Hero, victim, terrorist: MENA's women fighters won't be defined by Orientalist tropes
Do movements earn the labels of ‘resistance’ instead of ‘terrorism’, and ‘feminism’ instead of ‘extremism’, if they abstain from opposing the interests of Western imperialism?
By claiming the moral compass and deciding who is a “freedom fighter” and who is a “terrorist”, Western media outlets aid and abet imperial interests in the Middle East. Throughout recent history, the media has determined which resistance to glorify and which to demonise.
These double standards and glaring hypocrisies are perhaps best illustrated in the Middle East with the case of Kurdish and Palestinian female fighters.
Kurdish women have been at the forefront of the Kurdish struggle for self-determination, using violent means of resistance primarily against the Islamic State (IS).
The role of Kurdish female militants garnered much media attention after the US and other Western powers intervened in the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria. Quickly picking up the story, Western media like BBC and CNN labelled these fighters as “the heart of Kurdish resistance” and “symbols of female empowerment”.
"But unlike their Kurdish sisters, Palestinian militant women are not given the same platform to voice their stories of resistance. They don’t get to be recognised as feminist fighters"
Their resistance was praised and glorified in articles, interviews, video specials, documentaries, and photoshoots, where they are often posing in military uniform and holding machine guns.
Palestinian women have occupied similarly important roles in the resistance movement against the Israeli occupation for decades, leading protests, strikes, sit-ins, and heading NGOs and civil society organisations.
Before the exclusion of women from militant positions, as is the case now in Palestinian resistance factions, women were both militants and leaders in armed organisations such as the PFLP and the PLO.
But unlike their Kurdish sisters, Palestinian militant women are not given the same platform to voice their stories of resistance. They don’t get to be recognised as feminist fighters.
Instead, they are relegated to the typical Orientalist and Islamophobic tropes, and demonised as “terrorists” and “extremists”.
The Western narrative of the Palestinian struggle often lacks acknowledgment of the vital role of Palestinian women in Palestinian resistance. But it’s important to highlight how their role predates Israel’s existence, writes Farrah Koutteineh ⬇ https://t.co/bmxqAlLron— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) March 9, 2023
Language, power & media
In Western discourse and media, the language used to describe Arab and Muslim women is filtered through an Orientalist lens where women are only allowed the position of either victim or terrorist. This representation is not random or accidental; it helps to sustain a Western world order and, importantly, Israel’s continued occupation and erasure of Palestine.
Given Western media’s dominance in the international arena, this power of representation gives outlets unprecedented influence in moulding public opinion, often distorting the social, political and historical contexts of a given issue.
In the case of Palestine, Western media has long been complicit in marginalising voices reporting on Israel's systematic violence and manipulating information to ensure Israel is shielded from accountability.
Usually, Palestinian women are portrayed as victims, with Arab/Muslim patriarchy shown as the driving force of their oppression. In this context, Western interventions and Israel’s colonial occupation are “civilising missions”, “beacons of democracy”, or simply “conflicts”. Little to no blame is placed on the occupation for the oppression they face.
When Palestinian women do rise up against the oppression they experience at the hands of the Israeli regime, they lose their status as victim, and their acts of resistance are demonised as extremism. Where is the praise of Palestinian women for their female empowerment and feminism?
Feminism for some
This reductive binary is often promoted by Western ‘feminists’ with imperialist narratives such as Andrea Dworkin. Dworkin uses the term “blood for honour” to insinuate that Palestinian women resist to clear themselves of patriarchal constraints and shame due to rape.
Even when resistance isn’t militant, it is labelled as extremism and terrorism. In 2021, protests that erupted against the forced displacement of the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah were led by Palestinian women such as Mona El Kurd and garnered much global media attention.
Still, outlets such as CNN and BBC distorted the reality - the ethnic cleansing of an indigenous population - into simple “clashes”, “conflict” and “evictions”.
"In such discourses, power dynamics are obscured and Orientalist tropes that focus on cultural oppression are emphasised as a justification for the systemic, and often gendered, violence of the Israeli occupation"
These outlets focused not on the forcible displacement but on the reactions of Palestinians kicked out of their homes. Instead of praising these female protesters as feminists defending their land and community, they were labelled “rioters”.
In such discourses, power dynamics are obscured and Orientalist tropes that focus on cultural oppression are emphasised as a justification for the systemic, and often gendered, violence of the Israeli occupation. This decontextualization absolves Israel of responsibility, whitewashes the larger colonial context, and criminalises acts of resistance.
This kind of feminism, often referred to as ‘white feminism’, was pioneered by Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush. Advocating for the invasion of Afghanistan, Bush essentialised Muslim women as voiceless women who lack agency and are helpless victims of their culture.
She spoke about “liberating” and “saving” Afghani women from their cultures, even depicting the “War on Terror” as a “fight for the rights and dignity of women”.
Her focus, of course, was not on the violence of US-led invasion, and occupation, but rather on the oppressive aspects of their culture. In this discourse, feminism is weaponized to advance imperial interests and perpetuate racial, class, and gender division, as is the case in Palestine.
But even Kurdish women, who are afforded the status of empowered, cannot escape Western media’s Orientalism. The sexualisation and commodification of Kurdish female fighters highlight the hypocrisy at play.
Rather than recognising their agency and contributions, media outlets and magazines appropriate their aesthetic for commercial purposes, engaging in photoshoots that focus specifically on their physical beauty.
The selection of visually appealing individuals for interviews and the usage of language such as "exotic" objectify and fetishise these women, catering to Western standards of beauty and reducing them to objects of fantasy.
This demeaning portrayal undermines the agency and autonomy of Kurdish women, contradicting the very feminist ethos of their movement.
Whether their resistance is fetishised or demonised, one thing is clear: women in the Middle East, from Kurdistan to Palestine, are denied the right to be the agents of their own causes.
Instead, they are forced into narratives that serve Western imperialist agendas. In Palestine, this means justifying violence against Palestinian women and shielding Israel from criticism.
For those of us committed to true intersectional feminism, it is important to critically analyse these portrayals so that we do not let Western media define which kind of women and causes are worthy of our solidarity.
This article was edited on 7 August to remove a paragraph referencing the work of Mia Bloom at the request of the author.
Clara Diba is a Lebanese writer, student, and activist currently pursuing a master’s degree in Globalization and Development Studies at Maastricht University.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.