A dangerous girl?

With thanks to Haim Schwarczenberg, who retains all copyright to the above image.


Nina FischerNina Fischer teaches Jewish and Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Previously, she has held fellowships at IASH, the Australian National University, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She also served as researcher and project manager of the ‘History & Memory’ group at the University of Konstanz.

Nina has lived in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for many years and her research areas include Middle Eastern, Holocaust, and Memory Studies. She is author of Memory Work: The Second Generation, which explores memory and literature in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Nina has also published on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its different media representations and is currently writing a book that traces the conflicting cultural imaginations of Jerusalem. Details of her work can be found here.


 

Ahed Tamimi is a teenager living in a small Palestinian farming village, some 20 kilometres from Ramallah. Under normal circumstances, this 15-year old girl would not be the first one to have come to mind when I heard about the Dangerous Woman Project – I probably would not even know her name.

But Ahed does not live under normal circumstances.

Indeed, her life in Israeli-occupied Nabi Saleh, where her family along with the other villages is engaged in non-violent protests against the occupation, is far outside the realms of ‘normal’. But due to these political circumstances and the connective power of the Internet, the girl has become, according to NBC News, the ‘poster child of the Palestinians’ (Jebari, 2015).

Since 2009, the residents of Nabi Saleh, from children to the aged, have marched every Friday from the entrance of their village to a military barrier. They are protesting against attacks from settlers from the nearby settlement of Halamish, against the settlement’s continuing expansion on privately owned Palestinian land, and against the settler’s take-over of the village spring. The Israeli army has countered these marches, which are often accompanied by protestors throwing stones against the highly armed forces, who carry tear gas, rubber coated steel bullets, and also live ammunition. Two villagers, Mustafa and Rushdi Tamimi, have been killed.

Bassem Tamimi is the vocal and charismatic leader of the protests, but today, the face of the demonstrations is his blond, curly-haired daughter – Ahed appears in most of the pictures taken of the Nabi Saleh anti-Occupation marches. Her fame began in 2012 when a video went viral that showed the then 12-year old with a sparkling peace sign on her t-shirt, yelling at soldiers in English, Hebrew, and Arabic because they arrested her older brother. [1] The video and stills drawn from it showed her repeatedly raising and shaking her fist at the armed men twice her size.

The incident led to Turkish President Erdogan awarding Ahed a ‘Handala Courage Award’. Handala is another famous Palestinian child created by artist Naji al-Ali in 1969: a cartoon character of a refugee whom we only know from the back because he is looking towards his lost home. The boy has become one of the central symbols of Palestinian defiance and identity (Al-Ali 2009).

Now why do I conceive of Ahed Tamimi as a ‘dangerous woman’?

Primarily, this choice says something about my bias: ‘dangerous’ women appeal to me. They impress me because they challenge us, they challenge me, and in this Palestinian teenager I see challenges for anyone – on the entire political spectrum – concerning Palestine. Firstly, of course, to Israel, but also to those observing the situation from afar. In Ahed’s virtual presence, I also see challenges to established norms of understanding the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first challenge is obvious: a girl facing off with the Israeli army visualizes an asymmetry of conflict that is hard to escape. Even if she yells at soldiers and shakes her fist at them, it does not compare with their size, let alone the weapons they carry.

This asymmetry of conflict became evident again in the second viral video of Ahed from a 2015 altercation between her, her mother, aunt, and a soldier trying to arrest Ahed’s 12-year old brother Mohammed. The soldier sat on the boy who at the time had his arm in a cast, his head pressed against a boulder and the soldier’s machine gun dangling next to Mohammad’s body. [2] The women were yelling and grabbing at the soldier. Ahed – after he pushed her face – bit his hand. Images of the incident were reprinted around the world, including in The Guardian and The Telegraph in the UK, and caused an outcry.

Seeing images of violence against children challenge us – according to sociologist Peter Eglin – to take a stance of ‘responsible intellectual citizenship’ (2013: xi). Such a notion calls on us to ‘communicate matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about it’ (2013:4). Here, through the power of the Internet, a teenage girl becomes dangerous to Israeli policy by changing the international perception of the conflict. As Peter Beaumont (2015) of the Guardian put it: ‘Israel (is) gradually losing a global battle of narratives over the occupation where a different kind of asymmetry – the leverage of social media – can propel a single incident into an international scandal’.

Such images call into question the official Israeli representation of the occupation, or what Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin, and Laura Rosknesselle call a ‘strategic narrative’ employed to ‘garner legitimacy for particular and highly contestable policy responses’ (2013: xi). The political scientists argue that in the new media ecology (the era in which the Internet rather than higher powers have the monopoly over our knowledge), the control of authorities’ narratives is fading.

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this means that the communicative power about events in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian areas is increasingly harnessed by the Palestinian grassroots. In an interview, Ahed made clear that she is aware of this need:

‘The pictures went viral. That’s important, (…) so the world can see what happens.’
(Deger 2015)

The first step towards getting the Palestinian narrative across is becoming visible, which challenges what cultural studies scholar Gil Hochberg has identified as the restrictive and hierarchical visual politics of the occupation (2015).

This is related to another challenge: the endangering of a safe Western conception of who those Palestinian ‘terrorists’, the people that Israel has to protect its citizens from, are.

For sure there have been too many attacks and Israeli victims: when I remember the deadliest year of the Second Intifada in 2002, throughout which I lived in Tel Aviv, my most prominent memory is visiting the house of mourning of an acquaintance. A young Israeli woman I had previously only met on fun nights out was suddenly someone who had lost her parents and grandparents in a suicide bombing – words eluded me.

And yet, the residents of Nabi Saleh, including Ahed, who protest by marching, are all too often presented as terrorists in Israeli discourses. After all, demonstrations are not allowed under military rule.

Ahed’s viral images have made her a target of pro-Israel activists, often in connection with the accusation of ‘Pallywood’. This portmanteau of Palestinian and Hollywood is, in the words of its inventor, Richard Landes, ‘the Palestinian national film industry in which ‘militant’ journalists and street actors produce staged news as propaganda’. [3] However, it is safe to assume that the warriors of Hasbara (Israeli public diplomacy) don’t get this quite right: images from Nabi Saleh are unlikely to be fabricated, as we can see in the multiplicity of video testimonials and media reports of the Friday demonstrations.

And yet, when putting the term ‘Pallywood’ into Google search, the site offers up ‘Pallywood girl’ as one of the proposed search options. For me, the search brought up over 23,000 finds, most of them related to Ahed Tamimi. Her opponents have even nick-named her ‘Shirley Temper’ – playing on her ‘acting’ skills a much as on Orientalist ideas of Arab temperament and aggression.[4]

A related Orientalist train of thought that can be found throughout social network comments about Ahed and, most strikingly, in the founding of a Facebook group calling for her to be put into a reformatory institution (later removed by the site), is the accusation that her presence in the protests is a form of child abuse. This resonates with accusations against Palestinians as being heartless and willing to sacrifice their children in their hatred of Israel.

Such a sentiment is encapsulated in former Prime Minister Golda Meir’s comment:

We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.

I perceive such charges of moral inequivalence as a part of the battle of narratives, even if a particularly toxic one.

However, in the case of Ahed, I suspect that even more is at work: this is an attempt to take away this young woman’s agency and her ‘danger’ to Western perceptions of females in the Arab world. Interestingly, while some Palestinian women have become well known, be it senior politician Hanan Ashrawi or former terrorist Leila Khaled, no one has made quite such a online splash as has teenaged Ahed. Here, a challenge is posed to the idea that the Palestinian resistance is primarily male. Whether that idea is held by more conservative Arabs or observers from abroad – it prompts a rethink of their conceived notions of what is ‘right’ and how things work ‘in the Muslim world’.

Still, though she challenges perceptions of gender relations in the Arab world, Ahed has become some sort of superhero girl.

She is venerated on the Internet, with plenty of followers to her Facebook account (aside of being the object of avid hatred of right-wing pro-Israeli circles). But, to put it more bluntly, why not her dark-haired cousins or her Hijab-clad mother or aunts? I cannot but wonder whether here we reach our Western (read: Orientalist) limits – isn’t it so much easier to identify with a girl that looks just like any American soccer mum’s kid, or what my nieces will look like once they grow a little older? I want to suggest that, while it is normal that we self-identify with someone who looks like us, the question ‘why not the others’ should provoke us into thinking about our limits of empathy and our preconceived notions of the world.

Literary scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, in her study of how disabilities are portrayed in popular photographs, identifies four different modes: ‘the wondrous mode directs the viewer to look up in awe of difference; the sentimental mode instructs the spectator to look down with benevolence; the exotic mode coaches the observer to look across a wide expanse toward an alien object; and the realistic mode suggests that the onlooker align with the object of scrutiny’ (2001: 346). I’m certainly not suggesting that being Palestinian, Muslim, or female is a form of disability. But in responses to Palestinians, I all too often see tendencies to heroize, pity, or exoticise.

We observing Westerners, particularly those engaged in the Palestinian cause, tend to situate Palestinians somewhere between victim, hero, or terrorists, discussed in the UN and in the media. A realistic mode that sees human beings is rare. Ahed, who walks for her occupied village and keeps her hair uncovered, is also a danger to the easily digestible first three modes of perception. She is neither a Palestinian version of Xena the Warrior Princess, an abused Muslim girl, nor any other fantasy being. Even if we only know her viral image, she ultimately is a girl that needs to be given a realistic encounter of respect and support, because without a doubt, her life is not ‘normal’ in the conception of someone comfortably sitting in Europe.

While I have named plenty of reasons why Ahed Tamimi falls into the category of a ‘dangerous woman’, I keep reminding myself that she is also not ‘dangerous’ at all.

At the end of the day, Ahed is a girl who seems to like T-Shirts with prints, posts funny videos on Facebook, and protects her little brother when he is in danger. When I was a kid, I did the same things – only then, I sent letters to my friends; the world could not follow my every move; and my little brother was laughed at by his classmates rather than being held in a chokehold by a soldier with a submachine gun.

Contexts, both temporal (we now live in a connective age where the Internet immediately links us to anyone and anywhere), and situational (the Stuttgart of my childhood was not under occupation) shape lives. Ahed’s life’s specific contexts have made her image go viral and she has become a recognizable figure of the Palestinian struggle against the occupation.

Art historian David Freedman has shown that images are powerful. Indeed, he finds that they elicit a range of emotions, among them ‘admiration, awe, terror and desire’ (1989: 433). When I look at pictures of Ahed or watch her interviews, [5] all of those come to the fore, even desire – and while I certainly don’t desire living her life, I desire that her life changes for the better and that she can be a dangerous woman in other ways.

But as I was writing this, nothing indicated that there was improvement on the horizon. On the contrary, on January 22, 2016, during the weekly march, Ahed was shot in the leg with a rubber coated steel bullet even though the demonstration was peaceful.

And once again, just one thought keeps crossing my mind – you only shoot someone who poses a danger, don’t you?

 


References

Al-Ali, Naji. A Child in Palestine: The Cartoons of Naji Al-Ali. New York, London: Verso, 2009.

Beaumont, Peter. ‘Nabi Saleh Images illustrate changing asymmetry of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict‘, The Guardian, September 12, 2015, accessed December 28, 2015.

Deger, Allison. ‘Meet the teenage girls behind the viral photo from Nabi Saleh‘, Mondoweiss, September 1, 2015.

Eglin, Peter. Intellectual Citizenship and the Problem of Incarnation, Lanham: University Press of America, 2013.

Freedman, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. ‘Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography’, in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul K. Longmore and Laurie Umansky (New York, New York University), 2001: 335–74.

Hochberg, Gil. Visual Occupations: Violence and Visiblity in a Conflict Zone. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015.

Jebari, Lawahez. ‘West Bank Teen Ahed Tamimi Becomes Poster Child of the Palestinians‘, NBC News, September 12, 2015, accessed January 14, 2016.

Miskimmon, Alister, O’Loughlin, Ben, and Roselle, Laura. Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Sherwood, Harriet. ‘Children of the occupation: growing up in Palestine‘, The Guardian, February 8, 2014, accessed January 17, 2016.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3783A3HOkw accessed December 18, 2015.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taFM1rRDNGk accessed December 19, 2015

[3] http://www.seconddraft.org

[4] http://www.israellycool.com/2015/08/29/israellycool-and-readers-get-shirley-tempers-name-splashed-across-daily-mail/ accessed January 11, 2016.

[5] Cf https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taFM1rRDNGk, Sherwood 2014.