Feminist Criticism, Occupation and Sexual Harassment (*)
For the past year, Israelis and Palestinians have been participating in a weekly demonstration against the evacuation of Palestinian families from their houses in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Last summer, in the midst of the demonstrations,a feminist debate flared up on the internet following the request of organizers of the "Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement", who asked protesters to come to the demonstrations dressed in a way that respects the values of the Palestinian residents of the neighborhood. Recently, a media storm was sparked by an article published in the right wing newspaper "Makor Rishon",about a leaflet that invited young women activists to discuss and learn to cope with sexual harassments that take place even in the field of direct action against the occupation. The disinformation reached a peak with an article written by a feminist lawyer, Roni Aloni-Sadovnik, which falsely blamed left wing activists for silencing sexual harassments. In response to these recent developments, the co facilitator of the workshop for young women activists,Yvonne Deutsch, decided to write the following piece.
Violence against women in general and sexual violence in particular evoke in us, women, pain and rage. I do not intend to share my own early experiences of sexual harassment, sexual attacks and rape, yet most of us carry within our bodies traumatic memories of sexual harassment and some of us have experienced sexual attacks and rape.
Going onto the streets, the young women among us have to deal with sexist remarks,wolf whistles and sometimes even unwanted touches. In the army and at work women have to cope with sexual harassment by powerful men. These women are often reluctant to complain because they are afraid to lose their jobs. We know that girls, teenagers and women are often raped by family members or acquaintances. We walk in the streets in which women's naked bodies, in postures inviting sexual intercourse, are used in advertisements. We witness wide ranging phenomena of women being trafficked, having their breasts ironed,women being stoned, and refugee women being raped on their way to safety from the dangers they face in their own countries.
None of this is unknown. Indeed, these experiences are stored deep inside of our bodies, our souls and our collective unconscious as women.
None of our pain, rage and uncompromising opposition to the oppression of women should justify the attacks by a few feminists against the activists of the"Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement".
It all started with a flyer asking the participants of the weekly demonstrations against the evacuation of Palestinian families from their homes to come dressed in a way that respects the values of the Palestinian people of Sheikh Jarrah.Some feminists immediately claimed that this flyer was against our free choice as women.
I do not feel the same. When I am in East Jerusalem I am fully aware of being an occupier (albeit a resistant occupier) or a guest.The fact that I oppose the occupation does not take away my membership of the occupying society. I choose not to wear sleeveless shirts when I go to a synagogue (the last time was in Nairobi in 1978), to a church, to the ultra orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in west Jerusalem or when I meet with ultra orthodox groups of women. While participating in the weekly demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah I wear a short sleeve T shirt. Nevertheless I do not feel I am infringing a particular dress code: none of the organizers ever told me I was not properly dressed.
After their initial protest, some feminists took the attack even further. Without taking actual part in the weekly demonstrations and seeing for themselves what was happening, they treated the request around the dressing as if it was a request of a dress code to wear a Hijab or a Burqa. What an exaggeration!
As a feminist I identify with the opposition to the view that regards the way women dress as the reason for sexual violence against women. But this automatic criticism is blinding those feminists who refuse to consider the complexity of the power relationships between occupied and occupier, and the privileges of the occupiers, including women.
As part of the heated discussion and attacks, the "Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement" activists explained that the request to wear appropriate clothes was based on the request of some of the Palestinian women in the neighborhood who did not feel comfortable to take part in the demonstrations with demonstrators they regarded as permissive and some of them inappropriately dressed. Reacting to this information it was claimed that the young women activists were collaborating with Palestinian patriarchy and the oppression of Palestinian women. This was related to the notion of women as agents of cultural oppression. In this way the young women activists of Sheikh Jarrah were regarded by those feminists as patriarchal women who, because of false concepts of multiculturalism, collaborate with reactionary Palestinian forces and take part in oppressing Palestinian women.
As already noted feminist criticism of the organizers' request totally ignored the complexity of the power relationships between occupied and occupier, including the relationship between the women in the two societies.
I do not believe that our role as members of the occupying society is to"free" Palestinian women from oppression. Our role is rather to support their struggle to free themselves from the occupation. If a trust relationship is developed between Israeli and Palestinian women and if they ask for our solidarity on feminist issues and women's oppression, of course our role is to be there. But first they have to invite us to join them. Otherwise we risk falling into well known colonial attitudes that try to "free"the colonized from what we perceive as the "darkness" and"backwardness" they suffer from.
The feminist protest against the clothing issue had not yet abated, and subsequently, a right wing journalist caused a new storm to do with the sexual harassment of young women activists by Palestinian men, after discovering an internet flyer calling on the young women activists to take part in a workshop geared to help them cope with the issue.
Sexual harassments exist in every environment, including the field of direct action against the occupation. Not only are the Palestinian Shabab sexually harassing the young women activists, they are sexually harassed also by some men in the army and the police. But the latter phenomenon did not interest the right wing newspaper. He found a new way of attacking the Palestinians adding to their de-humanization as dangerous enemies. It also did not interest the television and radio journalists who kept calling us, the workshop facilitators.
As a feminist and peace activist, I definitely do not wish to collaborate with this dehumanization. But some feminists did join the attack of the right wing newspaper. Thus we were able to read that if sexual harassment was not widespread, no workshop would have been necessary. However, only five women participated in our workshop which also dealt with the widespread phenomenon of sexual harassment in the Jewish environment.
I wonder why the feminist criticism did not choose to praise the young women activists of "Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement" who chose to put the issue on their agenda. Instead the feminist criticism preferred to express anger at what they saw as young women choosing to "help" the Palestinians who instead of being grateful chose to harass them.
Do we, including older activists, really do what we do in order to help the Palestinians? As citizens of the occupying society we are obliged to support the Palestinian struggle against the occupation. We have a duty not to ignore the deteriorating situation and not keep silent about the atrocities of the occupation. We owe it to the Palestinians and we owe it to ourselves. It seems that not all the feminists understand the interconnection of oppressions.However, I would like to assume that even those who ignore the power relationships between occupied and occupiers do understand that the occupying society pays a high price for the everyday oppressions of the occupation. By acting in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against the occupation, we express our responsibility to oppose it while being also conscious of the fact that our own liberation is related to the liberation from all oppressions.
Within Israel there are difficulties in relation to cooperation between Jewish feminists –who choose to ignore the occupation as part of their political feminist worldview – and Palestinian feminists. Even between Jewish and Palestinian feminists who are united in their opposition to the occupation there are tensions around power relationships and privilege. Unfortunately it is difficult to foresee Palestinian women who live under the 1967 occupation and Israeli women finding common ground for mutual feminist activism. The occupation serves as a clear obstacle to solidarity on feminist issues.
Recently,with Ilana Hammerman's civil disobedience initiative, a group of Israeli women and Palestinian women from few villages are cooperating in illegally crossing the checkpoints, thus enabling the Palestinian women to enter Israel and enjoy the sea for the first time in their lives. It gives them a one day chance to exit the big jail they live in and enjoy some freedom and joy. Through the developing of relationships between Israeli and Palestinian women something delicate is beginning to develop that hopefully will bring about the establishing of trust between them.
Nevertheless it is not our role to initiate a feminist rebellion within Palestinian society or to challenge it on feminist issues. This notion is based on arrogance and may be even racism. We should trust the Palestinian feminist activists and scholars who are committed to working for social and political change. They struggle on an everyday basis against militarist and fundamentalist oppressive structures that we ourselves, as an occupying society, are helping to reinforce within the Palestinian society. It is worth noting that Palestinian feminist peace activists are totally burnt out by the political relationships they developed over the years with the Jewish Israeli feminist peace activists. They have paid a high price for the maintenance of those political relationships even though the cooperation was based on mutual opposition to the occupation and on broad agreement on issues of women's rights.
The critical feminist storm reached a peak by claiming that the "Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement" activists tried to silence a case of rape that occurred there. Not only was there no rape in Sheikh Jarrah, the activists did not try to silence women around issues of sexual harassment. In the rare cases of sexual harassment in Sheikh Jarrah, the women are getting the full support of women activists and they are free to decide what they want to do with their experience. As feminists we have many reasons to feel rage. The marginalization of women's interests, oppression, exploitation and humiliation are still widespread in Israel and globally. But feminist criticism has to be anchored in facts, or it risks jeopardizing our integrity and the reliability of the feminist movement as a whole.
Today the Israeli – Palestinian activist cooperation is conducted on the grassroots level around mutual opposition to the occupation and its everyday atrocities.It is not necessarily based on broader common ideological and political grounds. As occupiers we do not have the privilege of choosing to cooperate in our activism only with Palestinians with whom we share values beyond our shared opposition to the occupation.
The contradictions within our beliefs and ideologies do create complexities and complex dilemmas. Criticism from the right wing is not surprising. Regrettably,however, recently some young women activists who chose to deal with those complexities on an everyday basis had to deal with feminist criticism as well.As feminists we should pay attention to each and every single initiative for social and political change. We are also obliged to stress our criticism around issues of power relationship based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class and race. But we should not ignore the power structures of occupied and occupier.We need to empower the young women activists in their challenge in drawing an agenda that stresses women's priorities in every mixed political organizing.Feminists should support and help the young women activists who choose to cope with those complexities within the field of cooperation with Palestinian people against the occupation. The current critical feminist voices are destructive to the empowerment of those young women leaders; they damage the struggle against the occupation and hurt us all.
I would like to end with a poem shared by Ayesha Imam at the Leadership Institute of the Center for Women's Global Leadership and Women Living Under Muslim Laws,Istanbul,September 1998:
"If you've come to help me
You are wasting your time – and mine.
If you come because your liberation is linked to mine
Then let's join hands and start working together." (**)
Jerusalem, October 2010
(*)I want to thank Ronit Lentin for encouraging me to translate the article –which was originally published in Hebrew in the "Hagada Hasmalit"website - into English and also for her help in editing it.
(**)Who ever gets an email from Ariane Brunet finds this poem in her signature.Thank you Ariane.
Yvonne Deutsch is a west Jerusalem feminist peace activist. During the first Intifada, she was among the founders of "Women and Peace" coalition and among the organizers of"Women in Black". She served as the founding director of the feminist center "Kol ha Isha. Today she is interested in contributing to the well being of activists and the issue of sustaining activism.