Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Women and Children: On Innocence

You may have seen the status updates on facebook. Although it depends on who your friends are I guess. At the moment they look like this:
In 17 days 919 Palestinians killed by Israel including 284 children & 100 women, 4260 injured. Donate your status:
The purpose of this post is not to draw attention to those numbers, although that's a worthy goal. Instead I want to unpack what else the update is saying. Which may seem self-indulgent when those tallies are going up as a type, but I will get to a point, I think.

Why are women counted separately?

Maybe that's a disengenuous question, because I think I already know the answer. It's not just because women are the marked category, the other, although that's true too. Listing women separately in the death tally serves a rhetorical purpose, mentioning women is a preemptive argument of innocence.

Because (rhetorically) women are not Hamas, because women do not resist. Because women, and children, are a unit of innocence and inactivity.

Those 100 women (more by the time I publish this) each had a story - each had lots of stories. To reduce those women's lives to a proof of innocence is to deny their agency.
There are many different ways women live and die in Gaza.

I understand why the makers of the 'Stop Israeli War Crimes' facebook application decided to structure their information around reinforcing the idea of innocence. - It's almost as if arguing that some Gazans are innocent (as opposed to deserving collective punishment for having elected Hamas) has become a radical position.

But I think it's foolish to base the defence of Gaza on the idea of innocence. Once, when writing about abusive relationships I said:
If anyone who fights back is in a 'mutually abusive relationship, then the only way you are entitled to support is if you don't fight back. But if you react to the abuse, physically defend yourself, act jealous or fucked up by what's happened to you, then you don't deserve support, and people around can wash their hands and walk away from what they term a mutually abusive relationship.

As a feminist, as a human being, it is my duty and my desire, to support the powerless against the powerful, and to not wash my hands of women who fight back.
To focus on the innocence of those killed is to take the position that it is less bad if those killed are not innocent in some way. Which is to imply that the only people from Gaza deserving of our solidarity and support are those who do not fight back.

That is not my position. I do not ask or expect people to stand still and silent in the face of starvation, murder, and mass imprisonment in order to get my support(I am aware that at this point I am supposed to disclaim that I don't support Hamas, I will not do so).

Maybe I am asking a facebook status to do too much. But I think those of us whose political analysis is more complicated than 'women and children first', and who do not need to see innocence to offer solidarity, should make our politics clear. Because to do otherwise is to reinforce the idea that those who fight back against oppression need and deserve our solidarity less than those who sit still.


Psycho Milt said...

It's a counterpoint to the standard military practice of tallying up every male corpse between the ages of 15 and 60 as another dead "enemy combatant," regardless.

Anonymous said...

I already posted this in the comments of another thread but it seems appropriate here too: I have been looking at photos taken in Gaza in the past week by someone who is over there and there is not a woman to be seen. They are pictures of groups of people at demonstrations, on the street etc, including boys. It is quite eerie.

I am keen to read from the perspective of women in Palestine if you know of any good links.


Giovanni said...

I personally think of it in terms of who's inerme (an Italian word that means both unarmed and defenceless) and who isn't, and assume that most of the males who presumably make up the balance between 919 and 384 would fall in that category, while some of the women (and the children) might not.

Clarifying our politics regarding that group, boy, I think you're asking more than a Facebook status update could deliver - the *our* alone is pretty loaded. I'd personally like the peace movement to come out strongly against a group which attacks civilians as a matter of policy - again with the inermi - and didn't attend the Wellington rally because I knew there would be no clarity whatsoever on that point. But I'm derailing the topic, aren't I? Thank you for this great post.

Giovanni said...

So long as I'm derailing: I in no way mean to imply that the balance in the count should be unformly labelled as "Hamas" either.

Carol said...

Anon, there are various images available online of Palestinian women protestors. A lot of them are from protests on the West Bank. But there are some of women protestors in Gaza.

There are also images of armed Palestiniane women, some in Gaza. Some seem to be part of protests. But also many Palestinian women are amongst the political prisoners in Israel.

Political arrest is one of the means that the Israeli occupation uses to suppress resistance. Today there are over 9,000 Palestinian political prisoners in prisons inside Israel and in Israeli military detention centers and interrogation facilities throughout the West Bank. Among the prisoners are about 115 women. Every Friday, women protest outside the Red Cross offices in Tulkarem, Hebron, Jenin, Qalqilia, etc., in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners -- their fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, sisters, and mothers.

Armed Palestinian women on a demo in Gaza:

Image here:

There have been clashes on Gaza's border with Egypt where hundreds of Palestinian women tried to force their way out of the Gaza Strip.

......The women who are loyal to the ruling Hamas movement have demanded that Egypt open its crossing to allow sick Palestinians into Egypt for treatment.

The angry demonstration has come at the end of a five-day israeli lockdown of the Gaza Strip.

Image of armed Palestinian women in Gaza 2006.

This also serves to confirm Maia's point that the characterisation of Palestinian women as victims only, is inaccurate and robs them of agency.

Thanks for pointing this out, Maia.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Carol, but those links don't seem to be about the current situation?

Maia said...

Katy - the sentance which is all links are all articles by or about women in Gaza. The one I read reguarly is Raising Yosuf (the first ro second link in that sentance), although she is not in Gaza at the moment.

Giovanni - What I am saying - or trying to say. That I stand in solidarity as much with those who are not inerme as those who are. With the males between the ages of 15 and 60 who are assumed to be, or actually are combatants, as much as the women who are assumed not to be combatants (some of whom actually are).

Maia said...

Jews is not synonymous with Israeli, and Israeli is not synonymous with support of the government of Israel. The only people who benefit from running together these categories are supporters of the Israeli government and anti-semites. Therefore running those categories together will not be accepted on my threads

I deleted a comment for that reason

Anna said...

Brett, somehow when people here say 'Israel's actions are unjust', you hear us saying, 'Everything Hamas does is good'. You seem to be willfully misinterpreting what's being said.

If you're seriously concerned about the rights of women in Gaza, you'll see that they're not likely to be enhanced by Israeli military aggression.

Katy, I think the point you raise re women's participation in Hamas is important - and we should be able to discuss this without it lapsing into a George Bush style argument that people who treat women badly deserve to get bombed irrespective of the particular dispute at the time. Hopefully, the wellbeing of women will be part of an eventual solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the international community will contribute to this solution - so it should be discussed in an intelligent and humane way.

I've not yet seen the US, Israel or indeed any other nation declare war to try to end women's oppression (they might like to start close to home if they did). I am heartily, heartily fed up with hearing women's rights invoked as an excuse for unrelated violence - particularly by people who don't actually give a fuck about women's rights.

Giovanni said...

.That I stand in solidarity as much with those who are not inerme as those who are.

I most certainly am not, and I think I'm not alone. The armed militias of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not partisans of an anti-fascist struggle, but radicals themselves of the kind I would personally fight if I had to, and if Israel were able to confront them in open warfare, they'd owe the world a lot less of an explanation about their aggression. Let's not lose sight of who's culpable here on both sides, even as we apportion more fault and more responsibility to the side with the most might.

That said, of course not all combatants are regular militia, and a person cornered has every right to fight back. Compassion and solidarity extends to them too. But there is a difference, attacking the defenceless is a special sort of crime, and most people recognise it as such.

The Bewildering Case of Ms Enid Tak-Entity said...

Hmm, from my legalistic perspective, the only relevant division - and by relevant I mean a standard to which we as a vastly removed and non-influential population can attempt to maintain to any degree of usefulness - is not the line between the 'innocent' and the 'culpable', but between combatants and civilians. This is a legal line drawn by the Geneva Conventions - you don't need any fancy footwork or radical thinking to go from there to the UN special rapporteur calling out Israel on war crimes. It's about protecting civilians, particularly civilians who are physically more vulnerable. Specific protection of women and children under the Geneva Conventions is based on assumptions of increased vulnerability - and it's not the broad brush of 'women and children', but the elderly, the sick, children under 15, pregnant women, and women with responsibility for children under 7. Not 'chicks' in general.
Also, I think that those pregnant Palestinian women and mothers killed while herding their kids while trying to flee, don't really give a crap about whether they're being framed as 'helpless' or not, given that they were, in fact, helpless enough to get killed.

The Bewildering Case of Ms Enid Tak-Entity said...

I'm aware I sound like a robot. I also meant to say: you make a good point Maia.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Maia, those links are what I was hoping for.

Hugh said...

I would argue that a Palestinian woman, or man for that matter, who takes up arms against the Israelis meets any definition of 'innocent'. Far more innocent than a Western man who sits on his arse and does nothing about it.

Quoth the Raven said...

Pscho Milt has it right. The U.N arrives at the number of civilian deaths in Gaza by only counting women and children all adult males are treated as combatants. It's ridiculous but that's the assumption they make. You hear from Israeli's that only 12 or 14% of deaths have been civilian - of course from the numbers you provided, I assume, they come from the U.N, it's about 40% and that's counting all adult males as combatants. And the U.Ns own say one should take their numbers only as a minimum figure.

Julie said...

Thank you for writing this. I'm reminded also of the "deserving poor."

I don't really have anything to add, but that, really. And that it was fantastic to see you last night too :-)

UrioTuhoe said...

Giovanni - if you were in the worlds largest open air prison and being slowly starved to death by squatters on your own land, subjected to indiscriminate imprisonment, searches, house demolitions, murder do you think you'd be firing those rockets too? I know if my iwi were facing apartheid/genocide (again) I wouldn't be fucking about with candle lit vigils

I think that decrying the violence of Hamas stinks of privilege, as does most pacifist, non-violent methods of resistance. What do you think?

A hungry mob is a desperate mob.

Anonymous, I have no idea whats up for wahine in Palestine, but at the rallies in Aotearoa most of the Palestinian contingent have been younng women, as have most of their mangai (speakers, which is some evidence they're not all being molly coddled by overbearing Hamas gunmen (or stoned to death as that fraeky Brett guy suggested on some other thread)

UrioTuhoe said...

and Maia I agree with the robot (The Bureaucracy will do that to you Enid)its a good point - have you posted a comment on the Crackbook page that this comes from?

Probably a better idea than having every rabid eyed anti-Islamic ignoramus from Gore flocking to THM to vent their spleen.

UrioTuhoe said...


Assemble Outside Sylvia Park, Mt Wellington Highway

Rakon Industries in Mt Wellington will be targeted in a protest this Saturday against the massacre of Palestinian civilians.

You're welcome to come along Giovanni, bring your 'Stop Firing Qassam Rockets banner' and you can have Mike Treen bore you with a 3hr lecture on the finer points of assymetrical, low intensity warfare.

Giovanni said...

Giovanni - if you were in the worlds largest open air prison and being slowly starved to death by squatters on your own land, subjected to indiscriminate imprisonment, searches, house demolitions, murder do you think you'd be firing those rockets too? I know if my iwi were facing apartheid/genocide (again) I wouldn't be fucking about with candle lit vigils

And I assume that being fine with firing rockets you're also fine with bombs in restaurants and on buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem? But beyond that, you speak as if rockets on civilian centres and candlelit vigils were the only two alternatives. Or as if Hamas and Islamic Jihad weren't political movements, as well as militias, groups that are able to organise and theorise and give themselves objectives, as opposed to just firing rockets in desperation, anger and defiance. The latter organisation reckons the extermination of all Jews is not a bad idea at all, regardless of where they might live. The former claims to be against Israel for political reasons, but remind me whether it has bothered to amend its charter, specifically the part about 'there's a jew behind that rock - kill him?' I don't recall the IRA making similar pronouncements about the fate of English people, should their objective be reached.

Do I think this kind of radicalism is fomented at least in part by the conditions in which Palestinians live? Of course. Do I condone it? Sorry, it's still a no. I think it's insane, it is criminal, and serves no purpose except to give the occupier an excuse, thin as it is wearing, to bomb the hell out of you and yours.

You ask me what I would do, and I honestly don't know, it's impossible to say as well as being an unpleasant academic exercise. Were I to be firing rockets, I'd like to think that I would be at military targets (and no, I don't think that soldiers are innocent, which might speak to this thread).

Julie said...

Anita has responded to Maia's post, with Women are agents of their own political and military destinies.

Denis Welch said...

Well said, Maia. I blogged about this myself the other day; I was picking up on an article by Lionel Shriver, which you may not have seen. I recommend it to you. It's at