Emma Massanet Aasheim
On May 9th, 2022, Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh finalized the filming of her latest project; she was creating a report on the 1948 Nakbe, the Palestinian term for the Zionist invasion that led to the establishment of the state of Israel. The program was to be aired on Al-Jazeera’s network on the 15th of the same month, to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the massacre. Little did Abu Akleh know that she would not live to see said report air. In the early morning of the 11th of May, while reporting on an IDFIDF: Israeli Defense Force, Israeli Army. operation in Jenin, a city in the occupied West Bank, Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by a bullet in the head fired by an Israeli sniper. The news of the death of The Daughter of Palestine, this was a common nickname given to Abu Akleh by her spectators, spread quickly throughout the Palestinian diaspora, and she was soon celebrated as yet another martyr taken away by the Occupation. Abu Akleh could go down in history as one of the most beloved journalists of the region, with her picture hanging on the walls of countless Palestinian homes as a reminder of what she did for the Palestinian cause, and her memory may shape the evolution of the Palestinian Nationalist movement.
On a daily basis, one can observe Palestinian men who have lost their life due to occupation (say by getting shot during the raids of a refugee camp, while trying to cross the checkpoints in the West Bank). The image of male Palestinian martyrs has taken a passive form: they no longer choose to lose their life for the cause, their life is taken, simply for being Palestinian. It is in the aftermath of Abu Akleh’s tragic passing that we need to ask the question: How can the celebration and commemoration of Palestinian-American Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh ignite the liberation of Palestinian women, by shifting their position in the liberation movement from passive to active actors? It will therefore be essential to highlight how, by including deaths of women similar to Shireen Abu Akleh into this definition of martyrdom and opening up for the possibility of celebrating their life, is curtail for the Palestinian Liberation Cause, or any liberation cause, to be successful. The goal of this article will not be to praise martyrdom, but rather highlight how, since the second Intifada, there has been a change to the definition of martyrdom in the Palestinian Liberation movement and evaluate how women fit into said definition. In short, it will be argued that you cannot liberate the land without the liberation of women«‘You Can’t Liberate the Land without Liberating Women’», MENA Solidarity Network (blog), 15. april 2020, … Continue reading.
Why Martyrdom plays a central role in Palestinian Nationalism
When discussing nationalism, a certain set of traits might come to mind. These often vary from a set territory and a flag to a group feeling and a common interest between people and the stateStudy Lecture Notes, «Nationalism Meaning Definition Origin Characteristics & Symbols», Study Lecture Notes (blog), 17. oktober 2016, … Continue reading. However, for states such as Palestine, some of these characteristics are not granted. For instance, since 1948, the set territory of Palestine has been contested and occupied by the state of Israel, leaving the Palestinian people without a recognised set territory to govern over. Although claims over the occupied territories play a big part in Palestinian Nationalism, the Palestinian national identity is highly connected to common interest and the creation of group identity. It is therefore aspects such as language, cultural practices and religion which become central to the creation and upkeep of said nationalism. For Palestine, national memory is at the core of national identity. That could be anything ranging from important dates and historical events to individuals or groups (religious or cultural), that are perceived as central to the identity of the state.
Martyrs and martyrdom are central concepts to the identity and memory of many communities, all the more so in the Middle East. They become symbols of individuals or groups that acted in the interest of the nation-state. Regardless, this term has many definitions depending on when and how it is used and is often influenced by factors such as history and religion. Cambridge Dictionary defines a martyr as “a person who suffers very much or is killed because of their religious or political beliefs and is often admired because of itAkiva Van Koningsveld, «Martyr», 29. mars 2023, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/martyr”. This is often the definition that will be given when speaking about martyrs in contemporary politics. It could also be argued that this is the most accurate definition of martyrdom in Palestinian history leading up to the second intifada. Prior to 2005, it was only active participants in the conflict, such as members of the different Palestinian Liberation Movements, who would be referred to as martyrs following their death.
The concept of the Intifadas, alongside the Nakba, are also key moments that shaped not only Palestinian Nationalism but also the figure of the martyr. The Nakba, from the Arabic term al-Nakba, means “catastrophe”, and is the Palestinian term for the Zionist invasion in 1948, that led to the violent displacement and death of over 800,000 Palestinians in order to create the state of IsraelHaddad, M. (no date) Nakba Day: What happened in Palestine in 1948? Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/5/15/nakba-mapping-palestinian-villages-destroyed-by-israel-in-1948 (Accessed: 3 … Continue reading. The term Intifada means “shake off” and is used to define long periods of Palestinian uprisings. There have so far been two intifadas, the first Intifada lasting from December 1987 untill September 1993, and the second Intifada lasting from September 2000 untill late 2005Intifada | History, Meaning, Cause, & Significance | Britannica (no date). Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/intifada (Accessed: 3 April 2023).. There has been a significant number of studies done on the martyrs of the NakbaSee Carol Bardenstein, «Trees, Forests, and the Shaping of Palestinian and Israeli Collective Memory | Carol Bardenstein – Academia.Edu», 1998, … Continue reading and on the first and second IntifadaSee Lori A. Allen, «The Polyvalent Politics of Martyr Commemorations in the Palestinian Intifada», History and Memory 18, nr. 2 (2006): 107–38, https://doi.org/10.2979/his.2006.18.2.107; Lori A. … Continue reading, and this article shall further explore martyrdom in post-2005 Palestine.
Academics argue that one can locate the evolution of the definition of martyrdom to the end of the Second Intifada. In her book “Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine”, professor and academic Laleh Kalili describes an event organised by an NGO in Lebanon commemorating the first 100 martyrs of the Intifada. During the said event, the pictures and stories of civilian casualties were framed for the first time as martyrs on an international stage. It is here that she pinpoints the evolution of the perception of Palestinian Martyrdom: “During the ascendance of Palestinian nationalism as a revolutionary project (…) martyrdom was subordinated to the heroic ﬁgure of the ﬁda’yi (the guerrilla ﬁghter, and literally, the redeemer or the person who chooses sacriﬁce). Since 1982 and the rupture in the nationalist politics of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the ﬁgure of the martyr has also fragmented: while factional commemorative practices see martyrdom as an embodiment of heroism, NGOs which also include foreigners in their audiences tend to commemorate the unintentional martyr as the archetypal Palestinian victimKhalili, L. (2007) Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration. Cambridge University Press”.
This evolution of the concept of martyrdom is in line with the definition of resistance in Palestinian history. Palestinian nationalism has been forced to develop resistance as one of its core values. Having gone from occupational powers such as the Great British and French empire, to the modern-day military state of Israel, the Palestinian fight for freedom presents an underlying condition that every Palestinian, whether willingly or not, is part of the resistance. Today, the perception of a martyr in Palestine has evolved to become an in-between hero and victim figure.
Mothers of the Land and Mothers of Martyrs
Conventionally, the women of Palestine have always played a very significant part in the resistance movement. Within the Nationalist discourse of Palestine, they have played the role of a symbolic vessel to Palestinian Identity. This could be explained in the way Palestinian women have played the metaphorical role of the ‘mothers of the nation’, but also, as they are the ones to carry and give birth to children, the literal vessel of national reproductionCollins, John. Occupied By Memory: The Intifada Generation and the Palestinian State of Emergency. New York: New York University Press, 2004, p.57.
The role of women as the mothers of the land dates back to before the Nakbe of 1948, with the maxim “the woman who rocks the baby’s cradle with one hand, rocks the nation with the other ” appearing in Palestinian newspapers in the 1930sGreenberg, Ela. The Cradle in One Hand, the Nation in the Other: The Portrayal of Women in the Palestinian Press, 1920s-1930s. Hamizrah Headache (The Hebrew University Magnes Press, Ltd.) 43, no. (in … Continue reading. The image of Palestinian women as the mothers of the land is one that perseveres to this day. In 2007, an elderly resident from the Azzeh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem shared in an interview that the reasoning behind her choice of having 10 children was rooted in the Palestinian opposition to the occupation. She stated that it was her way of demonstrating her commitment to the Palestinian struggle and added that her children “will carry on our work and our memory after we are goneRebecca Ann Otis, «Palestinian Women: Mothers, Martyrs and Agents of Political Change», 2011”.
However, due to the recent development in the perception of martyrdom in Palestine, the mothers of the land have taken on a new role, the one of Mothers of Martyrs. In contrast to their role to reproduce in the name of Palestine, the mothers of martyrs are left behind to keep the memory of their children alive, illustrating a paradox that directly contradicts the statement of the elderly woman from Azzeh Refugee CampLaleh Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge University Press, 2007).. Khalili points out that “the mother of the martyr, in celebrating her child’s martyrdom, declares her own will and signals her considered engagement in national politicsLaleh Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 129”.
By considering mourning a martyr an act of resistance, although still a passive action, women’s role in resistance is acknowledged, regardless of how it might differ from the role of men.
Gendered Politicisation of private life
Although Palestinian women have always been vital to the liberation movement, their roles were often restricted to that of a passive actor. As mothers of the land, they were expected to give birth to the children that would liberate Palestine. As mothers of martyrs, they were left to mourn the death of their children, not only as a mother losing her child, but as a participant in the liberation movement that had its addition to the fight taken away from them. And although motherhood is indisputably fundamental for the Palestinian Liberation, it can in many ways also be limiting for women. Due to the region’s conservative culture and the influence of religion, women are often expected to marry young and start carrying children. Palestinian women who marry young often do not seek any form of higher education, limiting not only their abilities to secure high-paying jobs that require a professional foundation, but also creating a dependency on their male counterparts, in terms of economy, housing and most basic needs.
This is where the celebration of Abu Akleh’s life truly comes into play with the liberation of Palestinian women. By choosing to stay unmarried, acquiring a high level of education, and subsequently becoming an influential and successful journalist in the region, her life is an example for all Palestinian women that there are alternative ways in which to engage with the liberation movement. Most of the aspects of Abu Akleh’s life contradicted the traditional roles that women in Palestine are expected to fulfil. Regardless, her life and her achievements have been celebrated and praised. This presents as a clear recognition that Palestinian Nationalism not only accepts, but perhaps even encourages changes in traditional gender roles when a clear benefit to the opposition movement can be recognized.
We can see this narrative being repeated in cases of female martyrdom after Abu Akleh’s passing. An example of this would be the death of 16-year-old Jana Zakarneh, who was shot in the head during an IDF raid on the town of Jenin. Zakarneh was shot on the roof of her family home, as she had gone up there to bring her cat inside, out of fear that her pet might be harmed during the shooting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian resistancePalestinian Chronicle Staff, 2022. Study Lecture Notes, «Nationalism Meaning Definition Origin Characteristics & Symbols», Study Lecture Notes (blog), 17. oktober 2016, … Continue reading. Similarly to Abu Akleh, Zakarneh was not murdered due to her religious or political stances, she was not part of the resistance movement, nor was she trying to be part of the armed conflict that broke out in her city that day; she was simply killed for existing, because a part of her existence (in this case, being Palestinian), was perceived as a threat by the Occupation ForcesOccupation forces here refer to the Israeli Government and the IDF.
As the International Relations scholars Cynthia Enloe and Carol Cohn discussed in an interviewCarol Cohn og Cynthia Enloe, «A Conversation with Cynthia Enloe: Feminists Look at Masculinity and the Men Who Wage War», Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, nr. 4 (June 2003): … Continue reading, there is a traditional separation in International Relations dividing the public from the private. From a purely capitalistic perspective, tracing back prior to WWII, mainstream scholars could see a clear and gendered divide in society. Men would leave the house and go to work, to be able to provide for their family, dominating the public sphere. As a result, the women would stay at home, caring for the children and the house. Women therefore became the head of the “private” parts of society, leading to an inaccurate separation of politics and the home. Life under occupation, the life led by the majority of Palestinians today, is a living contradiction to such a separation. The celebration of “unwilling martyrs” is in many ways a recognition of what many feminist scholars argue; that is, by trying to depoliticize something, we are inherently making a political choice. It is therefore vital to situate women such as Shireen Abu Akleh within the definition of martyrdom: Palestinian Nationalism is already inherently recognizing the politics in “the private”, and Abu Akleh’s commemoration is linking women into it as well.
Abu Akleh’s death is reinventing the role of women in Palestinian Nationalism
Shireen Abu Akleh found ways to actively involve herself in the conflict as a journalist, always fighting for the truth to be told, and for the Palestinian reality to be heard. She was beloved in her field and was able to establish a reputation for herself regardless of the challenges she might have encountered as a woman. The American University in Beirut (AUB) has taken Abu Akleh’s memory and used it as an opportunity for other Palestinian Women to follow in the journalist’s footsteps, as a way to open up the fields within international politics and media further to Palestinian women. It was announced on the 13th of May 2022 that in cooperation with the Yafa Foundation, the university was to offer scholarships for Palestinian Women who wish to pursue their master’s degree in media studies. They stated that “The Yafa Foundation and the American University of Beirut are convinced that the best way to commemorate and celebrate the life of Shireen Abu Akleh, an enduring figure of hope and peace, is to create opportunities for others to follow along her path while blazing their own, to bear witness to the truth and keep hope alive, for this generation and those to followAmerican University of Beirut (no date) Establishment of the Shireen Abu Akleh Memorial Scholarship at the American University of Beirut, American University of Beirut. Available at: … Continue reading”.
This scholarship is a great opportunity for Palestinian women, as it is opening the opportunity for women on the occupied land to not only access higher education, but to pursue such degrees at a university with significant international acknowledgement and prestige. In Palestine, similarly to other countries in the Middle Eastern and North African region (MENA), women tend to have lower levels of participation in higher education than in other areas of the world with similar income levels. “The interaction between the region’s economic structure and its conservative culture, in which traditional gender roles are strongly enforced, is largely responsible. Men in the MENA region are more likely to have direct access to wage employment and control over wealth, while women are largely economically dependent upon male family membersFaraneh Roudi-Fahimi og Valentine M. Moghadam, «Empowering Women, Developing Society: Female Education in the Middle East and North Africa», Al-Raida Journal, 1. januar 1970, 4–11, … Continue reading”.
A wider access for women to liberate themselves economically from their male counterparts through access to higher education is also an opportunity for them to take on a new, active position in relation to martyrdom, as they no longer would be restricted to the motherly duties of the land. Due to the enforced gender roles in the region, women are oftentimes left in positions where being a mother is the most important role they must fulfil in society. Abu Akleh is an example of a Palestinian woman that chose a different path. Regardless of her deviation from the traditional gender expectations of the region, the celebration of her death comes to highlight how Palestinian Nationalism is open to a possible change in cultural norms. This leads to a recognition of how the liberation movement could benefit from women breaking away from their expected roles in society.
Furthermore, the AUB scholarship is not the only way in which Abu AKleh is being commemorated following her death. Commemoration of martyrs in Palestine often appears in the form of iconography. Murals of art on the street, the image of an olive tree, a key, or the pattern of the keffiyeh, and posters with pictures of martyrs are all fundamentally integral to what professor Hamid Dabashi at Cambridge University refers to as the “memoricide” of Palestinian historyHamid Dabashi, «The Iconography of Palestinian Martyrdom», Middle East Eye, 2022, http://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/palestinian-iconography-martyrdom. Due to the restrictions implemented on the occupied territories by the IDF and the state of Israel, Palestinians are dependent on art, imaginary and printed words to upkeep national memory, as these are harder for the Occupation forces to regulate. Almost instantly after the passing of Shireen Abu Akleh, her face could be observed on murals and posters all over the occupied territories, with her face now being “memoricide” alongside the faces of some of the biggest martyrs of Palestine. As Dabashi explains, “A key aspect of this body of visual evidence is its post-secular nature; imagery that is decidedly iconic, but not in any denominational or sectarian sense. Some martyrs are Muslim, while others are Christian. Some, like the revolutionary icon Ghassan Kanafani, were devout Marxists. But their iconic remembrances are not in any such terms, as the iconography through which their heroic lives are celebrated has its own unique theophanic synergyHamid Dabashi, «The Iconography of Palestinian Martyrdom», Middle East Eye, 2022, http://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/palestinian-iconography-martyrdom”.
The first unwilling female martyr, but certainly not the last
Thus, it is obvious that part of the strength of Palestinian Nationalism is its ability to adapt to the challenges it faces. Although grounded in tradition and religion, it has changed time after time to survive. The perception of martyrdom in Palestine today, this in-between figure of both a hero and a victim, is an acknowledgment of the politics in the “private”.
True liberty from oppression will not be achieved without the liberation of women in Palestine. The commemoration of Abu Akleh after her passing has shown that Palestinian Nationalism is ready for women to also be perceived as martyrs, to acknowledge their position as active members of the liberation movement, liberating them from their restrictive role as “mothers”.
Shireen Abu Akleh’s celebration and commemoration might have been one of the first instances of recognized unwilling female martyrdom in Palestine, but she is by no means the last one to be celebrated as such. In the early mornings of June 21st, 15-year-old Sadeel Naghneghah died from her wounds sustained during an IDF raid of Jenin the day before.
The practices at her funeral not only lay her to rest as the latest unwilling martyr of the conflict, but also presented a juxtaposition to traditional funeral practices. In a video shared by Al JazeeraAl Jazeera, «Funeral of Sadeel Naghneghah (15)», https://www.instagram.com/reel/CtykJD4o3KU/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==, it could be observed how the young girl was being carried exclusively by her female friends and classmates. Surrounding them was a sea of Palestinian men forming a protective wall around the girls. This was all executed while the men kept their distance from the young women, not only recognizing their independent strength to carry out an activity often tackled by men, but allowing them to become active actors in the burial practices, liberating them from an exclusive role of mourning.
With a rising number of martyr casualties in Palestine, it is easy to observe how the role of women is slowly developing to be included in a more active role. Naghneghah was buried wrapped in a Palestinian flag and her schoolgirl uniform. These are both symbols of her martyrdom, how she was taken away from her land too soon, and how she was destined to grow into an educated woman, capable of engaging with liberation in an active manner, just like Abu Akleh.
To quote this article: Emma Massaneth Aasheim (2023). From reporting on Martyrs to Becoming One: Shireen Abu Akleh’s Death and Commemoration. Gender in Gepolitics Institute. igg-geo.org/?p=13698&lang=en
The statements in this article are the sole responsibility of the author.
|↑1||IDF: Israeli Defense Force, Israeli Army.|
|↑2||«‘You Can’t Liberate the Land without Liberating Women’», MENA Solidarity Network (blog), 15. april 2020, https://menasolidaritynetwork.com/2020/04/15/you-cant-liberate-the-land-without-liberating-women/.|
|↑3||Study Lecture Notes, «Nationalism Meaning Definition Origin Characteristics & Symbols», Study Lecture Notes (blog), 17. oktober 2016, https://studylecturenotes.com/nationalism-meaning-definition-origin-characteristics-symbols/|
|↑4||Akiva Van Koningsveld, «Martyr», 29. mars 2023, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/martyr|
|↑5||Haddad, M. (no date) Nakba Day: What happened in Palestine in 1948? Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/5/15/nakba-mapping-palestinian-villages-destroyed-by-israel-in-1948 (Accessed: 3 April 2023).|
|↑6||Intifada | History, Meaning, Cause, & Significance | Britannica (no date). Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/intifada (Accessed: 3 April 2023).|
|↑7||See Carol Bardenstein, «Trees, Forests, and the Shaping of Palestinian and Israeli Collective Memory | Carol Bardenstein – Academia.Edu», 1998, https://www.academia.edu/88203766/Trees_forests_and_the_shaping_of_Palestinian_and_Israeli_collective_memory; Carol Bardenstein, «Threads of Memory and Discourses of Rootedness: Of Trees, Oranges and the Prickly-Pear Cactus in Israel/Palestine», 1999, https://www.academia.edu/12385310/Threads_of_Memory_and_Discourses_of_Rootedness_Of_Trees_Oranges_and_the_Prickly_Pear_Cactus_in_Israel_Palestine|
|↑8||See Lori A. Allen, «The Polyvalent Politics of Martyr Commemorations in the Palestinian Intifada», History and Memory 18, nr. 2 (2006): 107–38, https://doi.org/10.2979/his.2006.18.2.107; Lori A. Allen, «Martyr Bodies in the Media: Human Rights, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Immediation in the Palestinian Intifada», American Ethnologist 36, nr. 1 (2009): 161–80, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1425.2008.01100.x|
|↑9||Khalili, L. (2007) Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration. Cambridge University Press|
|↑10||Collins, John. Occupied By Memory: The Intifada Generation and the Palestinian State of Emergency. New York: New York University Press, 2004, p.57|
|↑11||Greenberg, Ela. The Cradle in One Hand, the Nation in the Other: The Portrayal of Women in the Palestinian Press, 1920s-1930s. Hamizrah Headache (The Hebrew University Magnes Press, Ltd.) 43, no. (in Hebrew) (2002).|
|↑12||Rebecca Ann Otis, «Palestinian Women: Mothers, Martyrs and Agents of Political Change», 2011|
|↑13||Laleh Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge University Press, 2007).|
|↑14||Laleh Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 129|
|↑15||Palestinian Chronicle Staff, 2022. Study Lecture Notes, «Nationalism Meaning Definition Origin Characteristics & Symbols», Study Lecture Notes (blog), 17. oktober 2016, https://studylecturenotes.com/nationalism-meaning-definition-origin-characteristics-symbols/|
|↑16||Occupation forces here refer to the Israeli Government and the IDF|
|↑17||Carol Cohn og Cynthia Enloe, «A Conversation with Cynthia Enloe: Feminists Look at Masculinity and the Men Who Wage War», Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, nr. 4 (June 2003): 1187–1207, https://doi.org/10.1086/368326|
|↑18||American University of Beirut (no date) Establishment of the Shireen Abu Akleh Memorial Scholarship at the American University of Beirut, American University of Beirut. Available at: https://www.aub.edu.lb/articles/Pages/Establishment_of_the_Shireen_Abu_Akleh_Memorial_Scholarship.aspx (Accessed: 7 May 2023).|
|↑19||Faraneh Roudi-Fahimi og Valentine M. Moghadam, «Empowering Women, Developing Society: Female Education in the Middle East and North Africa», Al-Raida Journal, 1. januar 1970, 4–11, https://doi.org/10.32380/alrj.v0i0.221|
|↑20, ↑21||Hamid Dabashi, «The Iconography of Palestinian Martyrdom», Middle East Eye, 2022, http://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/palestinian-iconography-martyrdom|
|↑22||Al Jazeera, «Funeral of Sadeel Naghneghah (15)», https://www.instagram.com/reel/CtykJD4o3KU/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==|