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.