal freedom, to a fashion fad.

Khalida Jarrar, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), states that the hijab prevents women’s complete emancipation “because leftist thought is based on looking at women as human beings and not as bodies,” while in the same breath she stresses that a decision by the party to ban the hijab is not permissible and is incompatible with personal freedom and that removing the hijab must stem from adopting progressive thoughts and practices.

Other than its underlying orientalist and condescending tone, the article, by using my picture, presents a serious threat to my work as independent journalist by implicitly associating me with a political faction with which I have no affiliation.

For my photograph to be used as a poster image for “female comrades” without my explicit permission or knowledge is harmful and reflects a serious lack of professionalism on part of al-Hayat’s editors (among other things, it should be noted that under the Israeli occupation and law, membership to the PFLP is illegal, and at Israel’s behest, the party has been designated a “terrorist” group by the United States and the European Union).

Failure of Palestinian left

And yet, much as the Israeli left barely exists and barely presents a challenge to the status quo, the same can unfortunately be said of the organized Palestinian left. Fragmented into several factions instead of a unified coalition, the leftist parties, including the PFLP, are still living on the glory days of the late 1960s and ’70s and still milking the radical images of such figures as Che Guevara, as well as Leila Khaled, who rose to prominence in those decades through the hijacking of airplanes.

But other than relying on old slogans and iconic figures, the leftist factions have failed to develop a discourse capable of standing up to the Palestinian Authority, or offering an alternative. Instead they offer a now routine tone of stern disappointment, decrying this, denouncing that and condemning it all.

This isn’t just a reactionary attack on the leftist factions, many of whose figures, like jailed PFLP leader Ahmad Saadat, continue to sacrifice their lives or freedom for the cause of Palestinian liberation.

But it is a summation of where these factions stand politically at the current moment, and what they have turned into since the signing of the Oslo accords twenty years ago this coming September: vocal denouncers of PA decisions at best, PA lackeys at worst. In both cases, many receive their salaries from the PA.

Too often, they’ve turned their backs on assimilating the Marxist teachings of capitalism and proletarian causes into Palestinian society, and marginalized women’s rights by choosing not to challenge the patriarchal conservative society, in favor of strengthening their popular bases. 

Demeaning 

It seems inconceivable or a mind-boggling paradox to some that religious headwear should be so prevalent in Marxist/Communist political parties, despite the cultural, religious and personal context in which we live. Furthermore, if the issue is ultimately down to personal freedom, why feel the need to explore such a transcendent matter?

The obsession with what female activists wear is demeaning, sickening and ridiculous, and perpetuates the treatment of women as objects rather than actors. It seems like the need to form judgmental attitudes is crucial in resisting the Israeli occupation.

Too many local, Israeli and international photographers focus on the attire of young Palestinian women in protests, or on fetishizing the smoldering eyes of a woman if the rest of her face is covered by the kuffiyeh (the traditional Palestinian checkered scarf).

As the blog thekfcmonument observes:

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.

Harassment and sexism

Too many Palestinians spend too much time on social media dissecting and speculating about the girl’s jeans, her shirt, her hair, her hijab. Islamists will say, “Fear God! This is not acceptable attire and verily, thou shalt by hung by your hair in the depths of hellfire.”

Secularists will sneer, “I wish you could take me home, what business does a girl wearing tights have here?” and offer to carry the girl if she so much as stumbles. And both sides will rant, “Are we going to be liberated by a bunch of women? Stay home you fools if you know what’s good for you!” Women who express their opinions and let their voices be heard become socially deviant creatures.

I am not making these quotes up. I have heard them and their variants over and over again during many protests. Verbal sexual harassment from both demonstrators and Palestinian security forces is present.

And in those Ramallah protests, with a couple hundred people pressed up against each other like a Roman battalion and chanting, so is physical sexual harassment. The problem is rooted in sexist attitudes not just among social media’s freedom fighters but more broadly in society.

Liberating our minds

Many in the Palestinian left, excluding those who truly believe that wearing it has no impact on a woman’s degree of activism, view the hijab as a social obstruction, a damaging or negative remnant of tradition. But it is much more complex than that. True, there are those who are forced or pressured to wear it, but there are also those who wear it out of a conviction that is not necessarily religious.

Simplifying the hijab is no different than following in the footsteps of orientalists and their insalubrious fascination with why a woman covers herself.

Some religious folks act out of a self-righteous, divine motive, where they believe it is their duty and their moral right to lecture women on appropriate ways of dressing. Secular folk, meanwhile, act out of some enlightened anti-traditionalist mandate, where they believe it is their sophisticated and worldly obligation to categorize what constitutes progressive, open-minded thinking and what oppressive manacled ideals are. 

Both are showing the same kind of disrespect to women. Liberate your minds and perhaps then we would all have a chance at liberation.

A version of this post is published in Arabic by al-Manshour.

Comments

sue them

Obviously, political activists such as yourself should wear clothes which do not detract from your seriousness. This does not appear to be a problem. If anything, wearing hijab may help you reach out to more conservative members of your community.

Then again, it is not my business or that of anyone else, why you wear hijab. I could see where it could be positive for you, as a celebration of your culture, protection from the weather, or religious observance. You look attractive and serious, and that's all that should matter.

I don't blame religious not non-religious people because I believe (after 18 years in Palestine) that both teaching of religion and liberation are copied the wrong way into our Palestinian society. Religious people are literally taking fractions of Islam that fits into their minds and non-religious (far leftists) are ridiculously empty and always catch and play the game of catch-Islamic-act-and-talk-about-it.

When the so called "professional journalists" discuss a piece of cloth used to cover someone's head in a completely meaningless article, I believe that I need no more moments wondering why our case is getting lost. Just a catchy title to attract more readers.

Palestinian people, also carry a lot, a lot of mistakes when it comes to sexual harassment. Society is unfortunately still holds a lot of must-vanish thoughts.

Regarding your photograph, try to email them regarding that.

Great article, Lina.

Linah, some thoughts:

1) You equated being on the left with necessarily being PFLP, why do that? There are many left-thinking activists working on Palestine who are not PFLP, I am one of them and I am Palestinian.
2) The attack on the PFLP seemed irrelevant to this article which I thought was about the veil. Moreover the failure of the PFLP to complete the revolution was borne out of a contradiction in their socialist ideology, affiliation to the USSR which never challenged Israel, and the fragmentation of the Palestinian working class. Blaming the 'Left' is throwing out the baby with the bath water.
3) your indignation at the photo being used is a little misplaced. Once you put yourself out there as an activist people will use your photo.
4) As a non-veiled Palestinian woman, I would like to have a conversation with veiled Palestinian women about why they adopt the veil by way of curiosity. I hope that can be permitted.