By Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian,Ph.D
School of Social Work
Institute of Criminology, Faculty of Law
Hebrew University, Jerusalem
I would like to thank Prof. Michael B. Preston from the University of Southern California for his insightful remarks.
I will scream in my seclusion,
Not to awaken the sleepers
But to allow my scream to awaken myself
From my imprisoned imagination
Mahmood Darwish, Ha’lat Hisar (A case of Siege p.35)
The historical and ideological underpinning of the Palestinian people’s suffering including the occupation of land, military violence, continued oppression and structural discrimination, prevented many from recognizing Israel’s violence against Palestinian women as a war crime. Moreover, the political and epistemological effects of Israeli power politics and U.S. support, news stories, different histories, knowledge, different modalities of religious beliefs, different constructions of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity constructs a defective and faulty map regarding Palestinian women’s ordeal. The trend to hide the effect of occupation and oppression on women became a more politicized, biased and sophisticated matter with the increase in the media’s power particularly during the current two Palestinian Intifadas (see for more details Shalhoub-Kevorkian writing about the unheard voices Palestinian mothers of martyrs, in press). Yet and when looking closely at Palestinian narratives and Intifada stories we learn that one cannot deny the connections between a nation history and women’s personal life (see also Abdo and Lentin, 2002).
This article presents some voices of Palestinian women who suffered from the atrocities of the Israeli occupation. It shows how history is not necessary her-story. This discrepancy could affect the way we theorize and do research, mainly on the effect of war and political conflict on women. Thus, raising global consciousness and mobilizing the international community’s conscience particularly in the case of anti-colonial struggles turn out to be a focal concern for all feminist, humanist and Palestinian activists I believe that our failure to notice the discrepancy between women’s participation and their marginalization in national and international politics and histories could deny women a voice and prevent the global village from understanding their stories ( see also Sayigh, 1996, in Kandiyoti). The understanding of such complex socio-political, historical and cultural context, and the attentiveness to the voices of those in pain, without stigmatizing and demonizing them could break the historical silence and shed light on the invisible victims of war crimes— ———-WOMEN.
Why Women and War related Crimes:
This article will share with the reader only few Palestinian women’s narratives that are based on the author’s personal ordeal and experience in Jenin refugee camp, Nablus and Jerusalem. It aims at reflecting the specific nature, structure and process that faces the hidden victims of war related crimes in the context of the Palestinian society. It hopes to show the multiple epistemologies and power politics, projects, location and standpoint while revealing the silencing and mis-representation of women in the reality of political conflicts.
In doing so, I hope to increase the individual’s political consciousness to the fact that the personal is political and set the links between women voices and their representation in war stories, while de-constructing his-story to listen and comprehend her-story.
By bringing myself- a Palestinian woman into this article I challenge the “ Global hegemony of western scholarship—i.e., the production, publication, distribution, and consumption of information and ideas” (Mohanty, 1991, 55). I believe in the power of women’s oppositional discourses, hoping that women’s contestatory narratives can create alternative spaces. Thus each narrative, voice and silence could become part of a mosaic with many colors and shapes to reflect women’s words, voice and eyes. Moreover, bringing women voices could force others to acknowledge the variety of roles women had taken in what is supposed to be a men-only domain. Women have used their role as mothers, sisters, daughters and wives- to enter a new public space demanding that their voices about war, pain and justice be heard. Their own ways of fighting oppression demand that previous perceptions attached to war be reviewed and revised.
During war times and in various locations and countries in the world, women suffering and victimization was always neglected. Although and mainly during the past 10 years, the international community tried to look closely at women suffering and acknowledge not only the direct but the indirect victimization and agonies inflicted upon women in war zones. The method of analyzing women suffering in conflict areas was largely affected by the conceptual lens or “media frame” of the U.S. news, and the way they get filtered and censored. It became apparent that the U.S. press structures news and information in terms of conflict, problems, crises and manifestations of state power. Women were regarded non-stories unless they serve the interest of the powerful such as the stories and large concern in the emancipation of Afghani women to the degree of declaring a war against Afghanistan in order to liberate the oppressed Afghani women. To prepare ther American public to the war on Iraq, voices of oppressed Iraqi women were raised by the international mainly the U.S. media. Following the occupation of Iraq, no one see or hear voices or faces of Iraqi women, almost nobody talks about raping Iraqi women following the occupation (except public radio or TV, or other critical media) , and no one talks about violence against women in Iraq after Saddam. Ironically, faces and stories of women were revealed when needed in order to serve the state apparatus. The structural discrimination, double standard, and favoritism to Israel have kept separate the continued violence against Palestinian women and Palestinian people, camouflaging their historical and philosophical underpinning.
This article aims at revealing and focusing on “women/people” and not on state apparatus, in an attempt to free the unheard voice of women. Defining crimes of war in a structurally and contextually sensitive manner is conceived as an important aim in studying crimes, mainly those inflicted upon powerless and oppressed groups. In this paper an attempt is made to clarify and examine the specific nature, structure and process that face the hidden victims of war related crimes in the context of the collective nature of the Palestinian society and through the eyes of the author and the voices of some Palestinian individuals.
Personal accounts of destruction: Women and militarization
I failed so many times to reach Jenin refugee camp, because it was illegal to reach Jenin, but when I managed to reach…all I saw is the utmost ugliness of human beings, I learned that no matter how civilized we claim we are, and how much progress we have reached, when we human beings hate, we become worst that animals.
The destruction was so disturbing, and life in Jenin camp was a death scene. It was hard to walk without feeling sad, mad, angry and more. It was hard to talk to people, for most of them were lost for words. The only one’s who were ready to communicate with me were the medical teams, and the youth groups (males and females) that organized each other to help, support, find food, call a doctor, and search for the lost relatives or friends.
I walked not believing what my eyes saw, destruction, loss, death, fear, despair, but at the same time so much hope that one day the situation will change.
Umm Al- Shaheed:
One Umm Shaheed -mother of a Martyr told me that she learned three days ago that she lost her son, she wanted to believe that he was in prison, she stated: “I hoped and prayed that they have imprisoned him, for at least in prison they could be with each other, all the Shabab (young men) with each other…but today I know I lost him…he was too young to die. I know he died as a Shadeed fighting and defending his country, but he didn’t enjoy life yet, his young eyes haven’t seen anything beyond Jenin …he always wanted to visit Haifa…we came from Haifa, and he wanted to see the sea, the beauty of Haifa …maybe…no..for sure up there (she meant in heaven) he could see us, see Haifa and maybe see the world. In here in this world there was no life despite this life…see.. what you see today …the destruction…., and no hope despite all the hope in our hearts…death is hard, and the death of a son is the hardest…you feel guilty you’re you are living, I really wished I died in his place…but maybe this is the only thing that could bring hope, and plant strength in his brothers and sisters hearts.”
Jenin Camp and it’s Children: Our Children
I saw a group of children screaming, and calling for help, they stressed to me that they saw the hand of a baby…”maybe it is Samir’s sister’s hand, she died as a Sheheedeh during the Kasf (military attack)”. I feared looking, but hid my fear and searched for the hand when one of the medical team asked us to move so that they could get the body out. We all (me and the children) moved aside and started talking, it was the first time in my life that I hated my profession, I hated the fact that I am a mental health worker, and wished to runaway from the painful scenes and experiences, and traumas those children and my people are going through.
The non-asked, non-verbalized questions in children’s eyes were reflected in their body language and speech apprehension. Moving too much, collecting stones and claiming that those stones belong to Abu Mahmood’s house, or Imm Khaled’s backyard. They looked at me, while digging in the land, as if they were wondering whether they could look up, dream for a better future, but still keep the memories, beauty and love they have for the camp/land. I felt them crying without tears when they discovered the baby’s hand; I learned about the sentimental meaning of each rotten and broken piece of home belonging when they discovered the big blue pot. Samer told his friend that the big pot belongs to his uncle, it is the one they used to use when they washed there baby. He actually carried it with him all the way while we were walking, planning to give it to his uncle, “I am sure the baby will be happy” he claimed. Indeed, many worries, unanswered questions, but none of them were verbalized. Then I said that it must be hard to keep seeing this destruction, the bodies, the loss, and the camp….the young Shaima’a was the only one who replied to me by saying:” Ya Welli…Ee’sh Kaman Bedu Ysir”. They all started telling me how much they loved the camp, and that they will do whatever it takes to re-build the camp as on stated:” exactly as it used to be….”. Then one of them asked me who am I, and I told him that I am a Palestinian from Haifa who came to be with my people and families in Jenin. He asked again:” so are you from this group of social worker who are trying to help us. I said: yes I am here to help US” He looked at me and laughed, and then told me:” what kind of a profession you have…specially for a Palestinian, and you are H’urmeh (a woman), how could you come here, be here and help, when you might be stepping on my Dad’s bones and body.”. The feeling was awful, painful. All I wished is to runaway. Leave everything and go…but I didn’t have the luxury of taking a break from the death scenes …I needed to deny my tears, pain and feelings…to handle such horrifying situation..
Gender, war trauma, and the destruction/construction of the self:
While walking, I saw a house cut in half, one half in total destruction and the other half standing there to tell me that once it was a spacious Palestinian home. “How many people used to live in this house Khalti (aunty)?” I asked and Umm Riad answered :”I am not sure exactly, but it was my husband, my four sons and their wives, my three daughters and nine grandsons, three of them were less than two years, one was one month- but he died. How did he die? I asked. She replied: Alla Yekhalliki..Ma Tiftahi J’rouhi- do me a favor, do not open my wounds.
Umm Riad was her name, a woman in her fifties, with so much pain and fear…but also with so much power to keep her faith and help her family re-unite. When I asked her what happened during the incursion of Jenin she replied:
“I did not know how to handle so much pain. Every hour we heard a new story, a new rumor. Despite the home imprisonment and due to the fact that our houses are connected to each other, we were able some times to talk to the neighbors and learn about the outside situation. We learned that our neighbor Abu Mahmood was killed in front of his kid’s eyes. We learned that two Israeli soldiers electrocuted our other neighbor, a newly married young woman while they were arresting her husband. Now her husband is in prison, and he thinks that she is about to have his son, no one was able to inform him about her Istishhad-Martyrdom. I was trying to calm down my daughters in law and my own family. It was terrible…we were 36 people in one room that barely could take 6-7 people. We were unable to breath or move, unable to talk most of the time, unable to cry, unable to look outside…all we heard was voices of the soldiers while invading the house,. They went into the house, broke all the furniture, the machines, the doors, the windows, even my son (eleven years old) schoolbooks were shot? Madness isn’t it?
The effect of the incursion and the home imprisonment and the inability to move raised many hardships to families, mainly when men and women do not stay for so long at home, and do not spend so much time in one room with women. Um Riad explained to me the fact that home imprisonment caused so much pain and inconvenience to women she explained:
“My daughter in law was three weeks after she delivered of her first baby, she was still with heavy bleeding because we never managed to take her to the hospital- the political situation prevented them from leaving the camp-, and her health was in bad shape. She was with us in this small room, with three other women who started menstruating and four children with diapers. The room, the smell was very bad. We were unable to open a window or a door, and going to the bathroom was a very risky task. The smell of the blood filled the room, and the old man (she refers to her husband) got very upset, and decided to ask all menstruating women and children who urinated on themselves or who had diapers to sit in the corner. On day eight I also started menstruating, and sat with the filthy woman and children group, the group that cried the most, cursed themselves the most, I personally knew that being a woman is a curse, but never imagined how much of a curse is it….you know my twelve year old granddaughter promised that when she will be free- if she will be free from the Israeli imposed home imprisonment- she will kill herself and many other Israeli’s. She wanted to die in dignity- like a martyr that fights to protect her country. She felt that the fact that her bother and father knew about her blood (period) turned her life into a misery. At night I noticed that she was trying to kill her self with the rob she found, she caused many problems, cried a lot, screamed at soldiers when they came inn, tried to hit them and she ended up being hit badly…she just couldn’t take her filth and their (she refers to the Israeli soldiers) inhumanity”
Women destinies and hardships seemed in the beginning similar to those of their fellow men, but and when trying to hear women voices, I learned that the political incursion, brought about much more than it seemed. It ostracized some women, isolated them from the only place left for them, and objectified them into “bleeding objects”. In some cases, and in other households, women menstruation was a source of pride and power, for as one stated:” we need to be fertile, and keep having children. They killed two of our family members, and we need to replace them, we need to keep their memory alive…. keep their voice alive…for the reason behind their martyrdom was their search for a safe and secure place to live….I never knew that the only way one can live with his head raised up, is dying.”
Between Madness and Sanity:
Women narratives, hardships and stories were so hard to absorb. In one occasion while I was walking in the camp, trying to start our group meeting with young children, a nine year old girl told me:” you know this woman…she became Hannooni Il-Majnoni- (the loving crazy) now, she lost her mind when she lost her sons in the incursion period…. poor mothers…I wish I could return her kids to her…maybe I can…or maybe I shouldn’t be a mother…it is hard to be Umm Shaheed….she is Umm Three Shuhada’a!!!”
The story of the Majnoni is one that reflects how care, love and protection sometime ends up in unintentional harm, mainly when a woman tries to protect her children from an unpredictable enemy. It shows the thin line between madness and sanity. Her name is Haifa, and the children from the neighborhood told me the story. Haifa was home with her three sons, her husband was in jail, and her five daughters are married in Jordan. She used to be very worried about her boys, for she had them later in her life after five girls. They were a source of proud and power to her. She used to follow them with food and fruits, for she wanted them to be healthy and strong. The whole neighborhood used to call her the H’anooni- the loving mother. Since their father’s imprisonment she became more and more worried. The Soldiers used to raid her house many times at night, and to protect her children she used to hide her three boys in the well. The well always saved her and the Jews never found them. She was afraid that the Jews would take her sons the way they took her husband. One night and after she heard the sound of the Hummer coming towards her house, she started stuttering and shivering- the way she always reacted when she heard or saw a tank or a Hummer. When she noticed that the Israeli military forces were about to reach her house, she decided to ask her three sons to hide in the well. Their house, like any houses in Palestine had an in-house well, but with no water, the family used it to keep food in it. She imposed on her three sons to hide inside the well, and she went out to talk to the soldiers. The soldiers asked her if the house is her husband house, and due to the fact that he is a political prisoner, they raided the house many times. The well always saved them. This time they asked her to leave the house and stay far, for they planned to search every corner in it. She left it, and went to her neighbors to look at her house from their window, and in a very short time, and without any preparation, they bombed the house, and killed her three sons. The neighbors stated that she stayed on the window for almost half an hour, then went out and started screaming…I killed you Mom…I killed you Yamma…and since that incident, she became the Hanoneh-Il-Majnoneh.
I also as a Palestinian woman who lives this madness feel that I am in a pendulum state, searching for methods to protect those I love, methods to keep my own sanity….but like Hanoneh Il-Majnoneh , stay in the house of madness searching for a sanctuary in this lunatic world.
Sexual Abuse: The Hidden Crime
Raising the issue of sexual abuse including sexual harassment, sexual abuse and rape was and is still a very problematic topic to study due to political, cultural, and patriarchal reasons. (see for more details Accad Sexuality and War; Shalhoub-Kevorkian, 1994, 1998). Fear from misusing women’s purity and security increased the social anxiety towards the need to protect them, but also raised their proneness to violence and abuse. The political atrocities against Palestinians raised the complexity to the already intricate context of our case study, were shame, family honor, virginity and women purity are of focal concern. Thus, both political oppression and patriarchy turned the female body into the nation body. Women’s sexual victimization became a big threat to Palestinians and made them deny its existence, while Israelis made it a “never happened crime”. Thus, and despite the refusal of both conflicting sides to acknowledge the existence of such crimes, the documentation of Israeli (Betzelem and Hamoked) and Palestinian human right (al-Haq) organization, and my own clinical work pointed out ( either directly or indirectly) to the occurrence of such abuses against children, men and women. This section brings some of the stories and voices of women who fell victims of such abuses.
Working with women relatives of political prisoners, and women from Jenin, Nablus and Bethlehem area revealed that Palestinian women’s fear of sexual harassments and abuse. Nadia stated:
“ Every time I visit my son in jail they undress me, they touch my body, open up my legs and look inside, they ask all of us to stand naked in front of each other….I decided that I am not going to visit him in jail anymore, I can’t take the humiliation”
While Samira said:
“ I don’t care if they undress me, they even lost my bra last time….I am willing to stand naked in Bab Il Amoud (Damascus Gate)…just to see his face…show him my support, bring him clean clothes, and some food”
Umm Maha stated :
“ I want Maha to Marry…I know she is very young (15 years old), I know she is good in school but her father belong to Hamas, he is a political prisoner…and I am afraid they will use her (sexual abuse her) to pressure him and collect more information about his political activities…if we lose our honor…if we lose our reputation, if my daughter’s body will be violated I will never forgive my self”
Palestinian women although refrain from discussing politically oriented sexual abuses, when they talk about their fears, they remember stories from those who left Yafa or Haifa before 1948, stories that goes back to the reasons why Palestinian left their villages, cities and land at that point in Palestinian history. Tahani from Jenin camp shared her sexual victimization, she said:
“ No, I can’t talk about it…I have suffered enough…lost my husband, and became a single mother and widow in the age of 17 years old…..he forced me to go inside the tank, undressed me and started touching me… down there….he even took the sanitary towel from between my legs…he touched my breast…he said they are too big, I must have hid something inside it…please do not inform anybody…I am afraid that my husband’s family or even my family won’t support me if they learn what happened inside the tank….”
Tahani’s story is only one voice that shows that violence against women, direct and indirect, in the context of an armed conflict is not accidental: it is, indeed, a weapon of war, that is, a tool used to achieve military objectives such as ethnic cleansing, spreading political terror, breaking the resistance of a community, rewarding soldiers, intimidation or extracting information. The various voices we heard stressed that the act of abusing women is often used as a weapon against the community identity, especially in the Arab/Palestinian world where ethnic or national purity, shame and honor was previously used to destroy any sense of hope.*
Political oppression and gender violence
The gender-base nature of armed conflict is nothing new. Historically accounts of warfare are replete with incidents and evidence highlighting the gender-based victimization of women and men and the specific abuses suffered by individuals because of their gender (Lentin, 1997). It has taken many centuries for these accounts to penetrate the hegemonic and ideological construction of warfare. Political oppression was found to block up opportunities for women forcing them to silence their own pains and abuses. It also hindered women from getting help, when men used it to establish a neo-traditional or “national-security modern” system that deprives women from any voice?
The present article revealed that Palestinian women were not forced back into oppression by political, cultural, or religious parties as much as they were blocked from pursuing opportunities of development or self-advancement due to the legacy and reality of politico-economic and social oppression. It clearly showed the indispensability of women to national liberation, not only as actors indispensable to the nationalist revolution, but as producers of an ideology that carries radical social change.
Palestinian women voices showed how women were fighting for justice without necessarily engaging in destruction. They may see aggression to be necessary, but they propose new ways, strategies, and targets to cope. The voices that were raised today and made visible were voices of women worriers that forced themselves into the public sphere. There unique activism in the “battlefield” contrast with expectations that they should be passive, or best, absent.
Putting Palestinian women victimization into the war story hoped to prevent the imposed invisibility of women and war and forges alternative visions and stories. It protects us from the media’s deception and denial of some of the war voices and call upon us to make visible the language of patriotism, occupation and patriarchy, while constructing a global conscience that is responsible for the future of generations to come.
H’asser Hissa’rak…..put your siege under siege
Under siege, Time becomes a location
That is solidifies as a rock forever
During siege, the location becomes a time, that is delayed……………
The siege is intensified…To convince us
To choose Slavery… which is harmless
And this choice is made with full liberty…
And if you resist….
You suffer from a chronic sickness:
The Disease of Hope….
My friends are preparing my party
A farewell party and a comfortable grave….Who died
…the martyr is the daughter of a martyr..
Who is a daughter of a martyr, and the sister of the martyr who is
The mother of a martyr who is the nephew of the martyr’s grandparent….
But the victim’s name is unknown….normal!!!
The victim is like the truth…… relative
Mahmood Darwish, Ha’alat Hisar ( A case of blockade; p.74-85)
During this period of time, where the powerful declares war against the powerless, and when violence and destruction is used in the name of liberation, emancipation, and the protection of human rights, to “put our siege under siege” and preserving ourselves from the world’s insanity – as the Palestinian poet Mahmood Darwish stated- is a must. By naming the nameless, and shedding some light on the hidden casualties of war, I hoped to take the reader with me in one of my journeys as a Palestinian woman/feminist/activist, and help others see through my eyes, what I witness, what I do,…what I live.
The complex relation between the eye witnesses, the unspoken- or unspeakable – truth of war and political violence and that are yet inscribed in academic article- turns this article into a meeting point between what is reflected in my mind, what the eyes and heart are experiencing, and what the “Disease of Hope” portrays. By moving from the historical, to the personal, the visual, the cultural, the psychological, the gender and back to the political, I hoped to shift the global vision from the concrete power- steered questions into vaster questions of mutual interaction between the personal and the political, men and women, trauma and memory, witnessing and testifying, between theory and history. In this article, I narrate my own experiences as a Palestinian therapist, while listening to human suffering and to traumatic narratives of Palestinian women and children. As a therapist- I am trained to listen carefully to treat trauma; and the hazard of listening- of coming to know- leads to a rethinking of knowledge, truth/s and reality and helps in promoting psychological recovery from trauma. Yet, being part of a political conflict- a war- and listening/witnessing the destruction, pain, the agony in the eyes of children, men and women, the tears, demolition of what was a home, a place of security for women and children, the smell of death, the scene of the small dismantled bodies; I wonder how do we sustain and keep on living our daily life after such trauma- for war is madness. The inhumanity of human beings as I witnessed and listened to – is atrocious and I could see why we dismiss it from our memory- it is too painful at time to deal with it. The impossible, unbearable and unspeakable reverberate in the eyes, tears, movements, smell, and silence of my people, and in the bewildered voices of the muted. Intifada atrocities were revealed when it was appropriate, the rest is silenced and muted by the survivors, victims and criminals. The frightful war view I witnessed increased with the apparent or hidden conspiracy of silencing its ramifications on the most vulnerable group’s women and children and left me with many unanswered questions such as: Why do we keep the secret of the war atrocities away from world? Is it to keep it away from ourselves? Why do we raise some voices and mute the others? Is it because it is hard to listen to them? Why do we see some injured faces, families, voices and leave the others? Who are the others that are left?
Despite the unanswered questions and despite the world chosen amnesia and refusal to acknowledge the pain of war, I Nadera refuse to keep my/our pains a secret, and in this article decided to decanonize the silence and liberate my personal/Palestinian voice and experience from the bondage of such imprisonment. I herby renounce war and violence and ask the global community to search for a more human ways of solving conflicts- for the cruelty of war produces desperation, agony and hopelessness. Oppression and demonization cannot continue, and we must find a way to make society a better place to live in.
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Mohanty Chandra (1991)
Sayigh, Rosemary. (1996). Researching gender in a Palestinian camp. In Deniz Kandiyoti (1996). Gendering the Middle East: Emerging Perspectives. London: I.B.Tauris Pubishers.p. 145-167.
Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Nadera (1994). ). Fear of sexual harassment: Palestinian adolescent girls in the Intifada. In E.Augustin (ed.). Palestinian women: Identity and experience. London: Zed Books.
Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Nadera (1998). Crime of war, culture, and children’s rights: The case-study of female Palestinian detainees under Israeli military occupation. In Douglas, G & Sebba, L (Eds)., Children’s Rights & Traditional Values. Darmouth Press. 228-248.
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