The women of Hamas
Suha Arraf’s The Women of Hamas (2011) is a cinematic observation of the political lives of Hamas’ leading women, and it does not shy away from the filmmaker’s speaking position and reflexivity, and above all difficult questions that probe the solidarity politics of even the most seasoned activist. It is an incredible contribution on many levels (especially because of the access and breadth of a subject matter deemed, well, ‘difficult’), whether or not one endorses all viewpoints. The 56-minute documentary is divided into three parts, ranging from 2006 to 2009; anyone familiar with Gaza’s history in the past five years would deem this an ambitious choice.
While preparation for the film began before the 2006 election of Hamas, Arraf found herself unable to travel to work on the film due to the Israeli blockade. She directed her contacts to film without her, and their sensitive eyes and ears capture not only the central narrative—four leading women in the Islamic resistance—but the seldom-seen sensory experience of Gaza. Children too young for the avalanche of traumatic events in their surroundings play together as children everywhere else. Street corners and alleyways are tagged with both politically-motivated graffiti and the solitary hearts of the lovelorn. Arraf combines these scenes with a wonderfully creative use of interviews that distinguishes this film from other ‘Skyped-in’ films I’ve seen. Her discussions and banter (both light and serious) with one crew member in particular, 28-year old Azhar, make for exciting cinema.
Having filmed in Gaza at the height of the Israeli military siege, Arraf’s concerns about finishing her film rang funny and true. Example: ‘If you go the fence and throw the tapes over…’ is considered a serious mailing option in a place where the average DHL shipping service runs $400-500 per package, military interventions notwithstanding.
The four women highlighted in the film are so crucial to its narrative tracing that I feel like none of them can be omitted here.
Jamila al-Shanti is one of the six women on the Palestinian Legislative Council. At 51, al-Shanti is highly educated, rejected marriage for herself, and is described by the director’s informant (who herself has put off marriage because she has ‘a dream’ and is finishing a doctorate) as having ‘dedicated her life to serving the country.’ If there were any doubt about where educated, selfless, good-humored al-Shanti stands on the ‘woman’ question, she dispenses it swifty:
We have a status parallel to that of our brothers in Hamas. Our women shared in the most difficult of struggles. Their presence changed how people viewed the relationship between men and women, the role of the woman in the home.
The way she remarks on her political life and affiliation is significant: ‘like a dress that I wear.’ A serious statement from a serious political mind, and one that leaves viewers with the aggregated dissonance that this film provides.
Um Mahmoud is one of the five women who helped found Hamas. Of all the women the film follows, she is the most explicit in her views about the womb as a place of resistance. More children mean more of a fighting chance for her people, and she takes this ethos so seriously that her husband declares in exhaustion, ‘I hope you die in childbirth’ (she laughs this off and prays for even more children). Her relationship with her son Khaled, a resistance fighter (she herself ‘grew up in home of a resistance fighter’) is more complex than this shot of him affixing an ‘asbat raas (a green fabric band symbolizing resistance) around her head reveals.
Rasha al-Rantisi challenged me the most out of these women, and this difficulty transposed itself on both Arraf and her crew member Azhar, forming an unsettling triangle between director, informant, and viewer. Al-Rantisi ranks as one of the top women in the Islamic resistance movement, serves as the head of the Hamas Women’s Organization, and is the widow of the assassinated Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi. The slain al-Rantisi was one of the co-founders of Hamas, along with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and Azhar wagers that ‘had he lived would’ve been prime minister now.’ Al-Rantisi herself is the most fundamentalist about fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence (the nuts and bolts of daily religious practice), and is described as part of ‘the fanatical wing of Hamas.’ Notably, she covers her face and admonishes women from watching soap operas and ‘forbidden’ films. Arraf’s correspondent in Gaza is light-hearted about al-Rantisi’s fanaticism (‘Your bodies should be covered with the right clothing’) even as she herself comes under question by fellow sisters for the ‘improper’ ways she wears her hijab.
Arraf’s film doesn’t flinch from the crucial socio-religious function that political leaders like al-Rantisi wield, even if such connections are uncomfortable or cringe-worthy by secular (or even more moderate) standards: ‘The head covering should be wide and not reveal any details. […] The veil was ordained to hide the allure of women so that Muslim men and boys remain pure.’ She advocates that most women on the street wear ‘veils on top of their veils’ because she notices that their body shapes are not adequately hidden.
But Azhar is quick to point out the political reverb: these extremely strict standards of modesty (even bodily policing) are embedded with important social codes. ‘If you don’t wear the veil and robe, it means you’re Fatah. If you’re not for us, you’re against us.’
But underneath the religious proscriptions is a woman who passionately believes that Palestinian defeat is quantifiable in even a single tear, which she refuses to shed lest it gratify Ariel Sharon. (Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi was killed when a Hellfire missle was fired from an AH-64 Apache helicopter toward his car. Two of his bodyguards were killed in the Israeli Air Force attack, which also injured four bystanders. His body was wrapped in green and carried in a mass funeral procession, as the screen grab on the right shows.)
Even in her moment of personal grief, when thousands gathered in Gaza in tribute to the slain al-Rantisi, there’s not a hint of loss in dignity and pride or even one moment of slippage in her comprehension of her political role. And while their personal styles are markedly divergent, al-Rantisi and al-Shanti (the ‘modern’ one in the bunch, writing a dissertation on al-Ghazali who she describes as an Islamic modernist) would agree that a meaningful peace or a cease of arms would be possible only when Israel returns ancestral lands to the Palestinians. Al-Shanti doesn’t see an empty ‘peace’ (meaning a relinquishing to Israeli force) in the next 10-20 years, ‘only resistance.’ Judging from Obama’s belligerent AIPAC speech and dogged pandering to the Israeli hardline, it’s hard to disagree with her.
For her part, filmmaker Arraf actively seeks someone in Gaza who would ‘dare speak out against Hamas.’ Azhar tells her that those in charge would ‘allow them once or twice but then arrest and interrogate them to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’ But the pair do find a conflicted woman—Um Shadi Hussein from the Jabaliya Refugee Camp (an UNRWA school where hundreds had taken shelter was bombed at this camp during Israel’s three-week assault ‘Operation Cast Lead)—an impoverished mother of eight sons and five daughters. I want to pause on how she describes raising her children because she contextualizes it within an Islamic or Qur’anic context, but her description is (if I can be forgiven for the term) universally resonant: ‘We raised them to care for one another, and show tolerance, forgiveness, loyalty and love, love of the good in others.’
Unlike the other women Um Hussein lives in extremely sparse and humble conditions.
Her son was ‘martyred on a war mission,’ and she smells his clothes, the whiff of cologne still on it, and weeps as she hugs them to herself. Um Shadi’s reality transpiring in an ambience of death dovetails with the film’s montage of ‘Operation Cast Lead’ ripping Gazan bodies, homes, and infrastructure. It’s her story that most recalled the Odyssey for me, a Greek mythology at the heart of the Palestinian resistance (so many mothers and sons—think of Mer-Khamis’ Arna’s Children) that puts into plain view the competing love for family and love for country: ‘No mother wants to lose her son. She is forced to.’
The Gaza invasion of 2008 revealed the necropolitics (a term far more appropriate for Israeli policy than Agamben’s ‘biopolitics’) that justified rows and rows of civilian bodies wrapped in plastic, as seen on the right, and destined for the tombs of past generations buried alongside Um Shadi’s son, to the left.
Gaza’s scenes of anguish and public grief were one that most Americans would not see, but after the killings of nearly 1400 civilians, few who did witness it could forget. (Several friends who experienced those events only through television still recall PTSD symptoms lasting months after.)
Azhar tells Arraf over Skype, ‘Death was constantly with us,’ as she casually wonders whether it would be better to get hit by an Apache helicopter (at least ‘half of us would survive’) than an F-16 (where the ‘whole house would be destroyed’).
June 2009 is the final leg of the film, and the director delivers a fascinating montage of Gaza while Obama’s Cairo speech plays in the background. ‘For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation,’ he conceded, while continuing to picture Palestinian armed resistance as ‘proportionate’ in violence to Israel’s air, land, and sea offensive on a trapped population of 1.8 million.
His speech is vividly discussed by al-Shanti and her neighbors and friends. One man is relieved that Obama ‘didn’t use the word “terrorist”‘ (a loaded term in official Israeli rhetoric on Palestinians), and concludes that he must still have some decency left. ‘A traditional, educated man.’
What I wish I could adequately get across about this film is that it really flips everything you think you know about motherhood, sacrifice, and daily resistance upside down. In every bit and parcel of these women’s lives, more unimaginably difficult than is conveyed, one comes to grips with what Israel’s military policy has done to Palestinian society that a mother chooses to fight with her womb than give in to defeat and humiliation.
It is a challenge to notions of even the most non-traditional or non-majority feminism.
In what conception of ‘Western’ politics, for example, do young girls lead political songs with men as their backup singers?
I’m not without criticisms of the film, especially the use of ‘native’ informants to uncover an organization (no matter what you think of it) that has legitimate security concerns. Second, while I’m enthusiastic about challenges to ‘colonial’ feminism that require a placated ‘native’ subject, women and girls seem most celebrated within Hamas’ Islamic movement when they adhere to clearly defined religious prescriptions (the ceremony above is from a ’630 Moons’ event, when girls who have memorized the Qur’an in its entirety are rewarded), something that the film’s subjects aren’t pushed on in interviews.
Still, it’s impossible to deny how this view from a rarely viewed (in fact, actively darkened) society highlights a seriousness of moral purpose that is to a great degree alien to Anglo-American culture.
[All screen grabs taken by South/South.]