About the
Women in Black
The international movement which is the Women in Black began in Israel, 20 years into the occupation of Palestine, as a show of solidarity and support between Israeli women and the beginning Palestinian Intifada. 

Groups of women, dressed in black, would stand in silent vigil protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The movement spread quickly to countries across the globe.

I decided to include the Women in Black in my research project, because the official website of the movement makes some uncritical claims about feminism and war which I wanted to examine.

From the website (emphasis mine): “We are Jews and allies in the United States who stand against militaristic and fundamentalist leadership in all countries, including our own. We are committed to nonviolent resistance against injustice, believing that all people have the right to security, home, education, justice and freedom…Feminist actions dressed in black convert women’s traditional passive mourning for the dead in war into a powerful refusal of the logic of war.”

The claim that women have traditionally played a passive role in the violence of war is is simply not true. It is ahistorical and unspecific. In the pre-Islamic Maghrib, 1500 years before the Women in Black, women traditionally played many roles in the call to war between tribes. Marle Hammond describes in her book “Beyond Elegy” the role of tribal women as not only keepers of history, not only “passive mourners” of fallen heroes, but of warriors and demagogues in their own right:

“Within this system women in particular were charged with lamentation of the dead, as well as incitement to war and to blood vengeance. Their poems tended to be elegies that included elements of fakhr (boasting), hija (invective), tahmis (incitement to war), and tahrid (incitement to blood vengeance).”

This is not to say that women today play the same roles as men in perpetuating war, and it is not to discount the fact that women and children often suffer the most from occupation and imperialism. But by stating that woman’s traditional role in war is passive comes dangerously close to calling all women the “caregivers” of all societies. Statements like this made me want to investigate further.

A feminist view sees masculine cultures as specially prone to violence, and so feminist women tend to have a particular perspective on security and something unique to say about war.”

This statement made my forehead wrinkle, too: feminism, as I am beginning to understand it, is not one monolithic view or ideology. It is an umbrella term for the many movements, ideologies, and theories which study and advocate the equality and “rights” of women. (For those not interested in a semester-long research project involving the extremely dense and arduous books and academic articles I read to understand gender theory, a basic understanding of feminism can be gleaned from a two minute scan of the Wikipedia article on “feminism”. YOU’RE WELCOME.)

To say that all “feminists” view men’s culture as more violent seems problematic to me; a generalization. Perhaps it is asking too much for a movement (not even an official organization) to have a blanket mission statement, but when you claim to represent “feminism” I believe it is important to define the term. I also can’t help but wonder what is meant by “masculine cultures”. Are they referring to places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where women are ordered to veil? Does this make a culture more masculine than that of the US, where bare female flesh is such a hot commodity? If the latter is a more “feminist” culture… why do we make so many wars?

“As always in women’s movements, and especially perhaps in groups opposing violence, there are many lesbians active in Women in Black. It has been productive to make connections between violence in war and in everyday life, including the violence of homophobia, misogyny and racism.”

Equating the violence of homophobia and misogyny to the violence of war and occupation is one part of this research project which I have especially been interested in. But it is worth noting that the Women and Black discuss the inclusion of lesbians in the movement because it is a “normal” relationship, but fail to mention transwomen, “queer” people, and people who do not fit into gender binaries as citizens who also suffer violence for the same reasons.  Shane Phelan, in his book “Sexual Strangers”, discusses this in depth:

“Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people in the United States are strangers… neither us nor clearly them, not friend and not enemy, but a figure of ambivalence who troubles the border between us and them. The enemy is the clear opposite of the citizen, but the stranger is more fraught with anxiety.”

Is there no place for the “other” in this “feminist” movement? What makes a “woman” in black?

Berkeley Women in Black: University of California, Berkeley Vigil
I met up with the Berkeley Women in Black at their weekly vigil on Sproul Plaza. It was a beautiful but very windy day, and we had a difficult time setting up the literature table and banner.

After introducing myself and explaining my outfit (the only black clothing I owned was a little black dress… which I was told “added sex appeal”. Okay.) the women gave me a bit of background on the Berkeley branch of the Women in Black.

I was informed that the BWiB had been demonstrating at Cal for 25 years: over the past three years, she said, “Zionist” counter-demonstrators had begun to show up waving Israeli flags and handing out pro-Israel literature, sometimes dressed in black (“so as to confuse people”).

Although one participant told me that she had been spit on twice, and that the counter-demonstrators tended to be very aggressive, for the most part people were very respectful that Friday: occasionally a student who didn’t look up from their cell phone while walking would walk straight into us. For the most part, students seemed to be unmoved by the group, but occasionally a student would thank us for the work we were doing.

I was told that I could bring my daughter to future demonstrations (“it’s what they did in the sixties!”) as long as I was mindful that the environment could sometimes be tense and confrontational. It is important to note that all of the participants were over 50, and that there were two men present.

The Women in Black are “committed to nonviolent resistance against injustice, believing that all people have the right to security, home, education, justice and freedom”. Although I agree with this stance, I didn’t see the Berkeley branch’s weekly vigil on Sproul as being effective.  It didn’t seem to interest any of the students, who were too absorbed in their smart phones to look up and see the facts about the occupation. And the demonstrating ladies seemed to be too absorbed in their own conversations to notice that the young people in front of them processed information in ways that didn’t involve facts on postcards.

Perhaps it is because the group is too passive, and perhaps it is because no one there would discuss, critically, the issues of either feminism or Israel. But leaving there, I felt that an opportunity had been wasted and none of my questions had been answered.


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