Where Are the Women?

Well, the last I’ve checked, they’re pretty much in the front lines of civil resistance struggles in Bahrain and Yemen. They were strong and present in Egypt, and they’re sprouting publicly and over the World Wide Web in larger numbers in Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Unlike many others, I am not at all surprised. As Yemeni opposition leader Ali Obaid told CNN: “Yemeni women lead the Yemeni revolution and men follow.”

Bahraini women waving national flags participate in an anti-government protest march on Tuesday, March 1, 2011, through the capital of Manama, Bahrain. Tens of thousands of Bahrainis, largely Shiites, participated in the march urging unity among Sunnis and Shiites in demanding political reform - AP

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the recent North Africa and Middle East nonviolent revolutions is the bottom-up media coverage, commentaries, first-hand accounts, and debates led by women from around the world. In the past three months, we’ve witnessed women moving from the background to the frontlines—not only in major street protests, but also on the mainstream evening news as well as across our Facebook pages and the blogosphere.

Women’s active participation steadily made headline news (well, almost) during Egypt’s revolution, and women like Mona Eltahawy were an absolutely inspiring and enthusiastic advocate for Muslim women as Egypt’s revolution unfolded. In late January, Mona vociferously challenged the mainstream media’s coverage of Egypt’s nonviolent movements, particularly the word “chaos” being used to describe the historic events led by ordinary Egyptians, and urging the US and Western countries to “take the side of the people of Egypt.” And weeks later, Mona debated other women around France’s recent ban on the niqab and burqa in public spaces—a debate that women, not policy makers, must lead.

For years now, young Egyptian women like Dalia Zaida and Noha Atef had been blogging courageously behind the scenes, exposing government corruption and abuses as well as educating the Egyptian public on people power and the history of civil resistance. Dalia was responsible for translating and editing the Arabic version of “The Montgomery Story” back in 2009, eventually distributing 2,000 copies throughout the Middle East.

Noha is the founder of Torture in Egypt (“Al-Tatheeb fi Masr”), a web-based campaign that documents and informs about human rights abuses in Egypt. Noha talks about her entry to the blogosphere in a 2009 interview during the 2nd Social Arab Bloggers Meeting. Both these young women shone brightly at the height of Egypt’s revolution, and we can see Noha’s contributions in highlighting women’s participation, while Dalia offers a sobering reality check on the lack of women’s inclusion, cautioning that some of the gains of Tahrir Square are already being lost.

As weeks went by, I observed with pleasure the abundance of “mainstream” information on Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, and Bahraini women. From the BBC to National Public Radio in the US, there seems to be newborn global media interest in the role of women in these nonviolent struggles. I feared, however, that this newfound interest would be short-lived and many would consider the “gender issue” a passing fad. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Women from around the world have seized this opportunity, as evidenced by blogs like Feminist Activist to news aggregators like Women Living Under Muslim Laws—a consistent, timely, relevant online news source on women’s power and activism. Women’s Pixels , Ethiopian Feminist and Rosebell’s Blog are three others worth following.

One big question in my mind: Are men writing about women in resistance, or women’s rights generally? I am doubtful. Aside from the occasional, passionate appeal by NY Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof, there are few men making women’s rights and their role in community organizing a front-and-center issue. Should it be? Well, if nonviolent resistance is about diverse participation and non-elite driven, bottom-up social action, then how can it exclude women as both role models in movements and as leaders when the struggle is over?

At a recent panel discussion at the American Foreign Service Association, I heard a senior US international development official speak about women and development:

We also have to lead by example. We need to have women in the process, so we have to look at ourselves, too. We have to challenge the culture in the countries we support, and we also have to challenge our own. This means consistently asking simple, direct questions, like: “Where are the women?”

On behalf of so many women activists around the world, I appeal to all men involved in civil resistance to consistently ask that question in their work, when they write, when they plan and strategize, when they teach, when they are filming, when they speak at public events, when they blog, and when they conduct literature reviews and research.

The resources cited above are only a small sampling of the voices and actions of women around the world, a great majority told and shared by women. That is resistance—challenging the status quo, moving against the tide, confronting an injustice. Only when we all make the conscious effort to ask, “where are the women” can we begin to ensure that men and women are fully represented and working together—as equal partners—in every endeavor… from revolution to victory.


(this piece was originally published last month in Waging Nonviolence)

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Resistance Through Art: Challenging Repression and Tradition

In our travels to the West Bank late last summer, we met artists who are activists in their own right. Dina Awadd, Ahmedd Fayez Zakarne, Abeer Qazim and Abdelfattah Abusrour are all on different creative paths, all which focus on freedom of expression and challenging repression. Art through music, dance, crafts and illustration have long been used in resistance movements to expose injustices. Artists often break out of society’s status quo by creating alternative forms of expression – rap, graffiti, modern dance and jazz. Many of these art forms were created to challenge repressive policies, racism and conservative social expectations that prohibit creativity and artistic expression.

Palestine young people, particularly women, are also breaking with tradition through different art forms. Their artistic resistance not only challenges occupation, but also challenges their own societies, particularly the role of women.


Music of resistance is everywhere in Palestine, and it offers a double entendre and double goal of addressing the obvious oppression of the occupation and the more subtle oppressive features of Palestinian society itself. Like most artistic forms of expression, and perhaps more than others, music knows no boundaries and crosses the walls – all the walls – of separation and prejudice.

Under her hijab, Abeer Qazim’s enthusiasm and style have impressed us (see the recent blog) In addition to offering a humbling personal view on what a veiled Muslim girl might think of men and love, Abeer revealed a mature and refined expression of her femininity and aspirations. Like many young Palestinian women we met, Abeer is engaged in a double struggle — as a Palestinian struggling against the occupation, but also as a woman facing the many constraints of a patriarchal society. Beneath her hijab lies the passion of a true artist.

Facing the obstacles imposed by her society, Abeer has chosen to confront and overcome them through the musical arts, a form of resistance that will always be one of the most powerful mean to free individuals from both internal and external chains. She is part of a musical group called “Stars Way,” formed by Muslim and Christian youth who are creating dance music about everyday life. The initiative is a form of multi-cultural self-expression that hopes to break persistent myths and stereotypes around religious and cultural polarization in the region. Abeer enthusiastically discusses the group’s ideas in this short interview:

Palestinian Rap

Rap music, which developed over two decades ago by African-American youth living in urban poor communities, was a form of rebellion against a socio-economic order that kept them in the margins of American society. The genre has spread across the globe, translated and adapted by marginalized and dispossessed youth resisting repression by exposing injustices using intensely rhythmic music structured around shout-and-scream lyrics, reflecting both anger and power. Palestinian rap plays precisely that function.

One of the first groups that achieved global popularity was DAM, formed in the late 1990s by Palestinians from Lod in Israel – Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Their powerful lyrics, delivered both in Arabic and Hebrew, gave the group immediate access to the music underground of Tel Aviv, where they have been hailed and celebrated as heroic rebels. DAM’s musical example led to a proliferation of Palestinian hip-hop and rap groups in the West Bank and Gaza, many whom gathered secretly, especially in Gaza. Unable to reach out to audiences through traditional concerts, they reached their fans through YouTube.

Slingshot Hip Hop, a fascinating documentary by female filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum, offers a vibrant testimony of the everyday lives and challenges of DAM’s young rap artists. DAM offers artists multiple platforms of resistance – against occupation and also against conservative traditions often imposed on youth, especially women. Young female rappers like Safa’ Hathoot performs in an environment where protest rap is unusual for women, even scandalous. In “Freedom for My Sisters”, Safa’ sings: “The Arab woman is like a wounded bird in the sky, afraid to land and to be shot by hunters, imprisoned in her own house, dying of the thirst of freedom, but only able to drink her own tears – how can they dare ask me why I cry?”

These young Palestinian female singers and musicians are pioneers in their society and offer a fresh face of new youth who are courageously embracing femininity, resistance and freedom of expression.


Theater and dance are two powerful instruments of liberation for youth and women. Under the British mandate, theater was broadly used as a vehicle of political expression and resistance in Palestine. In the aftermath of the Nakba in 1948, theaters, like many other cultural institutions, witnessed a dramatic setback that lasted decades. The revival of theater in Palestinian society has been slow to emerge. However, in the 1980s and onward, there was a revival by several families of actors and directors, and the birth of the first Palestinian contemporary theater troops.

In the 1990s, international donors began supporting cultural projects as part of the efforts of the international community to support the peace process. Artistic endeavors seemed less politically charged to foreigners, which could explain why many artistic projects attracted funders’ attention. Palestinian actors and directors often trained in Europe, the U.S. and sometimes in Israel began to open cultural centers and theaters.

Youth perform in a stage production of "The Gaza Monologues" at the Al Rowwad Camp in Bethlehem.

Theaters were often founded in refugee camps as part of youth empowerment initiatives and to offset the destructive impacts of life in the camps. Such examples include Al Rowwad Center in the Aida Camp in Bethlehem, founded by Abdelfattah Abusrour, and the Jenin Freedom Theater, founded by Juliano Mer Khamis, a Palestinian Israeli actor. The Theater “is committed to the principle that, for artist, spectator and listener, the creative process is one of embracing the unknown and rearranging reality, and that this is the first step to imagining and accepting alternatives.”

Unfortunately, these artistic initiatives are far from being widely accepted by the communities they challenge, Mer Khamis has often received death threats, and there have been several criminal attempts at setting fire to the Jenin Freedom Theater – initiated by residents of the Jenin refugee camps.


Liberating the minds and voices of young women through theater is already a courageous and dangerous step forward, but liberating their bodies an altogether radical step in a society that closely monitors the ways young women are supposed to behave. Dance appears to be one of those “final frontiers” that Palestinian youth choose to navigate and cross in defiance of moral taboos and obstacles that permeates Palestinian society.

Traditional dance is of course not the issue, as the revival of folk dance poses no threat to society and, on the contrary, has been considered an essential feature of cultural resistance to the occupation. Mastery of traditional dance forms offers young Palestinians a solid cultural education and understanding of their identity. Participation in alternative and Western dance forms (tango, salsa, modern and jazz) risks open a Pandora’s box of what is seen as free bodies and therefore free sexuality. Oriental dance such as belly dancing is one of the most sensual and provocative dances in the world, but it in many Middle Eastern countries, it is only practiced among women where they indeed enjoy dancing in all freedom far from men’s “lusting” eyes. How can young people liberate all dance forms in Palestine so they can be recognized as respectable and public artistic forms for all audiences, both male and female?

Two young people we met are ready to meet that challenge – Ahmedd Fayez Zakarne from Jenin, and Dina Awwad from Bethlehem.

Ahmedd studied English literature in the U.S. where he developing a strong interest for ballet and modern dance. In Jenin and Nablus, he teaches English, but he is determined to open a dance school. He explains,

“I would fight my own society the same as they fight the Israelis. I will in no way or condition accept their hypocrisy of fighting against an occupation enforced on them, while at the same time attempting to occupy my own mind, soul, and body.”

In Jenin’s conservative society, expression through dance is rarely seen. Ahmed is not discouraged and believes that he will find a way. In the absence of being able to offer dance classes, Ahmedd includes “controversial” topics into English language lessons such dance, sexuality, openness to other religions, traditions and national experiences, and how stereotypes and judgmentalism are always misleading. He is trying to get young people to think independently and challenge societal norms.

Evenutually, Ahmedd wants to acquire a degree in dance and establish his own dance company in the West Bank. Alternatively, Ahmedd thinks that organizing a dance school project with foreign and domestic dance instructors is also a worthy endeavor, and he acknowledges that it will take some fundraising. In either scenario, Ahmedd says his dance education is meant to be free to the students “to let nothing stand between the passion and the art.”

Dina Awwad has Italian style sensuality, à la Sofia Loren. She told us of how she wants to free the bodies and minds of her fellow Palestinian sisters from decades of repression. Dina has dreamt this for years and realizes that what has held her back is fear: fear of what people will say and what people will think. This realization hit her while attending an innovative workshop on leadership in 2010 organized by the Holy Land Trust, a forward thinking organization in Palestine in the area of social transformation. After this transformative experience, Dina believes that nothing is impossible, “you just need to believe in yourself and find the courage from within.”

Dina Awadd welcomes us to her family's historic home in Bethlehem. Like many young women in Palestine, she straddles the parallels of traditional society and freedom of expression.

Dina is embarking on a path that she believes will lead to freedom for women in Palestine. She is not talking about political freedom – she goes much further than that. Dina refers to a much more fundamental level of liberation: she is talking about sexual freedom, social freedom – just being who you are and exploring yourself and your body, something which is taboo for women in Palestine.

When Dina talks about romance, she explains how there seem to be only two possible choices for women in Palestine; follow the traditional way like your mother and grand mother (marriage, children, home); or, accept that you will intimidate men and risk being single, perhaps for life.

Dina refuses to see her life as offering only these two extreme options. She believes there is another path and another way — her way. She is prepared to create her own choices and help women realize their personal goals using dance as a method to unlock the societal chains that imprison many of the young women of Palestine.

Many thank to Dina, Abeer, Ahmedd and Abdelfattah for introducing us to their work and allowing us into their homes, communities and creative spaces.

by Anne Marie Codur
(edited by Vanessa Ortiz; photography, video editing and layout by Vanessa Ortiz)

Ahmedd Fayez Zakarne can be reached at zakarne@gmail.com or at facebook.com/ahmedd.zakarne

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Nonviolent Movements: Addressing Women’s Rights

The uplift of women and their increased participation in public policy is now widely viewed as fundamental to expanding economic growth, improving health status, reducing poverty, sustaining the environment, and consolidating democracy in societies long bowed to authoritarianism and tyranny.1

March is Women’s History Month, an annual declared month worldwide that highlights contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.

One short piece that is quite timely in terms of the nonviolent revolutions we’re witnessing in the Arab world and beyond was drafted in the 1960’s during the U.S. civil rights movement. It is a “rationale memo” written by two civil rights activists and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Both white, the authors, Mary Elizabeth King and Casey Hayden, raised their concerns on why it was important to highlight women’s issues as part of the movement’s strategy, and why opening up dialogue about women’s rights was important.

Such ideas and comments are illustrative of conversations that are likely taking place right now in nonviolent movements around the world, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, as women struggle to be recognized and have their issues addressed.

As we contemplate engaging in the post-revolution phases of some of the  countries that are currently experiencing democratic transition, the views and roles of women should be at the forefront of our planning.

Sex and Caste – A Kind of Memo
by Casey Hayden and Mary King

November 18, 1965

We’ve talked a lot, to each other and to some of you, about our own and other women’s problems in trying to live in our personal lives and in our work as independent and creative people. In these conversations we’ve found what seems to be recurrent ideas or themes. Maybe we can look at these things many of us perceive, often as a result of insights learned from the movement: Sex and Caste: There seems to be many parallels that can be drawn between treatment of Negroes and treatment of women in our society as a whole. But in particular, women we’ve talked to who work in the movement seem to be caught up in a common-law caste system that operates, sometimes subtly, forcing them to work around or outside hierarchical structures of power which may exclude them. Women seem to be places in the same position of assumed subordination in personal situations too. It is a caste system, which, at its worst, uses and exploits women. This is complicated by several facts, among them:

1) The caste system is not institutionalized by law (women have the right to vote, to sue for divorce, etc.);
2) Women can’t withdraw from the situation (a la nationalism) or overthrow it;
3) There are biological differences (even though those biological differences are usually discussed or accepted without taking present and future technology into account so we probably can’t be sure what these differences mean). Many people who are very hip to the implications of the racial caste system, and if the question is raised they respond with: “That’s the way it supposed to be. There are biological differences.” Or with other statements which recall a white segregationist confronted with integration.

Women and problems of work;

The caste-system perspective dictates the roles assigned to women in the movement and certainly even more to women outside the movement.

Within the movement, questions arise in situations ranging from relationships of women organizers to men in the community, to who cleans the freedom house, to who holds leadership positions, to who does secretarial work, and who acts as spokesman for groups. Other problems arise between women with varying degrees of awareness of themselves as being as capable as men but held back from full participation, or between women who see themselves as needing more control of their work than other women demand. And there are problems with relationships between white women and black women.

Women and personal relationships with men:

Having learn from the movement to think radically about the personal worth and abilities of people whose role in society had gone unchallenged before, a lot of women in the movement have begun trying to apply those lessons of their own relations with men.

Each of us probably has her own story of the various results, and of the internal struggle occasioned by trying to break out of very deeply learned fears, needs, and self-perceptions, and of what happens when we try to replace them with concepts of people and freedom learned from the movement and organizing.

Institutions: Nearly everyone has real question about those institutions which shape perspectives on men and women: marriage, child-rearing patterns, women’s (and men’s) magazines (etc.) People are beginning to think about and even to experiment with new forms in these areas.

Men’s reactions to the questions raised here: A very few men seem to feel, when they hear conversations involving these problems, that they have a right to be present and participate in them, since they are so deeply involved. At the same time, very few men can respond non-defensively, since the whole idea is either beyond their comprehension or threatens and exposes them. The usual response is laughter. The inability to see the whole issue as serious, as the strait-jacketing of both sexes, and as societally determined often shapes our own response so that we learn to think in their terms about ourselves and to feel silly rather than truth our own inner feelings. The problems we’re listing here, and what others have said about them, are therefore largely drawn from conversations among women only – and that difficulty in establishing dialogue with men is a recurring theme among people we’ve talked to.

Lack of communication for discussion: Nobody is writing or organizing or talking publicly about women, in any way that reflects the problems that various women in the movement came across and which we’ve tried to touch above. Consider this quote from an article in the centennial issue of The Nation:

. . . . However equally we consider men and women, the work plans for husbands and wives cannot be given equal weight. A woman should not aim for a “second-level career” because she is a woman; from girlhood on she should recognize that, if she is also going to be a wife and mother, she will not be able to give as much to her work as she would if single. That is, she should not feel that she cannot aspire to directing the laboratory simply because she is a woman, but rather because she is a wife and mother; as such, her work as a lab technician (or the equivalent in another field) should bring both satisfaction and the knowledge that, through it, she is fulfilling an additional role, making an additional contribution . . . .

And that’s about as deep as the analysis goes publicly, which is not nearly as deep as we’ve heard many of you go in chance conversations.

The reason we want to try to open up dialogue is mostly subjective. Working in the movement often intensifies personal problems, especially if we start trying to apply things we’re learning there to our personal lives. Perhaps we can start to talk with each other so we can deal with ourselves and others with integrity and can therefore keep working. Objectively, the chances seem nil that we could start a movement based on anything as distant to general American thought as a sex-caste system. Therefore, most of us will probably want to work full-time on the problems such as was, poverty, race. The very fact that the country can’t face, much less deal with, the questions we’re raising means that the movement is one place to look for some relief. Real efforts at dialogue within the movement and with whatever liberal groups, community women, or students listen are justified. That is, all the problems of women functioning in society as equal human beings are among the most basic that people face. We’ve talked in the movement about trying to build a society which would see basic human problems (which are now seen as private troubles), as public problems and would try to shape the institutions to meet human needs rather than shaping people to meet the needs of those with power. To raise questions like those above illustrates very directly that society hasn’t dealt with some of its deepest problems and opens discussion of why that is so. (In one sense, it is a radicalizing question that can take people beyond legalistic solutions into areas of personal and institutional change.)

The second objective reason we’d like to see discussion begin is that we’ve learned a great deal in the movement and perhaps this is one area where a determined attempt to apply ideas we’ve learned there can produce some new alternatives.

1.  Mary E. King, “What Difference Does It Make? Gender as a Tool in Building Peace,” in Gender and Peace Building in Africa, ed. Dina Rodriguez and Edith Natukunda-Togboa (Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica: University for Peace, 2005).

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2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than ever.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,900 times in 2010. That’s about 9 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 16 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 54 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 68mb. That’s about 1 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was August 9th with 86 views. The most popular post that day was Women, Memory and Truth.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, peacexpeace.org, mail.live.com, mail.yahoo.com, and mepeace.org.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for sarajevo, sarajevo war, sarajevo roses, siege of sarajevo, and in women’s hands.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Women, Memory and Truth August 2010


The Rose of Sarajevo July 2010


From Anger to Action: The Women of Srebrenica Organize August 2010


About In Women’s Hands July 2010


Red Carpet Premiere: Anne Marie Codur September 2010

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Behind the Hijab: A Girl and a Rebel

What is it about seeing a woman in a hijab that makes us feel uncomfortable, fearful, or sometimes threatened? Does it represent a radical expression of religion, absolute subjugation to men, or that women are dismissing Western social structures and establishing new gender politics?  Whatever it is, the hijab makes people afraid.  We fear the thing we don’t understand, but sometimes we fear the thing the media and politicians are subtly (or overtly) telling us we should be afraid of.

On one hand, we realize that there are oppressive systems and governments that restrict what both women and men can wear. Often, these restrictions are framed around religion, values, morality, society and family norms, cultural traditions – and almost always it is a combination of all these frames. On the other hand, it is sometimes these frames that force, or inspire, a woman to choose what she herself will wear and project to her family and her society. As women, we know full well that even in the most ‘free’ societies, women are forced to choose how modest or free they want the world to perceive them. It is a deeply personal choice, and a lot of our choices have to do with our level of courage and our spirit of resistance. Like women’s career choices, we decide how much we will push societal norms – whether we will stay within traditional roles, or whether we have the inner strength to rock the boat and go against tradition.  Muslim women face these choices in a more defined, visual way.  Sometimes they are rocking the boat when they wear a particular type of hijab or abaya, and sometimes they are choosing to conform on the outside so they can rock the boat in other areas of their lives — at school, at work, through an unconventional hobby, or an economic endeavor.

It is fascinating to consider that these are many of the same choices women activists around the world face. “Will I stand up against this conflict?” she might ask, or “Will I rise up and organize people for equal rights, or for my land, or for a better future for my children?” And equally, whether a Muslim woman chooses to wear the hijab and fights for the right to wear it at her office or school, or whether a Muslim woman wears the hijab and organizes to fight against being imposed to wear it – it’s a fight that Muslim women undertake each and every day. These are complicated choices that they must navigate, and often we, as outsiders, get lost in the policy discussions around perceived fear and threats directed at us.

We asked Muslim women in Palestine about their choices, and whether traditional wardrobe is a form of oppression, freedom of expression, or simply a kind of traditional social custom that publicly affirms a women’s commitment to her religion and her family. The following is an honest and revealing video clip of our conversation with a Palestinian woman in Bethlehem, Abeer Qasim.

Upon watching Abeer express herself on wearing the hijab, we are reminded of the universal experience of women. Abeer speaks about the hijab in two ways; its symbolic representation for showing respect, and its weight, which women carry as a visual symbol of what is “best” for women. Who decides what is “best” for woman? At the policy level, often it is men. At the personal level, it is often women. At the provincial level, it is often male family members, neighbors, and the village busy-bodies!

For women around the world, the choices around dress are common. As in so many societies, men and older women enforce beliefs that if women are ‘free,’ meaning, if they don’t cover up and hide or ‘protect’ their bodies, then they are ‘unsuitable for marriage.’  Certainly, this pressure coming from different directions serves as a strong incentive not to rebel against gender customs. But, let’s consider that sometimes making that choice is a Muslim woman’s carefully thought out strategy. If she chooses a path of least resistance in one area, then she can push the boundaries in other areas — for her job, university, for activism and political work. The hijab is in some ways a physical representation of the deeper, underlying struggles that all women face — the desire to intellectually express oneself in the company of men, and to be truly accepted and respected by society while trying to be yourself and participate to your fullest potential.

We couldn’t resist comparing Abeer’s experience to that of women in the United States. Today, young women are assured that they can express themselves, even in the same way as a man, because in America ‘we are all equal.’ Most women know this is not true, and the evidence lies in the continued disparity between men and women in wages, in the lack of female political, financial, judicial, business, and media leadership, and even in the advanced educational sphere where women hold few senior roles. Could it be then that women limit their sexual and professional choices in part because of the societal implications they might face if they choose to express themselves, — to be ‘free’ and participate as openly as men?  Will it make us the ‘marrying kind’ if we choose a particular career field, or dress this way or that, or stand up and fight for our rights and organize our community?  We begin navigating these choices at a young age, just like Muslim women do. Women’s dress and what society dictates they wear is a universal way of keeping them in confined roles. Should women cover their bodies because we are implicitly sexual, at risk, and because it’s more acceptable, or should women find ways to see our bodies as a tool of expression and a container of power? Can we do this best by being covered, or uncovered?

The debate never ends, and women, not policy makers, must lead it.  And women, both in the West and among Muslim societies, must lead the discussion around dress and fear, dress and freedom, and dress and equal opportunities. Muslim women must lead the fight around dress, if they feel a fight should be waged. They certainly do not need Western powers leading wars against their nations in order to protect women’s ‘freedom’ while leaving them worse off — widowed, displaced, homeless and without security or infrastructure. Why not invite Muslim women into the discussion, into negotiations and post-conflict decision making, especially at the highest levels?

The next time you see a woman in the hijab, consider the activist that lies behind it. Is she fighting quietly, blending into society and forcing her way into other social and political spheres, masked as a conformist? Is she wearing the hijab in defiance of her government’s rules that impose secularism, or is she fighting to be seen as an intellectual rather than a sexual being?  Behind the veil, we often see women like us – nonviolent strategists, rebellious visionaries, and women in resistance. And always, we’re looking at an extraordinarily normal girl.

Vanessa Ortiz and Rachel Lynch

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Fear As A Political Tactic

A Google search of “the politics of fear” turns up hundreds of articles, books, blogs, video, and mainstream media entries. How does one begin to really gain an understanding of this issue? The global enthusiasm for the Rally to Restore Sanity and the accompanying Rally to Keep Fear Alive held in Washington, DC this weekend, coupled with recent candid conversations with Palestinian women from the West Bank, has me convinced that fear is an extraordinarily effective political tactic, especially when used alongside the victim narrative.

It is obvious that fear can work as a mobilizing force. A direct, immediate threat to a nation can unite a population around a cause that would otherwise be debated. A perceived existential threat to a population can join even the most conservative and liberal members of a society. And a threat to the status quo, or “our way of life,” can mobilize somewhat like-minded groups as they join to identify the source of that threat. It is these survival dynamics that provide a source of power for interest groups and leaders who realize an easy strategy by riding on society’s emotions. Just as terrorists rely on fear in order to disrupt society’s comforts and way of life, so do legitimate political representatives in order to more easily carry out decisions and policies on the basis of the protection of the nation – fear helps politicians secure people’s support.

One can see, then, that fear as a political tactic can also be activated to pit groups against each other, often for political gain, and sometimes with very evil consequences (Nazi Germany, the Rwandan genocide, and the Balkan wars of the 1990s). At more regional or local levels, groups of citizens unite under a perceived fear of the other – the other who is homosexual, or the other who is Muslim, or the other who is an immigrant or foreigner.

Abeer Qasim of Bethlehem, offers her candid explanation about how leaders in both Israel and Palestine want each side to keep hating the other, to “be afraid.”

“The leaders, they want us, the Israelis and the Palestinians, to just keep this hating, hating, hating . . . to be afraid.”

Now, it would be naive of me to think that one woman’s view or opinion represents everyone in her society. But I do believe that one young woman’s opinion, when articulated to a stranger so candidly, is representative of some or many elements in society. Or, as my Iraqi friend artfully expressed it during a recent conversation,

“One opinion doesn’t represent no one.”

So, since we know the mainstream media often reflexively portrays most if not all Palestinians as supporters of Hamas, if not Hamas itself, — keeping fear alive — then why would we not strive to find average voices within Palestinian society, especially of women, and offer them, at a minimum, a modest platform to provide a very local, honest view? That’s what In Women’s Hands is striving to do.

Our next feature will address the issue of Islamic dress, since it is an easy tool in political fear tactics in the West. The debate often seems to be around whether a Muslim woman’s “garb” is imposed by men, or whether it’s a woman’s self-expression of her modesty. One cannot or should not rely on Google for the answer to such complex and intimate questions. So, we asked Muslim women directly about their choices, and whether traditional wardrobe is a form of oppression, freedom of expression, or simply a kind of traditional social custom that publicly affirms a women’s commitment to her religion and her family.


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Rejecting Victimhood: The Women of Occupied Palestine Rise Up

Victim is one of my least favorite words. It symbolizes the weakened and oppressed, it summons pity, and it unconsciously undermines individual power. The word, however, can draw attention to a personal or social plight. But the problem with this, as noble as it may seem, is that the individual herself has lost control and is dependent on another – a person, a group or organization, or a larger institution or government – to rescue her. In this state of victimhood, women in particular begin to believe that they must be taken care of.  This state of mind slowly deteriorates individual power . . . the power within.

Anne Marie Codur (left) and Vanessa Ortiz (right) visit Bethlehem during olive harvest, when Palestinians and internationals support olive picking activities.

This week, we are visiting the bastion of victimhood – Israel and occupied Palestine. Each side’s governmental leadership claims to represent the ultimate victims. Many people buy into this state of mind. The historical ceremonies, dramatized stories and ritualized memorials serve as constant reminders of the ultimate injustice that each side faces. The default defense mechanism of the ultimate victim is to rely on protection, usually in one of two forms: the state as a militarized, well-armed entity to protect the victim population; or, the “international community” as foreign defender and funder.  Both these forms of defense slowly and silently disempower individuals and civil society – chipping away at grassroots mechanisms that so often offer creative alternatives and new ideas.

Here is an observation we’d like to share as civil resistance pupils/educators and as women who have become quite connected to nonviolent resistance movements and campaigns around the world.  It is this:  the narrative of victim so blatantly seen in Israel — dependence on the militarized state as protector; and in occupied Palestine –dependence on international funding, representation, and mythical martyrdom images — has created a kind of social paralysis. Social paralysis causes society to exist day after day with eyes, ears, mouth and sometimes heart closed.  This paralysis absolutely benefits the defenders (protectors of the victims), especially the militarized nation-state. It transfers power from individual citizens to institutions (national and international), offering these power-holders the excuse to militarize or to receive international aid and the baggage that comes with it. The grassroots community voice diminishes gradually until it is no longer represented. This is especially the case for the voice of women.

Keep Fear Alive — Create Social Distance

What has been interesting to observe this week during our visit is both the lack of information and understanding about the ‘other.’ There is a lot of anger in Palestinian villages throughout the West Bank .  . . understandably so. Agricultural livelihoods are being robbed, traditional village life has been assaulted, and freedom of movement between villages, in some cases just to visit family members, is no longer possible. The rationale that has been provided for decades – security precautions, biblical rights, fear of losing religious “national” identity – has been so overused and exploited, that it’s seen as manipulative rhetoric to local villagers.

A view of the separation wall in Bethlehem. The wall is called a "security fence" in Israel, while in occupied Palestine, it is called the separation or "apartheid wall."

The easiest way to keep fear alive is to keep people apart, and the “security” wall is a great tool for such a strategy. Separation tactics have been used throughout history to perpetuate misunderstandings and outright lies about the other side. This was done effectively for decades during the long U.S. history of institutionalized racial discrimination against African Americans, and in apartheid South Africa, and also during and after the war in the Balkans in the early 1990’s which for over five years engulfed Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia in nationalistic rhetoric to inspire fear of the other.

Separation and fear politics are used by governments to gain official positions based on nationalist politics and security of the state. What is baffling is how citizens around the world fall for fear rhetoric over and over again. These political tactics pave the way for and invite corruption. Who benefits from the protective, fear-based state? Government and defense officials, defense contractors and weapons suppliers, and corporations, among others. Who loses? Indigenous populations, traditional systems, agriculture, the environment, communities and families. Women often lose the most.

 Creating Links, Eliminating Social Distance

What we observed in both Israel and occupied Palestine is that within liberal sectors of society, people are breaking out of social paralysis. Palestinians are digging into their nonviolent history and resisting, increasingly acting together with Israelis and foreigners. Joint action is emerging and becoming more visible.

The courageous work of individuals and organizations here, and their widening reach across borders, is inspiring. Last month in Washington, DC, I attended a private film screening of the film Little Town of Bethlehem, a story of three men of three different faiths and their lives in Israel and Palestine. The story explores each man’s choice of nonviolent action.  At the screening, I met not only one of the film’s protagonist who works for Holy Land Trust in Jerusalem, but also a young man from the organization Combatants for Peace.  This is a group composed of Israelis and Palestinians “who had taken an active part in the cycle of violence in Israel and Palestine.” They seek to tell their stories publicly – of their past violence, of the transformation in their understanding of the conflict and of the “enemy”, and of their current commitment to finding mutually acceptable solutions to their peoples’ aspirations through nonviolent means.

A kind yet strong Budrus elder explains the significance and tradition of the olive harvest for Palestinians.

In occupied Palestine, we visited Budrus, a small village in the West Bank which is featured in a documentary film produced by the organization, Just Vision. The film, titled after a small village, is an inspiring story of the local villagers who struggle together to save their olive trees under threat by the construction of the separation wall. The wall would divide farmers from their land, cutting into the fabric of this community and family-oriented village. The film shows how villagers, joined by Israeli and international activists, actively engaged in unified nonviolent demonstrations against wall construction and Israeli Defense Forces.  Villagers exerted enough pressure to have the wall rerouted. Anne Marie and I had the great pleasure to talk face-to-face with some of the women involved in this struggle, some whom were either pregnant or had just given birth when the village massively mobilized for nonviolent direct action. These women are fearless. They recognize the manipulation by national and international leaders who claim to represent their interests. They were at the front lines along with their husbands, brothers and sons in the struggle to save their land. Such resistance is closing the social distance that their leaders have imposed on them for too long.

The women of Budrus, like so many Palestinian women struggling, as well as the Israelis struggling side by side with them, don’t want to be pitied.  Nor do the women we met at the Shu’fat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. And they’re not looking for protection either. Very generally, they want equal rights and to live in peace, they want a just solution to their status, and they want a say, as well as to participate, in their local and national politics. They realize their power, and they’re not afraid to use it.

We will tell you over the next couple of postings about some of the great women engaged in resistance in Budrus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.  Some are young, some are seasoned revolutionaries, many are mothers, and all are strong. They know that something must change in this decades-long conflict and agree that women must play a leading role.


Vanessa Ortiz and Anne Marie Codur traveled together to interview, photograph and videotape several women activists in the West Bank over several days as part of the storytelling work of In Women’s Hands. These Palestinian women welcomed us into their homes or offices and allowed us an intimate look into their lives in struggle. For their hospitality and generosity, we are eternally grateful and inspired.

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