A Separatist Utopia: Media-Spheres and Palestinian Female Suicide Bombers

A Separatist Utopia: Media-Spheres and Palestinian Female Suicide Bombers

One of the most widespread ideas about the media is that it is a technological apparatus disseminating distorted and standardized images and controlled by powerful social actors who use it to promote and sell their political and commercial products to mass audiences. The masses are merely recipients, consumers whose “behavior” is monitored to measure the effectiveness of these manipulative transmissions. Conversely, hermeneutic approaches “read” mass media as a complex system of signs, language and acts of communication, actively decoded by its users to produce common meanings. Much attention is given then to the discursive and symbolic practices of signification and representation and the social production of meaning embodied in media images. Despite stark differences, the subject constituted by these approaches is in both cases external to the media. Either passively consuming or actively decoding mediated messages, the subject is positioned outside of the technological sphere of the media itself.
Media “environmentalists” seek to correct what they see as an unnecessary split between the subject and the technological apparatuses of the media. Considering historical transformations they argue that shifts in the materiality of the medium cannot be separated from changing experiences of subjects and their practices of communication. For media environmentalists the medium and the subject historically belong to the same sphere. Experience itself was constantly shaped by a changing perception through actively mediating and framing “reality.”
The subject that these approaches invoke is positioned well within the mediated environment. Furthermore, the media-sphere is to a great extent a precondition for its construction. In this paper I will address the way conflicting subjects operate within media-spheres. What is the “subject effect” of media-spheres and how is it played out in the mediation of national conflicts and violence, for example? Conflicts are staged daily in mass electronic and print media to increasingly wider audiences. Wars do not only happen in remote battle fields, but are a familiar ritual to many, an intimate presence in lieu of “embedded journalism” and 24 hours news broadcasts. However, rather than structuring globally encompassing homogenous spaces, media-spheres function themselves as frontiers, the boundaries on which violent conflicts are fought, and where conflicting subject identities clash. Here, I consider gender and national identities in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In particular I look at the representation of Palestinian female suicide bombers to draw attention to the “subject effect” in media-spheres, and the way it is played out in the mediation of national conflicts and violence through gender categories.

The Scope of Media-spheres
Regis Debray’s definition of Media-spheres eliminates the split between the technological apparatus and the subject and opens the way to conceive a broad sense to mediation, as the setting or environment (milieu) of the transmission and carrying of messages and people. Media-spheres are not only mechanisms that produce images and representations, but the social milieu within which this production is taking place. Images and representations are not merely artificial distortions but have “real” material consequences - not only “perception” but the world itself is changing with changing mediation technologies. For Paolo Carpingano, the presence of media in the everyday landscape of our experience is moreover “a re-embodiment of social communication.” Media-spheres are social relations, not simply means and channels of communication. The novelty of new media forms, according to Carpingano, is that they allow simultaneous presence of multiple places that collapses the difference between the “here” and the “there”, profoundly altering the experience of space and time:
The experience of space and time embodied in the medium of television is the most important form of a new sociability, a new experience of commonality that has important consequences for the notion of public and for the conceptualization of the public sphere (186).

A similar approach is conveyed in Arjun Appadurai’s concept of Media-scapes. Appadurai binds together the work of Media and the work of the imagination as constitutive feature of modernity in the age of globalization and mass migration. Electronic media resources are ways of self imagining the present manifested in the everyday social project of immigrant communities for example. Media-scapes provide large and complex repertoires of images, narratives and entho-scapes (forms of imagining belonging to an ethnic community) to viewers who form “diasporic communities” throughout the world (35). This interconnected world of imagined lives constantly undermines the strict boundaries between the “here” and the “there”.
Both Appadurai and Carpignano seem to suggest that the scope of media-spheres is increasingly global, and more so, that they undermine the predominance of nation-states and its hegemonic grip on forms of publicness. To use Carpingno’s terms, the shape of the public sphere is in flux, constantly composing and recomposing mediated spaces. Today we have more access to the collective experience of others and in increasingly intrusive ways we are more intimately familiar with what constitutes the trivial, mundane aspects of their daily lives. Reality TV and talk shows are obvious examples from Western media, but other media-spheres such as the Al-Jazira satellite news network also trespass the once obsolete control of Arab states over their people’s collective experience and significantly alters it.
But, does this shift in the materiality of the medium indeed collapse the distinction between “here” and “there”? Are media-spheres a place where subjects enter into shared realms of social communication? Both Appadurai and Carpingano are cautious not to undermine the obvious discrepancies in representation by overstating the impact of global media-spheres on contemporary subjects and their social environments. But a weak articulation of the subject effect in media-spheres makes it difficult to understand what is actually entailed in this new experience of mediated commonality that both Appadurai and Carpingano point at.

The Subject Effect
What is then the subject effect and how do media-spheres define it? As a theoretical concept “the subject” has been attacked from various directions. We are familiar with “the death of the subject” and the “crisis of the subject” marking the disillusionment, particularly in some corners of postmodern theory, with essential identities and homogeneous social categorizations. The subject is a manufactured construct, a consumer of everything from goods, values to identities with no primordial or biological deterministic origin. Similarly, these theories challenge the idea of borders, particularly those erected by the nation-state paradigm. Borders did not always exist as they are, but are contingent political and historical products of shifting perceptions.
However, both national borders and their subjects still dominate our mediated landscapes. In many respect their presence in our experiences and perceptions is far from diminishing. Etienne Balibar points out:
Every discussion of borders relates precisely to the establishment of definite identities, national or otherwise. Now, it is certain that there are identities – or, rather identifications – which are, to varying degrees, active and passive, voluntary and imposed, individual and collective. Their multiplicity, their hypothetical or fictive nature, do not make them any less real (76).

Much like Debray’s idea that the symbolic aspects of mediation do not cancel out its concrete effects, for Balibar, an increasingly interconnected world, and growing flow of people, information and images do not preclude a new ubiquity of borders and therefore of subject identities. He sees a resurgence of such violent assertions of both borders and subjects particularly in Europe, where the shifting regional borders continue to generate anxieties over what is “here” and what is “there” as well as who belongs within “fortress Europe.”
This taxonomy of separation, I contend, is as much part of the everyday social project of self imagining as the experience of simultaneity and interconnectedness. The media actively engages in the representation of such separate “authentic” identities. These “authentic” representations are not simply available repertoires from which one chooses to pick up and appropriate a certain designated “authentic identity”, as if from a shopping list. Instead, if we agree with Carpignano that “agency cannot be conceived outside of the material terrain of communication” then the more urgent question we are faced with is not whether the “authentic” subject actually exists outside in the “real” world, but how and why the social mediation of separation dominates environments that are supposedly more and more conducive to incorporating multiple spaces and heterogeneous subjectivities instantaneously.
The idea of “the subject effect” can be best understood in relation to particular subjects in particular contexts. I find it useful therefore to offer a look at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict case to examine a particular dynamic of “authentication” and mediation of separation. In the past two decades the conflict has been widely visible in electronic media and its violent eruptions usually make international headlines in daily media outlets. Both print and electronic “news” media share the sort of immediacy of representation that is both “here” and “there”. In both mediums images of material violence in the conflict succumb to clichés and repetitive paradigms of representation -- the stone throwing Palestinian child in front of an Israeli tank, the remains of a burned bus after a suicide bombing in Israel. In the following I will show how the representation of women on the nexus of the violence disrupts some paradigmatic representations and discuss their particular subject effect.

The Beauty and the Beast
In the Israeli media, pictures of mutilated bodies of male suicide bombers are often accompanied by a short description and cursory information on its carrier -- name, residency, and the organization claiming responsibility. In contrast, extensive and detailed information is provided about the victims and victims’ families. Typically, the visual images that accompany these reports are portraits of the victims and a picture of the bomber’s remains surrounded by security forces.

The male suicide bombers are anonymous with neither individual nor social face, but the remains of a mindless and murderous non-human, who’s irrational and erratic acts cannot be comprehended. The male suicide bomber’s mother is occasionally interviewed or quoted endorsing the act, but generally information regarding family members and the retributive measures against them go unmentioned. The logic of separation of subjects rules supreme in the Israeli predominantly ethnocentric media-sphere.
In mainstream Palestinian media the diametrically opposite reflection of the male suicide bomber portrays a saintly warrior who sacrifices his life for his nation in its struggle for liberation. Martyrology is evident in published praises by religious and political leaders, and other popular forms of expressions of admiration and support such as posters and portraits carried in demonstrations. The martyrs’ video taped address is shot in a stylized studio environment packed with Palestinian symbols – a map, a Kafia, a picture of the Al-Aksa mosque, a gun, and his text contains standard religious and nationalist verse.
The address is never personal, but rather an impersonal and pompous delivery directed primarily to the Palestinian and Arab world audience. Again, a separatist utopia is played out by cursory national subject identities. This normative animal/saint dichotomy combined with the fascination with the male suicide bomber’s disfigured body make the particular circumstances of the life of a male suicide bomber entirely redundant. There is therefore a fairly fixed set of social determinisms through which each male suicide bomber is “authentically” mediated. This, however, is not the case with respect to female suicide bombers, whose representation differs considerably.
The life and circumstances of the first female suicide bomber, Wafa Idris, and those that followed her have been extensively covered in Western, Israeli and Palestinian media. Sensationalized details regarding their lives poured in numerous interviews with family members, friends, employers and teachers dissecting their personalities and family background, personal aspirations and possible motivations for the acts. Pictures from the family album, displaying full body images of Wafa Idris and Ayat al-Akhras in secular outfits, have been printed in widely circulated newspapers. Special emphasis was put on their youthful look “in Jeans and flowing black hair”.

Adding to their “sex appeal” were speculations that they were acting out personal distress brought on by planned marriage in al-Akhras’s case or the social deviation of a young divorcee in Idris’s case.
In Islamic Palestinian circles images of female suicide bombers immediately sparked a debate with regard to the teaching of Islam on woman’s right to wage Jihad, thus the automatic elevation of the female suicide bomber to the position of a saintly martyr was suspended. Consequently, the attributes of gender have been subverted in the depiction of female suicide bombers, and paradoxical relations emerged. While the over-masculinized male suicide bomber is automatically marked as a saint/animal non-body devoid of independent rationality, the female suicide bomber turned this relation up side down. Not a mere opposite reflection of the male suicide bomber, rather, the figure of the female suicide bomber became more ambiguous and thereby more difficult to grasp. By virture of a “weak”, or “deficient” femininity in the private sphere, a different conception of gender emerged in public, where beauty, youth and independent and emasculated zeal were stressed. The passive, metonymic non-body of the male suicide bomber was replaced with the vitality of the female suicide bomber body images along with the desire to fully capture and understand both its social and individual origin. As a result the female suicide bomber attributed agency with rational and socially bounded context to the violent act.
In Idris’s case, for example, it is unlikely that her particular position as a divorced and barren woman, i.e. her “failed” femininity, is the sole factor in the complex tangle of social conditions that geared her up to militancy. It was also reported that she grew up in an activists’ house. One of her brothers is a political leader in the fatah movement, was jailed by Israel for ten year, and is still wanted by its security forces. Partaking in demonstrations even as a teenager she was hit by a rubber bullet during the first Intifada. Her presence in the media-sphere thus appeared not without the social and political dimensions of a life history of active resistance to the Israeli occupation.
In the New York Times’ story Two Teenage Girls, Divided by War, Joined by Carnage (March 21, 2002) appeared two almost identical photo images of Ayat Al-Akhras and one of her victims. This article compared the striking physical similarity (again, the long dark hair) in pictures of the suicide bomber and her 17 year old victim, Rachel Levi, their profiles framed as a story of mutual tragedy. Extending the analogy to include details on Al Akhras fiancé and dreams to become a college student and Levi’s hobbies and talents both appeared as dedicated daughters devoted to the household and focused on their final high school year. For a brief moment, the entire symbolic economy of paradigmatic diametrical oppositions -- killer/victim, Israeli/Palestinian, male/female, saint/animal – collapsed and gave way to discourse of resemblance and shared fate. Here were two absolutely ordinary and unexceptional teenagers and theirs was a future full of aspirations gone up in flames. The richness of subjects emerging in this story, despite its melodramatic fatalism, inserts a sense of intertwined tragedy to the dehumanizing discourse of the conflict.
The same subject effect appears to be at work in the case of the death of the first women in Israel’s army in combat since the brake of the Al-Aksa Intifada. Two images of the late Keren Yaacoby were published in a lengthy profile by the New York Times – one in a happy family picture, surrounded by young relatives “in Jeans and curly dark hair,” naturally, and as a combat fighter wearing military gear and camouflage uniform with the emasculating M16 automatic weapon between her legs.

The interview with family members kept the typical flow of information about Keren’s intimate social milieu. Like Al-Akhras, she was a good student who was independent minded and dedicated to her family and friends. Al-Akhras’s father, a foreman at construction sites in a Jewish Settlement who objected to his daughter’s suicidal act said in interviews, “We hoped for life” and “I taught my children to love others.” The Jaacoby family in turn expressed anger and resentment at the army’s presence in the West Bank to protect isolated Jewish settlements. With the bewilderment over Keren’s choice of a dangerous combat position at the front lines of a bitter conflict, comes the moment of self reflexivity: “I once asked her”, said Keren’s mother in the interview, “How do you treat the Arabs?.” She said “what kind of question is that? What do you think? They are people like all of us.”
Here again the taxonomy of separation broke in the otherwise repetitious landscape of contradictory images: the male Israeli officer standing on the remains of the male Palestinian suicide bombers, the Palestinian child and the Israeli tank, the debris of an exploding Israeli bus and the passport pictures of its victims. The violent choice of these female combatants to penetrate into the lives of their respective enemy societies did not enter the media-sphere in a social vacuum. Instead the affirmation of subjectivity and “authenticity”, through the mediated background, character and social milieu from which they emerged exposed the kind of counterintuitive commonality that is normally absent in the mediation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This ironic subject effect, notwithstanding the Orientalist and fetishizing gaze on the “dark and dangerous beauty,” may come closer to the idea of publicness transcending the particular geographic and political limits of nationalist discursive manipulations.
These are rare examples that ironically show how strong is the normative separatist utopia in mediated depictions of violence in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Reiterating the perception of the suicide bombers – male or female – as brainwashed automatons, Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon described suicide bombers as “mindless missiles”. The impetus to dehumanize both the female and male suicide bomber on the Israeli side was also conveyed in the story of Arin Ahmed, a computer student at Bethlehem University, who in the last minute changed her mind and did not detonate the explosives she was carrying into a crowded Jerusalem street. Israeli Defense minister at the time, Ehud Ben Eliezer held a meeting with imprisoned Ahmed, and later said to reporters: “you start the meeting sitting across from a satanic killing machine and then she tells you her life story and smiles and cries, and you remember that this is a 20 year-old girl.” The title of this article, Bomber Stricken by Consciousness asserts these predispositions: stricken not by the bomb she was carrying, but by that mental capacity for moral consciousness that Palestinians lack in the eyes of Israelis. In contrast, Dr. Samiya Sa’ad Al-Din wrote in her Al-Akhbar daily column:
Palestinian women have torn the gender classification out of their birth certificates, declaring that sacrifice for the Palestinian homeland would not be for men alone […] they will not settle for being mothers of martyrs .

The figure of the Palestinian woman as a mother of a male martyr/fighter appears as I mentioned earlier in interviews following suicide bombings and is a powerful symbol of Palestinian national integrity. For Al-Din, conversely, the female suicide bomber acts are doubly emancipating, challenging both their limited reproductive designation as well as traditional gender classification in entering the male dominated realm of national struggle. Thus, the figure of the female suicide bomber is endowed with unprecedented agency -- no “mindless missile” but a rebel with many causes.
Ultimately, radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and others will argue, Wafa Idris, Ayat Al-Akras, Andaleeb Tkafka, and Hanadi Jaradat, the latter most recent Female Suicide bomber who killed 20 people in a Haifa café are victims of Palestinian male domination, doubly victimized by the symbolic violence of the media gaze on their intimate lives. However, feminist theories of nationalism question the premise that women are always victims or unwilling accomplices in violent conflicts. This critique of nationalist discourse is instructive in considering representations of women and violence.

Talking About Women and Violence: The Feminist Critique

On October 2, 2002 a Bosnian Serb leader became the first high official to plead guilty of crimes against humanity and to express remorse publicly for the war and bloodshed in the Balkans. Biljana Plavsic, a 72-year-old former professor of biology served as the Bosnian vice president during the war. She is the only woman publicly accused by the tribunal of war crimes.
Around the same time, The New York Times magazine published Peter Landesman’s story on Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, Rwanda’s minister for women’s affair at the time of the 1994 war. Pauline is now accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, inciting Hutus to rape thousands of female Tutsis. According to Landesman, Pauline is the first woman ever to be charged with these crimes in an international court, and the first woman charged with rape as a crime against humanity. Interestingly, the key question that this article presents is not whether Pauline is guilty or not, but, considering significant indicting evidence against her - how could she, a woman, do it? For Landesman, Pauline’s case “presents to the world a new kind of criminal.” Could this new kind be a woman? He asks. According to Carolyn Nordstrom, an anthropologist quoted in the article, “there is a shared concept across cultures that women don’t do this kind of thing” […] Society doesn’t yet have a way to talk about it, because it violates all our concepts of what women are.”
Feminist theory identified the classic division between the private and the public sphere as central to nationalism’s double bind. The notion that women’s absence from the sphere of organized violence necessarily renders them a second degree citizenship in relation to the state was therefore challenged. Nira Yuval Davis study on gender and the nation, however, clarifies that women are not entirely excluded from the national project either. Women play a pivotal role in the symbolic violence of nationalist discourse for example, often eulogized as the pedestals of nationality. In what ways, therefore, do their different disposition in relation to nationalist technologies of violence and their function as reproducers of national boundaries are enacted?
This question is further complicated in situations of national struggle against colonial occupation, because of the certain type of relations of power it entails. In her analysis of Frantz Fanon, Ann McClintock forcefully argues that insufficient attention has been given to the fact that nationalism, particularly in the context of a liberation struggle, has been constituted from the outset as a gendered discourse. Fanon stands out as one of the few who acknowledged the gendered dimension of nationalism. McClintock however, demonstrates the tentative and problematic representation of women’s agency in his writing. Fanon is in gender trouble when depicting the militant Algerian women who participated in the armed national struggle against colonialism. The Algerian woman learns her “revolutionary mission instinctively,” a designated agency – by invitation (from men) only, according to McClintock. Thus, Fanon obscures women’s historical and social agency and resorts to mechanistic determinism and a reproductive image:
Female militancy, in short, is simply a passive offspring of male agency and the structural necessity of the war. […] He [Fanon] thus manages women’s agency by resorting to contradictory frames: the authentic, instinctive birth of nationalist fervor; the mechanical logic of revolutionary necessity; male designation. In this way, the possibility of a distinctive feminist agency is never broached.”

Furthermore, Fanon glorifies the militarized sexuality of Algerian woman as she “penetrates a little further into the flesh of the revolution.” Women do not penetrate the flesh of the colonials she resists, but rather tellingly, the flesh of the “Revolution” itself. That this apparent aberration to the normative male-centered struggle appears in Fanon is telling, considering his sophisticated post-colonial accounts of a national liberation struggle. Women’s relation to violence seems to be always problematic, even when earnestly endorsed.
This problematic and ambiguous presence of women on the nexus of violent conflict is evident in the Israeli/Palestinian case. The Israeli and Palestinian societies in general are implicated in varying ways and degrees in the violence perpetrated by their political and military elites. Yet, the actions of few Palestinian women provoked an unprecedented economy of symbolic violence that brought to the fore the levels of bigotry and mindless chauvinism nationalist discourse is capable of producing. At the same time, the sheer outrage that female suicide bombers raise suggests that they also disturbed and undermined fundamental dispositions, allowing a rare glimpse at the human dimension of the conflict.
Needless to say, that the role of Israeli women, their active participation in the perpetuation of the conflict is never discussed or questioned, but simply assumed and actively normalized in Israeli nationalist discourse. By directly participating and accessing technologies of violence in their mandatory military service women in Israeli society have a less visible, yet much more pervasive access to the production of violence and maintenance of a violent occupation than the isolated and (still) marginal phenomenon of the Palestinian female suicide bomber. It therefore seems that the questions for feminism cannot possibly be Landsman’s how can women do it? -- they obviously can -- but rather what are the consequences of “a shared concept across cultures that women don’t do this kind of thing”, and why is it that “society doesn’t yet have a way to talk about it.” That is to say, a way to mediate the social and political agency of women in the front lines of violent conflicts that transcends nationalist appropriation.

Conclusion: Death and the Return of the Subject
Do these image centered life stories of the female suicide bombers indeed travel the distances of an interconnected world of imagined lives, undermining the strict boundaries between the “here” and the “there”? Do their stories break the dogmatism of Israelis/Palestinian false mutual exclusiveness? In some significant respects, the mediation of the deaths of these women brought to light thick sociability that lay bare the tragic preconditions, consequences and catastrophic dimension of the conflict. But the asymmetrical and oppressive mediation of mutual exclusivity perpetrated by discursive and political regimes of separation was not significantly threatened in International, Israeli and Arab media-spheres.
After the crisis and presumed death of the subject, Fredric Jameson considers distinct moments in the “return of the subject” by the regimented media “gaze”. According to Jameson, we live in a “social space saturated with the culture of the image” […], where “all have been triumphantly penetrated and colonized, the authentic [and the] inexpressible alike [are] fully translated into the visible and the culturally familiar.” But the familiarity generated by this “gaze” is neither benevolent nor neutral. It is rather essentially asymmetrical and violent, the place where struggles over recognition as well as reactive and aggressive affirmations of visibility take place. It seems that we can confer from Jameson that media-spheres are also the embattled frontiers of these struggles. They not only change the experience of space and time in a way that transgresses boundaries but also continually mark the “here” and “there” where the subject is located. Setting boundaries through the act of mediation, these media-spheres offer access to daily experiences of others that has made us more intimately familiar with their way of life (or death). Yet at the same time, it seems that this heightened visibility dictates a utopia of separatism, where rejection and denial of communalities, complexities and heterogeneous subjectivities still thrive within clearly separate nationalist spaces.