A photo of a presumed Israeli soldier exercising her right to bare arms – and legs and midriff – with a machine gun slung casually over her shoulder has gone viral.
While supporters of Israel have seized on this image to talk up the virtues of the IDF, pro-Palestinians are bound to view this as an attempt to sex up the ugly reality of the harsh occupation – after all, regardless of how “sexy” an assault rifle-bikini combo on a Tel Aviv beach seems to distant voyeurs, relocate it to a West Bank checkpoint, and it rapidly loses its questionable charm.
As the proud ‘Only in Israel’ caption accompanying the snapshot clearly demonstrates, this modern-day Jewish Amazon confirms Israel’s image amongst its cheerleaders as the land of tough, independent and sexy women who are every bit their men’s equal, unlike those oppressed, repressed and depressed Arab women.
Of course, like with all myths, there is a kernel of truth to this. Secular Israeli women are, judging by what I’ve seen, probably the most independent and empowered women in the Middle East, but their Palestinian “sisters” are hardly pushovers, as I’ve found out for myself through encounters with eccentrically philosophical doctors and capable professionals, frontline activists, articulate artists, and more.
Besides, there is, quite literally, another Israel. Only 60-odd km away from “decadent” and “hedonistic” Tel Aviv, lies “holy” Jerusalem, a theocratic stone’s throw away from Tehran. In the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, where vigilante modesty patrols intimidate the streets, women must dress modestly, are segregated from men during religious festivals, often occupy the back of the bus, and their 'offensive' form is effaced from posters.
The main difference between Jewish and Muslim (and Christian too) patriarchy in the Holy Land is less one of substance and more about fashion – hijabs vs wigs and scarves. For moderately religious Jews, shorter skirts are ‘in’ and trousers are ‘sin’, while the fashion-conscious ‘muhajaba’ will don skin-tight jeans but not bare any part of her legs.
Besides, even among secularists, chauvinism is not always far beneath the surface. Take the supposedly emancipating image of the bikini-clad soldier. While male fighters tend to be celebrated for their courage and bravery, the fawning, fondling hand of misogyny ensures that this “hot chick” is praised for her “Guns’n’Buns” and for putting the “ass in assassin”.
Similarly, while hard-talking male journalists the world over are often widely admired, even by their detractors, it can be a different story for women. Lisa Goldman, an award-winning journalist and co-founder of the independent leftwing +972 magazine,complained of the naked misogyny and the very personal nature of the attacks she has to endure from opponents. “The criticism directed at me is harsher than that directed at my male colleagues who often write more radical stuff than I do,” she told me.
Now back to the machine gun. The spectacle of women bearing arms in the Middle East is hardly unique to Israel (where women, with the exception of one infantry battalion, are actually not allowed to serve in combat), though in the Arab context, such as in Algeria, it has tended to be as paramilitaries.
The “poster girl” of Palestinian armed resistance has to be Leila Khaled, the first woman ever to hijack an aircraft, in 1969, heading from Rome to Athens – though it should be pointed out that she has claimed publicly that she never intended to harm, nor ever did in reality, the passengers. Although Israelis regard Khaled as terrorism personified, photos of her – smiling enigmatically or staring dreamily, while holding an AK-47 and wearing a ring made of a bullet and a grenade pin – have become iconic in many Palestinian circles.
Khaled was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which like much of the Palestinian secular left, and in a similar vein to early secular Zionism, saw the empowerment of women as a crucial prerequisite for national salvation and justice.
The unfolding reality of the conflict has both empowered and weakened women on both sides. An example of this is how Palestinian women have been empowered enough to take to the streets to protest the occupation but are, along with their families and male comrades who “let” them go out, mocked mercilessly by conservatives for emasculating the struggle and trying to usurp what should be men’s work, activists have told me.
And things are not improving or are getting worse, especially in Gaza.
“Palestinian women are highly educated but the positions they occupy are not commensurate to their abilities,” says Nancy Sadiq, who runs a pro-democracy and peace NGO, Panorama, in Ramallah. “At meetings or conferences, I am invariably one of the only women there.”
“In general, a woman tends be to a second-class citizen, whether here or in Israel, though Israeli women have better legal, social and economic rights. The difference is one of degree,” she adds.
In fact, machismo has been prevalent in Zionism which, after all, has sought to craft the tough and muscular new Jew who would never again go like a “lamb to the slaughter”. Even the ostensibly egalitarian kibbutzim were not able to dispel fully the spectre of traditional gender roles. This was something which shocked my compatriot, the maverick adventurer Sana Hasan, the first Egyptian civilian to visit Israel, in the mid-1970s, at a time when the two countries were still in a state of war. “It took me a while to realise that the glamorous image of women pioneers ploughing fields and carting manure… was largely mythical,” she wrote.
The conflict has threatened the gains Israeli and Palestinian women have registered, partly due to the rise in importance of “traditional values” and the religious fundamentalism which it has engendered. Though fundamentalism is partially a reaction to the insecurity bred by modernity, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, it is also a response to victory and defeat.
Fundamentalists and religious conservatives often connect Arab weakness to “immorality” and displeasing God. And returning to the “straight path”, in this worldview, involves restoring women’s “honour”. In addition, living under the autocracy of occupation, much like living under dictatorship, robs people of their freewill and men of their perceived “manhood”, leading many to exercise control over all that’s left to them: women and children.
But Israel’s victories and might have not enabled women to cast off the suffocating straitjacket of religious patriarchy. On the contrary, the idea that the whimsical Abrahamic God is apparently smiling on Israel has led to an upsurge in religious fundamentalism, much of it messianic in nature. As the demographic balance between “secular” and “religious” gradually shifts in favour of the latter, the significance of women living by the laws of the Torah and Halakha as determined by ultra-conservative interpretations is growing: The basic outlines of traditional patriarchy still remain intact in many religious circles.
The fog of conflict obscures the fact that the gender wars in Israel and Palestine are remarkably similar, and that Arab and Jewish women share much in common in their struggle against the patriarchal order. In a less polarised context, women on both sides of the divide might have found common cause in their struggle against the wave of increasingly rigid religiosity, and its accompanying gender restrictions, engulfing both societies