Palestine Women First
This is the story of a new generation of radical Palestinian activists who stand out from their society in the most distinct way: they are women.
“Palestine: Women First,” photographed by Mati Milstein and curated by Saher Saman, opens June 15th at Marji Gallery & Contemporary Projects, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States.
These activists are on the front lines of West Bank protest, they are beaten and face arrest and sexual harassment for their bold role. Starting with the March 15 Palestinian unity rallies in the West Bank, I began to photograph the increasingly central role played by Palestinian women activists. Most of these women are in their teens and 20s, they hold key organizational positions and lead protests against Israeli (and sometimes Palestinian) security forces, standing on the lines – in front of their male counterparts – and bearing the brunt of soldiers’ blows. The women seek to both shake off Israeli occupation and to demand sexual equality and unity in their highly-fragmented and often chauvinist society.
The critical role they play counters the prevailing Western perception of the submissive and passive role of women in Arab societies. “Throughout history, women have been active in revolutions but then, after the revolution is over, men take all the leadership roles. But we intend to go for all these roles,” said key activist Ashira, who said she was inspired by Egyptian women active in their own revolution.
These politically-independent women implement a strategy of strictly non-violent protests against Israeli troops, and face potentially deadly military force. But they are also fighting against sexual harassment and chauvinism by Israeli soldiers and male Palestinian activists who are both products of deeply patriarchal societies.
The March 15th women are altering the social paradigms and power dynamics that have, until now, dominated interaction and conflict in the Middle East, and they thus have the potential to change the very nature and character of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself. As feminist philosopher Judith Butler described it, they are undoing “restrictively normative conceptions of sexual and gendered life.”
As a male Israeli photographer, I have had a unique opportunity to meet some of the key women in this movement. They have generously granted me the opportunity to learn about their actions, their goals and their motivations, and to document their political and personal lives.
“Women are often scared of being leaders,” Ashira said. “But it should be encouraged. Any woman that has a chance for a leadership role should take it. That’s the only way we can change society.”