Women at the heart of struggle

8 March 2012

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Israeli forces fire tear gas at an International Women’s Day rally at Qalandiya checkpoint near the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, 8 March 2012.

(Issam Rimawi / APA images)

Despite the establishment of stale Orientalist campaigns created in the name of women’s liberation in the Middle East and North Africa, the existence of enduring, self-sufficient women in the region has far-reaching historical context.

The search for female Middle East voices among pundits in the mainstream media echoes the same tired “Palestinian Gandhi” cliche; analysts have long used Lawrence of Arabia-esque exoticism as a means to portray the women of the Arab world, in that if they are not subservient housewives they are coy and reserved daughters, sheltered and locked away by the domineering male figures in the household. These conjectures are not false in their entirety, but they are also not unique to one specific region, culture, religion or people.

The pervasive Western tradition of characterizing an entire community by certain traits, which their Western audiences can ooh and ahh at, has helped manufacture a plethora of distortions.

History confirms that Arab women have long played an active political role in their societies, from Egyptian women who demonstrated alongside men during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, against British occupation of Egypt and Sudan, to resistance fighter Jamila Bu Hreid of Algeria. Bu Hreid was nearly tortured to death by French occupation forces during the Algerian revolution and independence movement which lasted from 1954 to 1962 and resulted in Algeria gaining its independence from France.

South Lebanon, liberated in 2000 after nearly 22 years of Israeli occupation, was also home to female political action. Lebanese women would quietly supply resistance fighters with ammunition, often wrapping them across their stomachs before passing through Israeli checkpoints unnoticed.

An alluring token

As of late, the women of the Arab world are being actively pursued by journalists, media figures and political commentators as sort of stock characters to be featured in their next editorial or television broadcast. Those usually courted by the media are there to reassert Orientalist theories, for a Western audience to relish in sheer amusement, because for many an outspoken and visible Arab woman is an alluring token.

This has much to do with the current state of the Middle East and North Africa, specifically the uprisings that have captured the hearts and minds of many across world. Prior to the deposing of Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali there was little or no media attention given to Arab women in respect to what role they played in the region, besides being propagandized as second-class to their more aggressive male counterparts.

Although the media claims to be on a scavenger-hunt of sorts, in search of the dauntless women of the Middle East, there has always been little talk of female Palestinian heroines and their struggle against Israel’s brutal system of apartheid and occupation of their native land.

The Palestinian village of Bilin has hosted weekly unarmed demonstrations against the occupation of its land since 2005. For nearly seven years, numerous men and women courageously have faced Israeli forces in order to prevent further colonization of their villages, the destruction of their resources and the subjugation of their people.

Jawaher Abu Rahmah, one of many women Palestinian protesters, was killed by Israeli forces after inhaling extensive amounts of tear gas during a demonstration in Bilin in 2011; she suffered from severe asphyxiation and poisoning caused by chemicals in the tear gas.

Abu Rahmah’s brother Bassem was killed in 2009 after a tear-gas canister was fired at his chest by an Israeli soldier during a similar village demonstration.

And today, Hana al-Shalabi, a 30-year-old Palestinian woman from Jenin, is on hunger strike to protest her administrative detention without charge by Israel.

Al-Shalabi has been subjected to beatings and humiliating treatment by Israeli forces and, despite having had her detention recently reduced from six months to four months since her hunger strike began three weeks ago, she has declared that her hunger strike will continue until her demand for freedom is met.

Womens’ compelling strength

The archetypal Arab women most often approved of, for the viewing pleasure of television audiences, is one which is confined to a subservient role: a coy, bashful creature whose raison d’etre is based on approval from a domineering male society. This decayed misconception branding every aspect of Middle Eastern and North African society a homogeneous stereotype has long been refuted by women like Hana al-Shalabi and Jawaher Abu Rahmah, and a great number of others who are deliberately ignored by the mainstream media.

Women of the Middle East and North Africa are of compelling strength, doubtless courage and incorruptible dignity. History is laden with prominent female activists, poets, authors and political figures from this region who have have long existed, despite the deliberate evasion of their stories and in the printing their names, and they will continue to exist.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a US-based Lebanese-American journalist, commentator and activist.