‘Nesa’iyéh’ and its objectification of women in the face of resistance

When Nesa’iyéh first launched, I was excited to see the public’s reaction at having a Palestinian resistance-themed photography exhibit go live in a major American city. What I failed to recognize, however, was the exhibit’s role in objectifying its subjects—Palestinian women of all ages—as novel additions to the resistance movement, as things to be looked at and admired for their beauty above all else. Needless to say, I am no longer excited.

Before diving into this issue, there are a few points that need to be made. First, I understand that some people aren’t too comfortable with the idea of a male discussing the objectification of women in society. I can also understand that I have little to no authority on the matter since, after all, I’m not the subject of objectification. But I do have a point to make, one that I hope will keep others from following in the footsteps of Nesa’iyéh‘s creators and curators.

Second, I haven’t been to the physical exhibit but I’ve seen enough of the photographs to reasonably conclude that something is amiss.

Third, and most importantly, I wouldn’t be writing this if it weren’t for Deema Alsaafin and her eyeopening piece on how the exhibit, in her words, “offends the Palestinian cause“.

Mati Milstein is a veteran Israeli photojournalist who, in March 2011, sought to present the “unphotographed story of Palestinian women” standing up to, among other things, “the chauvinism and patriarchalism of traditional Palestinian society”. To Milstein, this is a “new reality”, an “emerging paradigm”, the revolutionary Palestinian woman.

He is both right and wrong, although much more wrong than right. Patriarchy—a worldwide phenomenon, not just a Palestinian one—naturally implies more attention is paid to men and, consequently, less to women. The story of Palestinian women might very well be under-photographed or even unphotographed entirely. But to say that women are just now “emerging” undermines their role in resisting occupation since the very first day.

In 1893, Palestinian women took to the streets in the village of Al-Affouleh to protest the theft of their land to make room for a Zionist settlement. In 1921, Emilia As-Sakakini and Zalikha Ash-Shihabi founded the Palestinian Arab Women’s Union to organize protests against land theft and foreign occupation. In the decades that followed, women organized conferences, strikes, and demonstrations and confronted British Mandate soldiers, settler gangs, and eventually the Israeli military. Some formed emergency “street doctor” teams and aided the wounded while others joined the front lines and, in many cases, paid with their lives. In the late 1980s, after the Israeli military shelled the Gaza Women’s University during the First Intifada, female students once again took to the streets—this time for good. And just months ago, Hana Al-Shalabi drew widespread attention to Israel’s illegal practice of administrative detention after going on a 43-day hunger strike while held in jail without charge. Women define Palestinian resistance just as much as men do.

But as Deema points out, the problem is that Mati’s exhibit doesn’t celebrate this long history of women’s activism. Instead, Nesa’iyéh revels in this profane idea that women are just now making their way over to the protests. The photographs draw attention to the women themselves rather than to what they are doing or, more appropriately, what they are challenging. Deema presents at the end of her article the following juxtaposition to effectively summarize this point and more.

But the objectification takes an even more offensive twist. Uploaded to Nesa’iyéh‘s Facebook fanpage is an image of two protestors with a caption that reads “Men & Women: What might they choose to pick up off the ground in the midst of a protest?” The man, to the left, appears to pick up a spent grenade canister while the woman, to the right, plucks flowers. Kept within the context of the exhibit, this particular image screams only one message: men do the resistance while women, dainty and decorated with makeup (a reference to Milstein’s attentiveness to kuhl-lined eyes), offer no practical assistance.

In other words, the woman has once again become the object, far removed from her actual role in resisting the occupation. She picks flowers, she wears makeup, she wraps a kuffiyeh around her head. Sadly, that appears to be the takeaway point.

Romanticizing the kuhl-lining of a woman’s eyes and ignoring the fearless way she stares into the eyes of a foreign soldier is offensive to the Palestinian cause. Reveling over her mere attendance rather than over her long and proud history at the front lines is also offensive to the Palestinian cause. Celebrating the way she styles her kuffiyeh rather than the courage she exhibits when running into thick clouds of tear gas is equally offensive to the Palestinian cause. In this movement and the next, there is no room whatsoever for the objectification of our mothers, sisters, and daughters.

Milstein’s exhibit does indeed bring the Palestinian struggle to a wider audience but its objectification of Palestinian women is both offensive and unwelcome. I sincerely hope future attempts at presenting the stories of Palestinian women do more to actually, you know, present their stories.

Sami Kishawi

There are 5 comments

  1. Jumanji

    And, of course, I think he seems to ignore that “activism” or “resistance” have broader definitions/actions than only taking to the streets and physically fighting. It’s as if resistance can only be termed as such when it is public and obvious. Can’t we define resistance in more nuanced ways? Define it also as keeping a family together even in the face of death; as keeping the culture alive in debkeh groups; as struggling in any way possible to keep the dignity that the occupation aims to steal. Look at the last paragraph of Alsaafin’s piece; see the way she juxtaposes the thus-far “male” and “female” ways of resistance and thus ungenders them when she does not differentiate between them in terms of gender spheres and values.

  2. shishibean

    Mati also fails to recognize that women have been the center of Palestinian art as resistors throughout Palestinian history. Many famous artists have portrayed Palestinian women as at the front lines of resistance, as maintainers of cultural tradition, and as the key to upholding Palestinian society. Why does he think that as outsider, he is portraying something “new”? It is insulting.

  3. Sasha (@SashaSpark)

    The exhibition also pigeon-holes the muqawama in a damaging way. Commonly, women are further marginalized in the story of Palestinian resistance because their power within family life is ignored.

    The resistance doesn’t only happen in the field, staring down soldiers or being a twitter-activist. Resistance happens daily in the home, with women managing households in the face of massive unemployment and extraordinary restrictions on their ability to feed and take care of their families. Women create and often are the system of support for their neighbors and family members who face direct injury at the hands of the occupation. They too are awoken in the night by Israeli raids that are used to collectively punish a Palestinian village that resists theft and oppression. Steadfast, they live in these conditions, refusing to abandon Palestine, refusing to give in to the circumstances of Israeli occupation which seeks to expel them by physical or psychological means.

    Portraying the resistance as only those who go and protest on a Friday is a disservice to Palestinian women and to the resilient and creative actions that Palestinians takes daily.

    It begs the question, if an Israeli isn’t there to photograph the act of resistance, did it happen?

  4. ctnesh

    thanks for writing this Sami, very on point. As people of color that are highly racialized, it is of the utmost importance that we don’t allow ourselves to be essentialized or othered by outsiders as “more violent” or “patriarchal” than our white counterparts.
    Also you mention that some people may be uncomfortable with a man writing about the objectification of women but in reality, we need more men standing up and speaking out against our objectification, not because we can’t do it ourselves but because this is a problem that plagues our society and men should speak out against sexism in the same way that men should speak out against racism, and all isms that work to oppress and degrade us all.

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