The Image of the Palestinian Woman


(1) Leila wa al ziap [Leila and the Wolves] (Heiny Srour, 1984)

The Palestinian woman1 … images return to my memory…. Here, a photo from the archives of the PLO showing Palestinian peasants behind machine guns during the 1936 revolution. There, the memory of the armed women in the camps in Jordan in 1969… or this photo from 1968 of a woman from Nablus, completely veiled, led by two Israeli soldiers armed to the teeth… More memories from the multiple protests in Beirut where Palestinian women accompanied by their children chanted slogans, in despair at their inability to do more… Images from archives and press agencies, reminders of real-life events… Insufficient images, ones that fail to acknowledge the fact that the Palestinian struggle against the Zionist occupation began as early as 1920. Images that fail to say that, in 1948, they were not allowed to take up arms (we know what has happened since). Images that do not show the hundreds of Palestinian women detained today in Israeli prisons. For what press agency is allowed to photograph the torture these women endure? Who will show the collective and individual heroism of these women, who broke the stranglehold of social and familial disapproval to serve their people?

I still remember the old Palestinian woman who shared a famous story with me from 1936 of a militant who disguised herself as a man in order to be more inconspicuous! A poignant example, and a symbolic one: in an atmosphere as stifling and patriarchal as this, what else could she do but hide her femininity in order to be accepted as a revolutionary? Things have changed since, fortunately.

But the spirit of sacrifice in Palestinian women has not changed. Still today, in refugee camps, Palestinian women accept the corpses of their fedayeen sons with cheers of celebration [les you-yous] instead of tears. Today more than ever, when a fedayeen dies, pregnant women in the family swear that, boy or girl, the future child will replace them. Palestinian women, like all poor women from around the world, derive their political militancy from their position of double oppression. It’s as if they instinctively understand that their specific oppression as women is linked to the struggles of the wretched of the earth.

Sometimes, the real face of the Palestinian woman appears in documentaries. In They Do Not Exist by Mustapha Abu Ali, we see a Palestinian woman whose son just died, killed by an Israeli raid, promising before the portrait of her dead child to fight until the complete liberation of Palestine. Is it because Mustapha Abu Ali, as a Palestinian himself, understands the Palestinian people better? Or is it because documentary cinema is, by its very essence, more revolutionary than fiction, because of its direct contact with reality? We remember Dziga Vertov’s slogan that “film-drama is the opium of the people.”2

Looking at the Arab fiction films dealing with the Palestinian cause (and I’ll stick here to the most serious ones), we may be tempted to agree with Vertov. In fact, when it comes to fiction films, far from facilitating the “communist decoding of the world,” as D. V. used to say,3 the camera becomes a distorting lens that projects onto an opaque and mystifying screen not so much an image transposed from reality than a representation of women profoundly conditioned by a regressive cultural heritage assumed by the male chauvinism of the filmmakers.

(2) Al-makhdu'un [The Dupes] (Tewfik Saleh, 1972)

The Dupes

Such is the case in an otherwise moving film like Tewfik Saleh’s The Dupes. If we believe this film, the history of Palestine has only been written by men, symbolized by three Palestinian men of different generations. Women “do not exist,” so to speak. They’re certainly there, in the shadows, waiting for men to make the decision to leave the dramatic situation of the refugee camps, only to whine later about the misfortunes of fate. This is the case for the wife of the oldest of the three male heroes, Abou Keiss, and even more so the cousin of the young nationalist militant, Assaad, whose father wants to marry her off to the young man at any price. She is frankly unsympathetic, and she comes across to us as passive, perhaps even content in her slavery. Would she be happy to be sold in this way? By contrast, her young cousin – who does revolt against arranged marriage – seems sympathetic to us. In reality, of course, it’s always the woman who fights against this practice. 

It’s equally necessary to reproach Saleh for ignoring the fact that if the current generation of Palestinian militants, who have never known Palestine, nevertheless preserve a sense of the identity of their people, it’s simply because their mother has made sure to transmit national values to them. And what to think about the symbolization of Palestinian honor through the biological virility of the truck driver who, according to the director, represents some of the Arab and Palestinian leaders who led their people to defeat in past struggles? “The homeland is lost, and its virility too,” says Abu AI Khaizran, recalling the accident that emasculated him during the 1948 war, making him a “sack of oats” when next to a woman. The consequence: with masculine virility as the image of national honor, women necessarily find themselves excluded from it. Unfortunately, since I have not read the novel by Ghassan Kanafani, I don’t know if it relies on this dubious symbol, but I would challenge its use anyway since Saleh could have corrected it. Why did he have to tarnish his film with a retrograde vision of women, when it otherwise has the merit of being the first film denouncing the betrayal of certain Arab regimes in regard to Palestinian resistance, criticizing the inhumane living conditions in the refugee camps and, against this, underlining the necessity of armed struggle as the sole way forward for the salvation of the Palestinian people?

(3) Kafr kasem [The Massacre of Kafr Kassem] (Borhane Alaouié, 1975)

Kafr Kassem

The other significant Arab film dedicated to the Palestinian cause is Borhane Alaouié’s Kafr Kassem, which possesses the great merit of destroying a certain brand image of Zionism. But there as well, the representation of Palestinian women is that of women lamenting, overwhelmingly passive, who think only of “settling down” (again!). After the powerful speech by Nasser over the radio, the young communist militant finds his lover among the olive trees, to whom he confides his political dismay. But she impatiently changes the subject to ask him to make a decision about marriage! It’s true that eventually some women in the film reflect on the tragedy of their people but… this is simply due to the lack of a son. The only political act women seem capable of in Kafr Kassem is listening to Nasser’s speeches and cheering; none of them seem to have patriotic motivation worthy of the name. A political line is a man’s affair. Men have brains. Women have only hearts, and are presented as viscerally conservative. 

During an interview, Alaouié pointed out to me that there are negative portrayals of men in the film as well, such as the man who sleeps through Nasser’s speech. But, for me, the entire representation of women is completely wrong. The filmmaker doesn’t mention, for instance, that the massacre stunned the citizens of Kafr Kassem for a while after, who otherwise would have voted for the Zionists in the next election. Yet the film does not end on an idea of submission but with a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, recited in song over the image, announcing future resistance.4 I fully agree that this is the correct political and aesthetic approach for a progressive film, which should by definition highlight the most positive aspects of a struggle. But why does this choice not apply to the representation of women? Why invoke “fidelity to reality” only to justify a limited image from a feudal and patriarchal perspective? I note that in The Courage of the People, the Bolivian Jorge Sanjines has, on the contrary, powerfully exalted the role of women protesters, despite the fact that Latin American culture is no less sexist than Arab culture…

Which Arab filmmaker will be able to carry out a genuine “archaeological excavation” of popular consciousness and show us the luminous pages of our history, written also… by women?

The patriarchal conception of women in The Dupes and Kafr Kassem is all the more frustrating given that these two films are, on the whole, very positive from a political point of view (despite a narrowly nationalist conception at certain moments: contrary to the program of the PLO, they give the impression that a common struggle between anti-Zionist forces inside and outside of Israel is impossible. To what extent, moreover, is this limitation linked to their feminist inadequacy?)

(4) Al-asfour [The Sparrow] (Youssef Chahine, 1972)

The Sparrow

Although it does not deal with Palestinian women, but rather Egyptian women, I would like to emphasize in comparison the representation of women in Youssef Chahine’s The Sparrow. Due to the lingering influence of Hollywood, the direction is less pure than in The Dupes or Kafr Kassem, but its content is more radical. In Chahine’s film, it is Bahiya, a simple woman (and not a man), who represents – and it’s symptomatic that this is the case – the political conscience of the Egyptian people. She alone, as is often the case with avant-gardes, is the first to march down the street to refuse defeatism and declare her determination to continue the fight. Soon, an enormous crowd joins her. This portrait of Arab women seems to me especially well drawn. Chahine emphasizes that she bases her militancy in her situation as a doubly-oppressed woman. For example, in the preceding sequence we saw her protest against her domestic slavery: “It’s always my turn to make the tea.” The director starts with this scene before suggesting that the Arab woman, far from being dead weight hanging onto the arrière-garde of the revolution, actually constitutes its avant-garde. Elsewhere, he denounces as well the “objectifying” conception that men often have of women, linking it to national defeat by showing, for example, soldiers leering at the legs of peasant women instead of preparing for war (we are, as a reminder, in June 1967). Likewise, at another point, Chahine mocks the preference for sons over daughters (when Bahiya announces the birth to her neighbor’s husband).

At the same time, we do find a bit of residual male myopia in the way the second most important female character is portrayed: Habiba, Bahiya’s daughter, sees herself assigned the traditional role given to women in commercial Arab cinema, to show off her body. Historically, however, the generation of Egyptian women she represents is more political than her mother’s.

It’s regrettable that the type of young Arab woman who is both ideologically conscious and politically active is seldom present in Arab fiction films, despite the fact that she has existed for a long time in sociological reality.

But is it surprising that the representation of women is still incorrect in Arab cinema today (like in all cinema, for that matter)? The racist image for a long time given to the colonized by Western cinema did not begin to recede until the day the first directors from the Third World appeared. It will be the same for women. It’s up to Arab women, and especially Palestinian women, to take up the camera to show their true face, provided they haven’t adopted a system of values created by men (as happened a number of times with their European counterparts). They alone, without a doubt, can show that Palestinian women today resist as women always have in history, as citizens of a country wiped off the map and one half of a people who refuse to die, but also as all women of the world who suffer a double oppression. Because only women know from their experience that their true image is not one of happy slavery, neither as a willing victim, nor as a brainless heart, nor as a reproducing animal. It’s thus up to women to represent themselves in all their human complexity. 

No doubt these brief remarks will trigger two kinds of opponents: feudalists who paint themselves red, on the one hand, and bourgeois feminists on the other. The former will hide behind the flag of the revolution or the homeland in order to accuse me of distracting from the struggle for anti-imperialist liberation. I say to them that we cannot be completely liberated if we continue to oppress the “interior colonies.” In the same way that Jews can never be free if they accept an ideology – Zionism – that oppresses Palestinians, Arab women cannot be free if men continue to oppress women. I do not forget the oppressions suffered by workers, peasants, and national and religious minorities, and I am not suggesting that films should become catalogues reporting all existing oppressions. But is it too much to ask filmmakers who want to be progressive to not distort sociological reality where women are concerned, and to conduct a lengthy investigation into this reality before talking about it? Every radical vision implies the “cleansing” of our culture of the patriarchal filth that has accumulated over centuries.

Bourgeois feminists will reproach me for not relishing in the sexist character of these films, to which I reply in advance that this trait saddens me immensely. While I think it’s up to women to take charge over their representation on screen, I believe that it’s necessary to do everything to have allies on this front, or at least sympathizers, rather than enemies. On the other hand, it isn’t by turning our back on historical urgencies that women will be liberated, but rather by assuming them correctly – that is, by keeping in mind the necessity of the autonomy of the feminist struggle, while linking it to the struggle against oppression in general.

  • 1[Translators note: Both nouns and adjectives in French have masculine and feminine forms. Where relevant, I have been careful to emphasize the moments when Srour is discussing Palestinians in general and where it is particular to Palestinian women.]
  • 2[TN: Comparisons of dramatic film to opium or other narcotics can be found throughout Vertov’s writing. This specific formulation appears in the essay “Kino-Eye,” in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, trans. Kevin O’Brien (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 70.]
  • 3[TN: This phrase comes from “The Birth of Kino-Eye,” in Kino-Eye, 42.]
  • 4[TN: This poem was first published in the collection Akhir al-layl, and was translated as “The Flowers of Blood” in I Don’t Want This Poem To End: Early and Late Poems, trans. Mohammad Shaheen (Northampton: Interlink Books, 2017), 58-64.]

Image (1) from Leila wa al ziap [Leila and the Wolves] (Heiny Srour, 1984)

Image (2) from Al-makhdu'un [The Dupes] (Tewfik Saleh, 1972)

Image (3) from Kafr kasem [The Massacre of Kafr Kassem] (Borhane Alaouié, 1975)

Image (4) from Al-asfour [The Sparrow] (Youssef Chahine, 1972)


This text was originally published as “L'image de la femme palestinienne” in La Palestine et le cinéma, ed. Guy Hennebelle and Khemaïs Khayati (Presses de l’imprimerie, 1977), 47-52.

With special thanks to Marie Vermeiren.

This essay was originally written for the book La Palestine et le cinéma, edited by Guy Hennebelle and Khemais Khayati. Its opening paragraphs resemble the monologue at the beginning of Srour’s film Leila and the Wolves (1984), which is similarly dedicated to excavating the role played by women in armed revolutionary struggle in Palestine and Lebanon in the twentieth century.

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.