Social media: a tool for Palestinian women in popular resistance?

Undoubtedly, an important influence of the Arab revolutions on Palestinians was the inspiration to use social media for political activism. Palestinian youth utilized it in various ways, including calling for protests, sharing footage of popular resistance activities, and organizing online petitions to raise awareness.25

Globally, women make up almost half of Facebook users in the world; yet, in the Arab world, only one-third of the users are women.26 A study by the Dubai School of Government that explored the connection between women’s usage of social media and their political and civic empowerment concluded that the main barriers to women’s utilization of social media were “societal and cultural constraints.”27 In a 2009 study, Nadcra Shalhoub-Kevorkian analyzed the impact of cyberspace and digital technologies on women in conflict areas. Her study specifically focused on the Occupied Palestinian Territory.28 She concluded that the Internet has positively affected power dynamics and the roles of women in contested areas. She also found that the Internet can actually “enhance women’s opportunities to resist and cope with patriarchal oppression in the domestic sphere as well as with militarization outside the home.”29 Shalhoub-Kevorkian introduced the term “e-rcsistance” to refer to feminist electronic resistance against both political and patriarchal oppression in conflict zones.30 One recent example is the Facebook campaign, “Uprising of Women in the Arab World.”31 Beginning in October 2011, and following images of the Arab Uprisings, four Arab women—two Lebanese women, one Palestinian woman, and one Egyptian woman—led this social media campaign. Their campaign’s agenda was to advance women’s freedom and independence and to “create a platform for solidarity with women activists, who may have felt isolated in their individual struggles all over the region.”32 Noticeably, the largest participation in the campaign came from Palestine.33 Countless Palestinians sent pictures of themselves wearing the traditional Kufiyah and demanding women’s rights, thus uniting both struggles.

Although, in the Arab world, only one-third of social media users are women, Amira, a social media activist, argues that, when women have access to social media, they suddenly stand on “equal” ground with men. It creates a podium whereby the gender of the account holder does not matter, only the quality of the news shared. More importantly, the interviewees attest that it is a space where women can talk on behalf of themselves without formal media serving as an intermediary between them and the masses. In this way, the virtual world facilitates women’s access to the streets. As Amira argues, “Women bloggers’ voices were heard, and they were able to situate themselves as equal decision makers to men in the virtual world.” Having done so, some of the activists argued that it paved the way for them to engage in street protests and politics both in the March 2011 disunity protests and, later, in popular resistance against the Israeli occupation.

Images of the Arab Uprising

In an attempt to categorize ongoing Arab revolutions—including protests in Palestine—as youth and women oriented, foreign media fixated on women’s images in popular resistance. This focus created a distorted image of the reality of women’s involvement. Journalists, reporters, photographers, and analysts enthusiastically grouped Palestinian women along with the women in Arab revolutions throughout the region. This generalization created what they thought of as the “gender revolution” or the “women’s revolution.”34

Western, Israeli, and Arab photographers alike raced to take pictures of Palestinian women in protests,3’ at times depicting them as “Palestinian Gandhis,”36 the long-awaited nonviolent Palestinians. There is an ongoing assumption that Palestinians have not succeeded in their liberation or in acquiring a state because men have not yet adopted a nonviolent strategy. However, as some have argued, once Palestinians understand nonviolence, their future will change. Palestinian foreign journalists restlessly insisted on interviewing women rather than men during protests, and in many instances, they attempted to frame women’s popular resistance as a separate, more novel model of resistance. Some Palestinian journalists and bloggers fell into the trap of casting women’s recent levels of participation in Palestine as “new.”37

Given the nature of media coverage of Palestinian women in popular resistance against Israel after 2011, one might envision that the Arab Uprisings encouraged Palestinian women to “return” once again to an activist- and community-based framework in their struggle. Media images portrayed Palestinian women in protests against the occupation but simultaneously presented them as “modern,” “sexy,” and “pacifist.”38 Foreign newspapers and photo exhibits focused on unveiled women and, in some instances, on the particulars of their outfits and bodies. The viewer’s attention is thus shifted away from the issues behind the protests to the gender of the protesters.

In such instances, the media did not portray women as part of the communal protesting community but rather as a significant sector unto itself. Such a message offers a misleading suggestion that the current form of popular resistance is specific to a certain sector of women and not to all Palestinian women. The women interviewed in this study argue that this message is much more likely to appeal to Western audiences than to other Palestinians. Not only are the images seeking to satisfy the Western spectator’s assumptions of what Palestinian resistance ought to be, but they erroneously employ the women as “carriers” of a nonviolent message of peace in sharp distinction from “violent” Palestinian men.39

Through his Facebook page, Israeli photographer Mati Milstein provides a clear example of his project on protesting Palestinian women, titled “Nesa’iyeh (A Woman Thing).” Milstein portrays a picture of a man with a Kufiyah wrapped around his head picking up what seems to be a gas canister from the ground, along with a picture of a woman in the same body position and who is also wrapped in a Kufiyah but is picking up flowers instead. The caption reads, “Men & Women: What might they choose to pick up off the ground in the midst of a protest?”40 Milstein’s photo exhibition of Palestinian women featured in an art exhibit in New Mexico in the United States instigated heated debates between youth groups concerning the forms of resistance portrayed in his photographs.41 Milstein’s pictures focus on women’s facial expressions, certain aspects of their attire, and, in some cases, he completely removes them from their surroundings.42

In analyzing Milstein’s artistic decisions, Khawla, a Nazarene who has been politically active since 2000, believes that Milstein is engaging in a form of female objectification. She argues that neither the photographs nor Palestinian women’s actions can be situated outside the context of the Palestinian struggle and its history. In these images, not only are women detached from their conflicted surroundings, but they are also detached from the earlier Palestinian women’s movement and its achievements. Admittedly, some of the interviewed women assert that, at times, Western media’s discourse is so overpowering that Palestinian women themselves fail to demonstrate their existence as an extension of a deeply rooted Palestinian women’s movement. Basma believes that “this disconnect ends up reinforcing the media’s distorted images.”

All of the Palestinian women activists interviewed in the study claimed that the media’s interpretation of active women is distorted, incorrect, or exaggerated. One inaccurate piece of deployed information is the claim that there has been an increase in women’s participation in protests and activities after 2011. Both Khawla from Nazareth and Shatha from Al-Waljeh, a town northwest of Bethlehem, have been politically active for more than fifteen years, and they indicate that since the start of the Arab revolutions, there has been no real rise in women’s overall participation in popular resistance. This conception is in stark contrast to the images of women in the March 15 unity protests.

Khawla, who was regularly active in protests against the Wall in Budrus and other villages during the Second Intifada, believes that women’s participation has actually declined after 2011 when compared with early protests against the Wall in 2003. She asserts that women were an essential part of the confrontation against the Wall in local villages; they played vital roles in some of the protests’

Media representations of Palestinian women 99 successes, which she claims is not the case in demonstrations against the occupation that occurred after 2011. Shatha confirms that the Arab revolutions instigated a reverse reaction in Al-Waljeh, one she asserts is of “anticipation” and “waiting.” Indeed, popular resistance activities in the village slowed down in an attempt to understand the consequences of the Arab Uprisings. This “anticipation period” further decreased women’s participation.

In an interview with Iltizam Morar from Budrus, Morar praises the relationship dynamics between men and women in the protests, and the roles women were able to assume between 2003 and 2005. Iltizam describes the crucial roles women played in weekly protests and in mobilizing for protests since 2003. Not only did they participate in general demonstrations, but they also held women-only protests and meetings. Women were also an integral part of the struggle against the Wall in Budrus. In fact, Iltizam did not have much to say about the effect of the Arab Uprisings on women’s participation in Budrus, as women in Budrus were visible since 2003. However, Iltizam admits that women were excluded from “men-only strategy formulating” meetings. As the daughter of the village’s popular resistance leader, and as a woman with good English skills (a necessary and highly appreciated skill when meeting with foreigners), Iltizam was privileged to attend such meetings. Nevertheless, she believes that women’s participation in protests taking place in other villages were not as predominant as those in Budrus. Iltizam acknowledges that when she participated in protests in other villages, very few local women were present.

Even so, there is a history of Palestinian women’s resistance that has been discredited in the wake of Palestinian women’s protest images after 2011 and the Arab revolutions. For example, women organized at the grassroots level in villages to resist the Separation Wall. As early as 2003, women in popular resistance formed a local coalition under the name “Women Against the Wall.”43 The coalition was supposed to serve as a women’s branch of each male-dominated Popular Committee, which presented a form of community-based organizing and resistance similar to that of the First Palestinian Intifada, and aimed at strengthening women’s participation and involvement in decision-making.

In another example, women in Tulkarm established a women’s group called “Women’s Wall Defense Committee.” This group attempted to mobilize women to participate in protests44 and held several meetings in Salfeet to organize against the Wall in their village.45 However, it is unclear how successful these women actually were in organizing and campaigning. The intensity of popular resistance activities in these villages varied, as did the participation of the women. In any case, the formation of these coalitions attests to the fact that women were attempting to organize on the grassroots level—a development absent from protests after 2011.

In support of this observation, several women interviewed indicated that the possible increase of women’s participation in popular resistance is that of “younger, educated, urban, socially active females in Ramallah.” These women, who were mostly unveiled and wearing jeans, t-shirts, and Kufiyahs, were highly deployed by the media. Such images resonate with Western viewers who canrelate to the Palestinian who “looks like them”—a picture that does not resemble the violent Palestinian man, nor the Palestinian women “in voluminous dresses involved in domestic activities.”46

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