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Features DS 19/03/04
From combatants to victims, women in war
Liberation from patriarchal repression, new photo exhibition depicts the roles of women in the conflicts of the Middle East

By Hannah Wettig
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 soldier smirks.
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.
Most 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 civil war.
“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 said.
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.
On 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 combat.
Kifah Afifi, a Palestinian woman from Shatila, said: “I felt there was not one enemy called Israel … There were several enemies who hated Palestinians.”
A photograph 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.
“A 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 said.
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.

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