Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Israel and Palestine: changing gender roles

The Israel-Palestine conflict of 2012 marked decades of ongoing tensions that have affected gender roles on both sides.

Female Israel Defense Forces Weapons Instructor
by Lydia Green

Violence and conflict have often acted as springboards to greater gender equality. During the First World War the willingness of British women to work whilst men were at war eventually lead to partial suffrage in 1918 and full suffrage in 1928. Today, the conflict in Israel and Palestine has struck at the core of Arab and Israeli society, as people on both sides of the border exploit and remould gender stereotypes in their continuous struggle. So, how have gender roles in Israel and Palestine changed?

The Palestinian Man
“What is the role of the Arab man?” asked a post on Yahoo last week. The selected 'Best Answer' was a predictable one: “The man is faith and strength...the man is mighty and manly." This traditional view of manliness in Middle Eastern societies is not lost on the Israeli military, who seek to undermine Palestinian men’s masculinity through campaigns of beating and humiliation.

Yet, rather than seeing this as a sign of defeat, or emasculation, Palestinians have turned it into a symbol of strength, endurance and stoicism. As in Northern Ireland, where prisoners refused to wear uniform, or be embarrassed by their nakedness in front of prison guards and therefore could not be humiliated, Palestinian men have found a way to use their very bodies as a weapon of defiance.
“They looked at me like men, they were speaking like men, they forgot how to be kids."
Anthropologist Julie Peteet has written how the receipt of violence has become a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. Young Palestinians are routinely arrested by the Israelis, often with little reason. They are imprisoned, deprived of food or sleep, beaten and humiliated before finally being allowed to return to their communities. This process has much in common with coming of age rituals, albeit less traumatic versions, found in many communities across the globe; the youth are taken away from the familiar environment and support network of their communities and plunged into a radically new experience. They must perform an ideal of masculinity which involves the refusal to acknowledge pain or injury. Peteet reports how one young Palestinian advised another: “Don’t cry, don’t shout. Don’t let them know it hurts”.

Yet masculinity in Palestine is endowed to men who are barely men at all, to boys aspiring to be men simply through the agency of a national struggle. One father is reported to have described his shock on seeing children performing this role: “They looked at me like men, they were speaking like men, they forgot how to be kids”. This stolen childhood fills the older generation with guilt at their failure to bear the burden of the struggle, as Arab poet Nizar Qabbani laments:

"Ah generation of betrayal
Of surrogate and indecent men, generation of leftovers
We will be swept away
Never mind the slow tide of history
By children bearing rocks"

The Palestinian Woman
Conflict has created a greater need for the participation of women in society, a participation previously seen as scandalous, but now viewed as a sign of loyalty to their communities and something to be proud of. Women have pushed beyond their gender’s traditional constraints in support of the nationalist cause and this has encouraged reinterpretation of female roles. Yet, engaging in physical combat or smuggling is dangerous; prison and the possibility of sexual violence could destroy a woman’s reputation. Opinions, however, are changing, and women’s’ direct involvement is increasingly tolerated despite its risks.  

Cultural changes are also taking root. The incredibly unusual and vastly unpredictable conditions of war mean a woman being seen in the company of men is becoming less of a taboo occurrence. Women have also become more proactive. Women’s committees have been created, engaging in home gardening, sewing and other activities to ensure Palestinians’ stay on the land in the face of violence and often in the absence of a male breadwinner. With greater participations comes greater equality with men and Palestinian women are increasingly claiming this right. In 1994, the draft 'Women’s Charter' was presented to Yasser Arafat, President of the Palestinian National Authority at the time, and discrimination on the basis of gender has since been outlawed in the Palestinian constitution.

However, just as some women have begun to branch out into arenas traditionally reserved for men, others have used their bodies as a locus of national resistance, as anthropologist Rhoda Kannaneh discovered. The politics of reproduction are a bitter debate in Palestine as people try to choose between the Western ideal of the nuclear family; educated and wealthy, and the large family model common to many Arab societies. Small families can compete with the Israelis at an intellectual and material level, but larger families are ammunition in the equally bitter demographic battle waged by Israel. Israel wants to ensure the Arabs in Palestine remain a minority; the womb has become a battlefield in which women are the major players.

Palestinian women also use their gender in a flamboyant performance of the role of the mother, hurling insults at Israeli 'boys'. It is a tactic that aims to shame, reminding soldiers of their own mothers scolding and humanising their target of violence: “Don’t you have children?” they shout, “We are humans too!”

The Israeli Man
Though death tolls tend to be higher on the Palestinian side, violence has also shaped gender roles for Israelis, as anthropologist Danny Kaplan noted in his book The Military as a Second Bar Mitzvah. Like their Palestinian counterparts, young Israeli men experience a coming of age ritual born of violence. In Israel this means participation in the military, conscription to which is compulsory on reaching adulthood. Military service involves young Israelis being separated from their homes and communities, finding themselves in an alien environment experiencing physical hardship and confrontation. Three years later the conscription period ends and  the young soldiers return to their communities now viewed as men.

Kaplan tested these boundaries in an interview with a gay Israeli youth he called 'Nir'. Nir believed his participation in the army endowed him with a masculinity he might otherwise have been denied by his peers as a result of his sexuality. Yet, Palestinians see Israeli aggression as unmasculine, since Arab culture states that by challenging one who is not able to accept the challenge, a man dishonours himself. The Israelis absent themselves from guilt by systematically dehumanising the subject population - they will use the term 'a young man of ten years', never 'a boy' - and the armed forces encourage competition between units that makes death tolls reminiscent of match scores.

The Israeli Woman
Israeli women have also taken up the more active, and 'masculine' role of fighters in the armed forces, but rather than using their participation to gain greater rights, they seek to assert their equality in the field of war. A report by the Israeli paper Yedioth quotes a female soldier saying: "A female combat soldier needs to prove more…a female soldier who beats up others is a serious fighter…when I arrived there was another female there with me, she was there before me…everyone spoke of how impressive she is because she humiliates Arabs without any problem.”
Women in army uniform are still seen as a sex symbols and with countless magazines and websites snapping photos of “beautiful Israeli soldiers” - sometimes wearing only their underwear - the need to perform a macho role in order to distinguish a woman as a “real soldier” is unsurprising.
Here and in other similar testimonies, Israeli women deliberately use physical violence to transcend their gender; since they are considered the weaker sex they must appear more aggressive than men in order to be regarded equals in what the interviewee herself describes as a 'production'. Women in army uniform are still seen as a sex symbols and with countless magazines and websites snapping photos of 'beautiful Israeli soldiers' - sometimes wearing only their underwear - the need to perform a macho role in order to distinguish a woman as a 'real soldier' is unsurprising.

National violence has impacted on education, health, and freedom of movement. It has carved craters in the landscape, twisted road signs and left indelible marks on those who have come into contact with it. It seems inevitable then that gender should not have been left untouched and so it has shaped the way gender is embodied on both sides of the Israeli wall. 

Women have become more visible, performing activities within their gender brief and beyond, so broadening the definition of 'femininity'. Meanwhile, Palestinian men, have reached a contradictory mindset holding a David and Goliath image of young boys throwing rocks in the face of Israeli aggression, but for whom losing the battle is not shameful. Masculinity as a concept has not been broadened, but ritual initiation through violence, the site of which is often the Palestinian male body, has allowed a wider variety of men access to this mantle. Yet, with domestic violence a growing problem in Palestine, perhaps the female body is destined to fulfil this role as well. @LydiaGreen17

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