combatants to victims, women in war|
from patriarchal repression, new photo exhibition depicts the
roles of women in the conflicts of the Middle East
Daily Star staff
Women and War the combination of terms evokes
pictures of female fighters. Young combatants in Eritrea,
black crowds of Iranian women in the revolution of 1979 or the
photograph of the beautiful Colombian girl shouldering a gun
come to mind. Women in war stand for liberation from
patriarchal repression, but they also have a certain sex
appeal. Keeping that in mind, to make a photo exhibition under
this theme is sensitive and could easily become glorifying.
The exhibition Women and War, organized by the Institute
for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American
University (LAU), is far from glorifying female fighters, yet
manages to address all aspects of the topic. The exhibition is
currently showing at LAU.
There certainly are those photos
with sex appeal, such as the picture from the Syrian Social
Nationalist Party’s collection showing a young Lebanese woman
leaning against a tree next to a fellow male combatant. She is
pretty and stares coldly into the distance while the male
Female Phalange fighters are captured from
behind, aiming through sand sacks at an invisible enemy.
The photo of a Syrian military training in 1956 is almost
amusing with the women at the shooting range wearing long
skirts and high heels.
Yet, the majority of pictures do
not show female soldiers, but women who are suffering from war
and others who are demonstrating against it.
An old woman
veiled in black is angrily waving a stick at a tank, an Iraqi
woman is waving a Kalashnikov in a rally against the American
invasion last March, and an Algerian woman crying out in grief
are just a few examples. In the last picture, the photo
caption says she was photographed right after she learned that
her eight children had been killed in a massacre.
intriguing in its simplicity and depiction of silent suffering
is probably the shot of an Arab-Israeli woman who is solemnly
sitting on a staircase with the framed picture of her dead son
leaning against the wall next to her the caption says he
was killed in clashes with the Israeli police in October 2000.
The most shocking photo may be the body of a woman whose
organs are pouring out of her side, taken during the Lebanese
“We tried to be as objective as possible (about
the selection of photographs),” said Mona Khalaf, the director
of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World. To get
a wide selection of photos, the institute’s employees
contacted news agencies and told them about the topic. The
agencies sent a huge amount of material to choose from, Khalaf
The idea was to show all three roles women play in
war: combatants, victims and peace activists, and then provide
information surrounding the topic.
In the exhibition’s
brochure, the organizers listed military budgets of Arab
countries only Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania spend
more on education than on military.
The brochure also
informs readers about the role of women in the military in
different Arab countries.
While most will know about
female Palestinian suicide bombers and the Libyan “Guardians
of the Revolution,” many will be surprised to find that Syria
has recruited women into the army since 1970, including a
special parachuting unit, or that Iraqi woman had combat roles
since 1981. Women also receive combat training in Bahrain and
Oman and 2000 female soldiers serve in Sudan’s army.
white boards in the exhibition hall, the organizers have put
together quotes by women about their roles in war, testimonies
of suffering and explanations behind their decisions to join
Kifah Afifi, a Palestinian woman from Shatila,
said: “I felt there was not one enemy called Israel … There
were several enemies who hated Palestinians.”
of Afifi shows her getting into a Red Cross van right after
her release from Khiam prison. In the latest issue of the
institute’s quarterly magazine “Al-Raida,” which is dedicated
entirely to Women and War, the reader can learn how difficult
it was for Afifi to join the militias as a woman and how she
lied to her parents by saying she was going to school.
Many quotes on the white boards referring to Algeria and
Iraq are shocking testimonies of girls being abducted and
raped. But there are also thrilling stories about courageous
women, like the one about a young mother in Palestine.
man in his early twenties was being beaten by soldiers. A
woman rushed up with her baby in her arms and began shouting
at the man, ‘I told you not to leave the house today, the
situation is too dangerous. But you didn’t listen; you never
listen to me!’ She turned in disgust to the soldiers and,
telling them to beat him, cried: ‘I am sick of you and your
baby, take him and leave me alone,’ she pushed the baby into
the young man’s arms and ran away. The confused soldiers soon
left the scene. In a few minutes the woman reappeared,
retrieving her child, and wished the young man safety and a
quick recovery. They were total strangers.”
Each year the
Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World organizes an
event on the occasion of women’s day. “It has to be something
lively, though,” Khalaf explained.
The institute chose the
topic Women and War this year because of the events in Iraq
and Palestine. “We as women can’t ignore that. The issue of
women in this region is unfortunately related to war,” Khalaf
As the soundtrack of Emir Kusturica’s film
“Underground” is playing in the background, with the
combination of photos, quotes and facts, it becomes clear that
the organizers certainly succeeded in creating a lively, but
also informative exhibition, which leaves you at times shocked
or sad, and at other times it can even make you smile.
The exhibition Women and War will be in Irwin Hall at
LAU until Friday from 10am 6pm.