Israel/Palestine: Silent screams

Women in Black
Last week, more than 650 women peace activists from 44 countries convened in Jerusalem for the second International Women in Black Conference.
For four days, in almost unbearable heat, the women sat under tents at the Seven Arches Hotel on the Mount of Olives, listening to panel discussions simultaneously translated into six different languages, and participating in workshops.
One day was devoted to the Palestinian-Israel conflict, including topics such as "The Politics of the Judaization of Jerusalem;" "Is the two-state solution still viable?" and "Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel."

Each workshop was co-facilitated by a Palestinian and an Israeli woman.

Another day, under the theme "Women's Global Challenges," was dedicated issues such as "War Crimes against Women;" "Gender Relations during Political Conflicts and in Their Aftermath; and "The Politics of Fear, Hatred and Racism."

On the Friday afternoon during the conference, more than 200 international Women in Black joined their Israeli counterparts at their weekly vigil in the capital's Paris Square. They stood as they always do, at the same time and place, purposely silent, dressed in black, holding "stop signs" calling for an "end to the occupation."

As they stood there, an occasional pedestrian or driver called out to them. Some of the statements aimed at the activists were sympathetic – one woman pushing a baby carriage shouted "Kol Hakavod (good for you)!" – yet most were hostile.

"Go f--- a Palestinian," one man cursed while honking his horn to get their attention.

"I hope you'll be a widow and always wear black," another woman said, adding, "I hope your womb dries out and you never have children."

Lepa Mladjenovic, 50, a counselor for female victims of male violence and a member of Women in Black from Belgrade couldn't understand the Hebrew epithets being hurled. But she said she was familiar with the body language and hand gestures from her own experiences in Serbia.

"It's just like our vigils at home," she said, indicating a mixture of amusement and ill ease.

"Some things – like hating women, especially women who take an unpopular political stand, women who are ready to criticize their government – are universal," she added, sounding well-versed in the mantras of militance.

Women in Black was established in 1988 as a grass roots Israeli and Palestinian movement. Initially, it began in Jerusalem in response to the outbreak of the first intifada. It then branched out in other parts of Israel. It even spread to other parts of the world. Today, Women in Black exists in close to 400 locations abroad, where it takes on the political context of the country in which its vigils are held are held.

In Germany, for example, Women in Black protest neo-Nazism, racism against foreign workers and nuclear arms. In India, its focus is on putting an end to what it considers the ill treatment of women by religious fundamentalists.

Although the movement gradually took root in every continent, cooperation among the individual groups was minimal until 2001, when e-mail lists originating in Europe, Asia, and North America began to network. It was during that same year that International Women in Black was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

No one knows exactly how many women see themselves as part of the movement, since each chapter is autonomous and there are no registration or membership fees. What is known is that at each vigil site, participants stand together silently, dressed in black.

According to Mladjenovic, this is an effective and attention-grabbing technique, "with profound symbolic and political significance." In 1991, she said, women like herself who sought a way to express their opposition to Slobodan Milosevic's growing power, adopted the tactic and began to hold their first vigils in Belgrade. They defined themselves, she said, as an "anti-nationalist, anti-militarist, feminist, pacifist group."

"Milosevic was using ethnic nationalism to manipulate the people and create a popular base for extending his control over the former Yugoslavia," Mladjenovic recalled. "He was using rallies and the state-controlled media to teach people to hate anybody who was different. He was constructing ethnic nationalism based on identities that had nothing to do with reality, not with history or even political interests.

"We stood there to tell the world that we were opposed to war, rape, and ethnic cleansing. Milosevic created nationalism and taught people to hate. But we refused to hate.

"I know exactly how the women in Israel feel. In a conflict like this, you have to ask, who are you? What side are you on? And at the same time, you never deny your own identity. I never denied, nor would I ever deny, that I am a Serb. The Jewish and Palestinian women didn't deny their own identity, either. That's what makes the opposition to the government's policies so threatening to the majority. That's why they call you traitors."

She went on to explain the purpose of the "infuriating silent technique" of the vigils. "It is a very loud silence," she said. "It mocks the silence that is imposed on women. And because our silence is so loud, it is a rebellion against the way that women are politically and socially silenced."

Mladjenovic believes that is because the movement is comprised of women, its opponents, both men and women alike, tried to humiliate them as such.

"When Milosevic was in Croatia," she said, "opponents called us the whores of the president of Croatia. When the struggle was in Bosnia, we were Bosnian whores. When the struggle moved to Kosovo, they called us the whores of Kosovo."

This, she attributed to women like herself being "considered a traitor to your nation, your gender, your society, your friends and family. By embracing this outcast position, by being spat upon and cursed, we are breaking open the myth of consensus. That is what Women in Black do in Israel, and that is what we do in Belgrade. But it is very, very hard."

Mladjenovic said that for years her own father would hardly speak to her, and her relationship with the rest of her family was tense. "My father believed that Milosevic was innocent and he believed the propaganda that said it was all the fault of the foreign forces. It was a very painful time for me and for the people I love, because they thought I was a traitor. It was only after they changed their minds about the wars that we were able to come close together again."

AS FOR dressing in black, Mladjenovic explained why she thinks it is as provocative a tool as it is an effective one: "Women usually wear black to express grief for the death of their loved ones. We wear black to express grief for all victims. At the same time, black is no color, so it is all colors, the color of protest."

As an activist who works with victims of sexual and other forms of abuse against women, Mladjenovic believes that Women in Black everywhere – regardless of the political conflicts in their specific areas – are also simultaneously protesting against violence against women.

"Men use our bodies for their own purposes," she said. "By choosing to place our bodies in the public arena, we are using our bodies as a statement of power."

Mladjenovic described how she and the other Women in Black in her region maintained their weekly vigil for seven and a half years – until 1999, when NATO forces bombed Belgrade for 77 days straight. Until that time, she said, they stood as the violence mounted in Croatia, as Mostar and Sarajevo were destroyed, as the violence escalated in Kosovo, as Milosevic and his men set up concentration camps and massacred countless civilians in Srebrenica and committed atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Some of the women were arrested. All were regularly harassed and threatened by the secret police, the military, and the paramilitaries and militias that Milosevic encouraged. Many of them were socially and politically discredited and lost their jobs. Some were ruined financially, as Serbia's economic situation deteriorated.

There is a new regime in Serbia now, and the region is largely peaceful. But Mladjenovic and her colleagues believe that in some ways, the situation has actually worsened, with the "prevailing fascist climate justifying and minimizing any Serbian responsibility for the wars and the atrocities."

"Milosevic didn't hate; he used hatred," she explained. "But the current president is a nationalist fascist, and he genuinely hates anyone who isn't a 'true' Serb. He has given power to every fascist right-wing group. The Orthodox Church supports this nationalism, too. Today, young people are prowling the streets, willing to beat up anyone who is different."

"As a country, we should be working towards accepting our collective moral responsibility for what was done in our name, and for electing another fascist regime. We have to break the consensus that the situation justified the war crimes that our nation, the Serbian nation, perpetrated. So we are again isolated, again we are traitors in the eyes of many of our countrymen and women."

Although they do not maintain regular vigils, she said, they do stand to mark significant dates and join in other protests. In 2002, for example, she said Women in Black marched as part of a gay pride parade.

Indeed, as in Israel, Women in Black in Yugoslavia is strongly allied with the lesbian movement. "Nationalism and patriarchy deny all forms of being other – Croatians, Muslims, Albanians, lesbians, Gypsies, anyone who isn't 'us.' There's even a local Web site that lists the enemies of the state, and lesbians are one of them. Those are the dynamics of fascism, and so we must protest against them for any group.

"Do you realize that there aren't even any Jews in Montenegro, but there is anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls? People are taught to hate."

Still, in spite of her anger at all forms of prejudice, including homosexuality, Mladjenovic was tolerant and forgiving when workshops relating to lesbianism scheduled for the International Conference were cancelled as a result of the Palestinian participants threatening to walk out.

"It's understandable," she said, which put an ironic twist to the uniformity of her positions – or to the fact that she, an openly lesbian woman, was being censored by members of her very own protest movement. "We work with women who suffer from patriarchy. I disagree, but I understand. It will take a long time before these women understand that lesbianism is part of the same issue, the issue of patriarchy, denial, and othering. They will come to understand eventually."

Regarding the degree of influence the movement has, Mladjenovic said she was under no illusions about Women in Black's power in Serbia, in Israel, or anywhere else.

"We didn't stop Milosevic," she acknowledged. "Nor were we able to prevent the massacres. But we gave hope. And history will record that we cared and took a stand. That matters, too."

Yet, she said she was encouraged by what she considered to be an important role played by Women in Black in the recent recognition of rape as a war crime by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at the Hague and the International Criminal Court.

"Rape has always been part of war," she said. "But it was never made so publicly transparent. Because we had contact with women in the conflict areas, we knew about the mass rape. It was never published in the state-controlled media, but we were able to get the word out, at home and abroad."

In Israel for the first time, Mladjenovic and the other women at the conference quickly adapted to the jargon and mindset of the local radical left. They learned to call the separation barrier the "apartheid wall," to speak of "the apartheid forces," and to contrast the unilateral disengagement from Gaza with what they view as their own cross-border solidarity.

Mladjenovic referred to the Jerusalem Women in Black as her "spiritual mothers and sisters in peace" and said their existence as a movement was politically, emotionally, and morally important for women throughout the world.

"I feel solidarity with both Jewish and Palestinian women. In both societies, women are ruled by the patriarchy. In both societies, just like in our own, women have to oppose the leadership that speaks in their name."

Eetta Prince-Gibson, THE JERUSALEM POST Aug. 22, 2005